AN: Hey all! This story is in response to a prompt from Wolf's Edge, to whom I apologize profusely because I imagine you were expecting something completely different. The prompt was this: "How about one where they put Ward through the TAHITI Protocol and he ends up reconnecting with Skye?"
This really caught my attention because I have such mixed feelings about the T.A.H.I.T.I. protocol. When Coulson offered it to Ward I was quite annoyed and insulted on Ward's behalf, but when they did it to Cal at the end of season two it felt like just about the best possible ending that character could have gotten. Is it a convenient way to get an adversary off your back, or is it a kindness offered to someone who would otherwise spend the rest of their life in jail? And question two, why in the world are we trusting T.A.H.I.T.I. to work on Cal? Coulson eventually saw through it, and they'd only done a matter of weeks on him. How is a lifetime of memories supposed to hold up for the rest of Cal's life? Has the technology just improved vastly while we weren't paying attention?
So with these questions in mind, I wrote this. So far it's looking like it'll be three chapters long, unless the last chapter gets so hefty I decide to split it. My current hope is to have it all published before the show starts up next week, but we'll see how that goes.
THREE IMPORTANT WARNINGS:
First, this goes in some depth into Ward's past, so there is some frank and direct discussion of abuse. There's also a major plot point that revolves around the scar on Ward's wrist (the one shown in 2x01), so there is some frank and direct discussion of attempted suicide. I don't feel like it's graphic or gratuitous, but you know you, and if you know you shouldn't read this sort of thing, this might not be the story for you.
Second, this is a darker story than I normally do. I love Ward and Skye and only want good things for them, and I feel like it ends on a reasonably positive note (as much as the current state of the show allows), and it is eventually Skyeward. But if you read my last Skyeward story and would prefer something similarly fluffy and happy, this might not be the story for you.
Third, I know there are fans who feel, to some extent or another, that Ward shouldn't be held accountable for any of his actions because of his past. I'm not one of those people. Certainly I think his past circumstances warrant consideration and compassion when deciding how much you think Ward is really responsible for, but I also think he did some awful things that he can't entirely blame on Garrett or his family, and both of those ideas are reflected in this story. So if you think that Ward's terrible upbringing (which I am not denying he had) should absolve him of all crimes, this might not be the story for you.
Anyone still reading after all that? Then let's begin.
. . . . . .
The Persistence of Memory
. . . . . .
He's standing by the host station, going over the reservation list for the evening, when the front door opens and in walks the most beautiful girl he's ever seen. Big dark eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, perfect skin; something Asian in her ancestry, he'd guess. She's simply dressed, in a dark button-down shirt and jeans—a little more casual than their clientele normally wears, but flattering on her. Her expression is firm, no-nonsense, but that doesn't change the fact that she's breathtaking, that she just happens to be exactly his type. And he is suddenly thrilled to be working tonight.
"Table for one?" he asks pleasantly.
She doesn't answer right away; she's peering at him, as though looking for something. It's almost like . . . it's almost like she recognizes him. But that's impossible; they've never met. He'd remember her.
"Yes, please," she says after a moment.
He's about to tell her they're full just now, that they should be able to get her in in an hour (which fills him with pride—three weeks after opening and, thanks to a combo of good reviews and word of mouth, they're full every night) but then he thinks, what's the point of being partial owner of a restaurant if you can't give a pretty girl a seat? So he leads her to the back, to the tiny table by the kitchen doors. "We actually keep this open for special guests of the owners and chef," he explains. "But no one had plans for it tonight, so we'll make you our special guest for the evening." And he smiles. She seems struck by that smile, somehow. (Does she find him attractive? It's possible. He doesn't have a lot of luck with long-term relationships, but he's never lacked for female interest; he doesn't want to brag, but apparently the broad shoulders and dark hair work for a lot of people. This girl might be his type, but he's everyone's type.)
And this isn't standard operating procedure, but he can't help himself. "What's your name?" he asks as he pulls the chair out for her.
She blinks, surprised. "Daisy," she says.
He smiles back. "James Shaughnessy," he replies, depositing a menu on her table. "Special tonight is linguini with blackened clams. Our chef is a genius with seafood. Actually inspired by a trip I took to the Outer Banks recently."
"Oh," says Daisy, and she's still not smiling but there's something in her face that wasn't there before. "You were in North Carolina?"
"Yeah," James smiles, "I spent a few weeks there before I moved here to open this restaurant."
"How was that?"
"I loved it. If you've never been to the Outer Banks, you should go. It's a magical place."
Daisy looks at him a long moment, and then she picks up her menu. "Thanks for the tips, James."
"Any time," he says, and he wishes he had the guts to ask for her number. "You let me know if there's anything you need, and your server Annie will be right with you."
She nods and he heads back through the restaurant, stopping here and there at tables to ask people how they're enjoying their dinners. Their answers are always enthusiastically complimentary—how could they not be, Luisa is a master when it comes to pasta and pesto—but for once his focus isn't on the success of the restaurant. Right now, it's on a beautiful girl in the back of the restaurant, currently giving the waitress her drink order.
He can't help glancing her way a few times, and he catches her doing the same to him more than once. Is she . . . is she checking him out? He would definitely not mind that. Actually, even if she wasn't romantically interested and just wanted to hang out or something, he would love that. He's not an overly social person, though he can fake it when he needs to, but he does enjoy having people around some of the time—and right now he really doesn't have anyone. He's making friends here in New York City, but very very slowly, and the folks from back home in Chicago are pretty much out of the picture. In fact, with his parents dead and most of his friends scattered to the wind, he's not in contact with one single person from his life before he came here. So a cute girl would be a welcome addition to his life, even if they just became something platonic, like poker buddies.
But he doesn't think she just wants to be poker buddies: he just caught her looking at him again.
He has no reason to go back there, not yet. But maybe, when she's finishing her meal, he can do his job as part-owner and go chat with her a little; ask her how she enjoyed the meal and what did she think of her experience here at Ottavio's? And maybe if he can work up the courage, he'll ask for her number.
In the end, he does none of those things. In the end, James goes into the back to take a call, and when he returns Daisy is gone; Annie tells him she paid for her meal and left.
"Did you happen get her full name off her credit card?
Annie shakes her head. "She paid cash."
It's crazy, the sense of disappointment that settles into the pit of his stomach. He barely spoke two words to her; why should he be disappointed? But he is, and the feeling lingers for the rest of the night.
He doesn't see Daisy again for a while. And although he still sometimes thinks of her, of what could have happened if he'd gotten a chance to talk to her more, he's got a lot of other things to keep him busy. He may be only a partial owner, but the running of the restaurant falls completely on his shoulders. The rest of the funding came from some rich businessman in upstate New York who was happy to fork over the money and leave everything to James. James has actually only met Noel Roher once—some brown-haired British guy with a close-shaved beard who must have been a soldier before going into the business world because he moves like a fighter—and now their only contact is when James e-mails him weekly with the financial report and the latest reviews of the restaurant.
So Ottavio's keeps him busy in the afternoon and evening, and in the mornings he runs errands and goes to the gym and volunteers at the local Women and Children In Need shelter. And the rest of the time he's just home sleeping . . . and then waking up and wondering if he ought to see a sleep specialist or something. He hasn't slept well at all since he came to New York; just about every other night, he's woken by what he can only assume are terrible dreams. He can't do anything more than assume, because he never remembers them. But given the way his heart is usually pounding when he awakes, it's safe to say they're not pleasant.
So with all he has to do during the day, and with the dreams in the night, he doesn't have too much time to think about Daisy . . . until a month after their first meeting, when she once again walks into the restaurant looking like a million bucks, and he thanks his lucky stars that she liked the food enough the first time to return. She's in a black dress this time—maybe she noticed the general level of dress last time she was here—and she is as stunning as he remembers.
"Daisy," he greets her, walking over to the host stand with a smile on his face.
She is surprised. "You remembered me," she says.
Wincing inwardly, he reminds himself, Don't be creepy. This restaurant is still a fledgling effort; the last thing they need is to get a reputation as a place where the staff just hit on the customers all the time. "I try to remember everyone who comes here," he says smoothly. "We like our diners to feel welcome."
She examines his face just a little longer than is normal, then catches herself and nods. "Well," she says, "table for one."
"I'll seat this one, Gaohan," James says, looking over at the man behind the host station. Gaohan nods, too professional to show the smirk that James knows he'd love to give him. "We swapped positions tonight," James explains to Daisy as he leads her once again to the little table in the back. "He sprained his ankle skateboarding in the park, and we thought we wouldn't make him walk around all night. So I'll be your server." And he privately thinks Gaohan is far too old to be hurting himself skateboarding, but just now, he's never been happier to have an injured employee. He gets to be Daisy's server tonight.
She orders a juice—interesting choice, most people use dining out Italian as an excuse to drink a whole lot of wine—and when he returns and starts pouring it, he dares to strike up a conversation. "It's nice to see you back here. I hope that's a sign that your last experience here was a good one."
"Oh, yeah, definitely," she says, and he smiles because she has a forthright manner that he rather likes. Not to mention a nice voice: pleasant-sounding. Throaty. Likable. "That special with the blackened clams was great."
"Well, that'll be the daily special again next Saturday," he offers. "Come back in and I'll tell Luisa to give you extra clams."
Something like a smile lightens Daisy's face for a moment. "That's very nice of you . . . James," she says, and he hopes it's a good sign that she remembered his name (and wonders about the pause before it). "But I won't be around. I actually live out of state. I just come here pretty often on business."
Oh. Well, that is a terrible disappointment. Still, she came here twice; maybe she'll come again. "Well," he smiles, "any time you're in town, you come on by. I'll leave this table open for you." Which is a safe promise to make; he pretty much never has personal guests for this table, and Roher certainly never brings anyone by.
"I'll remember that," she says.
She orders the gnocchi, and when he brings it out and is placing it on her table, his sleeve rides up a little and he sees her staring at his exposed wrist. He looks at her, confused, and then understanding floods his mind. He'd forgotten about the scar there. And while it's probably best not to say anything, he finds himself wanting to explain to her, It's fine, it's just from—
Wait, what is it from?
He knows, of course he knows, how could he not? It's from—
It's on his own arm, he knows how he got it. But . . . he doesn't. There's a curious emptiness in his mind, a black void where the memory of that scar should be. It feels like trying to remember one of his dreams: it's there, just out of reach in his memories, but somehow entirely impossible to get at.
In a startled daze, he turns his wrist so he can look at the scar, really look at it, and has the strangest sensation that this is the first time he's ever done so. It's long and straight with puckered edges, running down his forearm. It looks . . . honestly it looks like he cut his own wrist. But he never did; he's never been suicidal. There's got to be another explanation, but racking his brain is not producing one and is somehow starting to make him slightly nauseated. The scar is from . . . the scar is from . . .
"James?" Daisy says tentatively, and he is ripped back into reality.
How long was he standing there, completely lost in his own head? How embarrassing. How unprofessional. Daisy is never going to come back here, and he hopes that she doesn't have a Yelp account. He can only imagine the review: "Gnocchi was delicious but the owner had a catatonic episode while serving my meal."
"Sorry," he says, as smoothly as possible. "I was just trying to remember something."
And there's that look again, the one Daisy's given him several times already, the one where she peers at his face as though trying to find something there, something that's been lost or forgotten. And then she smiles reassuringly at him, the first full-blown smile she's ever given him, and he is so struck by how it makes her even more beautiful than usual that the episode with the scar nearly leaves his mind. "Not a problem," she says. "This looks great."
He smiles back. "Let me know if you need anything," he says, and goes to fill up water glasses at his other tables. But when his hands are free again, he finds himself unconsciously rubbing that scar on his wrist. Even Gaohan's exaggerated winks and nods in Daisy's direction can't distract him from that strange lingering unease.
"That was delicious, thank you," Daisy says as she's paying after her meal—cash again, so still no last name. "This is a great restaurant you have here. You . . . manage it?"
"Part owner," he says, and can't keep the pride out of his voice. "I studied business in college, and then I—" and he stumbles a little here, not knowing if this stranger really wants to hear about his parents' deaths— "well, I recently came into some money, and I decided to move here and open this restaurant. That's all I ever really wanted to do with my life."
"Well, it's great," she says, and sounds sincere. "And it looks like you guys are doing well." She hesitates. "So you're . . . happy, doing this?"
"Oh, yeah," he says. "I can't imagine anything else I'd want to do with my life."
And for some reason, that makes Daisy look just the tiniest bit relieved. "Good," she says. "I'm glad." She turns to go, pauses, and then turns back to him. "Maybe I'll stop by again," she says. "Next time I'm in town. Keep that table open for me, all right?"
He fights to keep his face professional, rather than triumphant like he currently feels. "All right," he says with a smile. "It's a deal."
She looks at him a moment longer. "Goodbye . . . James." And she's gone.
. . . . . .
He wasn't lying when he told Daisy he was happy doing this. Getting to be surrounded every day by happy people and good food . . . it's perfect. And it's getting better. They've been able to hire more staff, including a couple of excellent new hosts, so he no longer feels like he has to be at the restaurant every moment it's open. He's getting the hang of running the place, too, so he is spending less and less time doing restaurant things outside of normal work hours, which gives him more time to do what he likes. He reads—nonfiction only, he loves nonfiction—and he goes to the gym, which is always the most relaxing part of his day; going there feels . . . right, somehow. He volunteers at the shelter. And he goes for long walks in the nearest park, and he watches the people go by with their dogs and wishes he could get one. He loves dogs; he's always thought dogs are better than people. (Or maybe it's just that he's better with dogs than he is with people.) But the schedule he keeps, and the tiny apartment he lives in—that wouldn't be fair to a dog. He couldn't take care of it like he should.
The only thing to mar his happiness is the mystery of the scar. He tells himself he must have gotten it as a kid; he used to climb a lot of trees, back in the suburbs of Chicago, and he got all the rest of his scars (he has many) that way. So surely that's where this one came from.
He doesn't really believe it, though; it's too straight, too neat, too even, to come from a scratching branch. He's spent more time than he'd like to admit staring at it, prodding it, doing Google image searches for "wrist scar" (which is surprisingly difficult to look at, emotionally; he wouldn't recommend it to others). He even asks someone about it, after a fashion; Gaohan convinces him to come to this sports bar one evening—not really James' thing, but he doesn't have so many friends that he can afford to say no to the ones (the one) he does have—and he somehow finds himself in a conversation with a man at the bar who turns out to be a forensic pathologist. He hesitates for a moment, then figures why not, the man's probably too drunk to remember this later, and he shows the guy the scar.
"What do you make of this?" he says, trying to keep his voice light.
The man's expression tells him all he needs to know.
"I didn't do this to myself, I swear," James says. "I can't remember where it came from. I think I got it scraping up my arm climbing trees when I was a kid."
And the man believes him—James has always been good at convincing people to believe him—and examines the scar more closely with curious eyes. "It's not tree climbing as a kid," he deduces. "This is between one and two years old. Made with—not a knife, but close. Something wider, a little less sharp. It was stitched up afterwards, by someone who knows what they're doing." He looks up at James, his eyes skeptical again. "You don't remember having stitches last year?"
He didn't have stitches in his arm. He's never had stitches, anywhere. And he would have remembered something happening only a year or two ago. He stares at the man, feeling that empty spot in his mind where the memory should be, and suddenly he's nauseated again.
So he tries not to think about the scar. He focuses on Ottavio's, and his volunteer work, and he counts the days until he sees Daisy again—although he doesn't realize he's done so until she walks into his restaurant and he immediately knows it's been forty-six days since the last time she showed up.
It's late in the evening; ten minutes more and he would have started turning newcomers away. But despite the late hour, she walks in and suddenly everything seems brighter. "You've got a choice today," he tells her. "It's late enough that we actually have some of our regular dining tables open."
She hesitates, and then she smiles. "I kind of like the back table."
And he can't help smiling back.
She orders the tortellini, and by virtue of being the last person of the evening to order, is the last person remaining after all the other guests have left. "Don't worry," he assures her when she apologizes, looking around at the nearly empty tables. "You can take all the time you need. I don't mind."
She gives him an odd look then, and he wonders if he's been too obvious with his interest, too forward. She seems to think for a moment, and then asks, "Are you busy? Can you sit for a while?"
Even if he were busy, he'd make time for her. So he pulls up a chair and makes himself comfortable.
"So how are you adjusting to your new life in New York?" she asks.
Now that's an odd question. He did tell her, on their first meeting, that he moved here fairly recently, so he's not surprised she knows that. But it's an odd way to phrase it. It sounds . . . clinical, almost. Like it's off a questionnaire in a psych eval. Surely most people would say "How are you liking New York?"
But he shrugs and tells her the truth. "I'm loving it. Great restaurants, great people, great architecture." He hesitates. "I've been thinking about going home to visit Chicago some time soon, though." It's not that he wants to see Chicago; he has no family and friends there anymore, and despite the fact that it's where he grew up, he has surprisingly little emotional connection to his memories of it. But this scar on his wrist . . . if it's really from one to two years ago, he was living in Chicago when it happened. Maybe going back to his old apartment would jog his memories.
Daisy looks, for the briefest moment, mildly alarmed. Then her face is back to its usual no-nonsense expression. "You don't want to go to Chicago," she says reasonably. "It'd be so cold there this time of year. With all that wind, I bet it's even colder than New York right now."
"You're probably right," he chuckles. Gaohan walks past them then, to go into the kitchen, and when he catches James' eye he nods subtly in Daisy's direction and winks. James prays Daisy didn't see that.
"You know," she says, "my hotel is down by the subway station, and when I was leaving it this morning, I thought I saw you across the street. Walking into a . . . it looked like a shelter. 'Women and Children in Need,' I think it said."
Oh, she saw him? That's . . . good. He doesn't do it to gain anyone else's approval or adulation, and he would never bring it up without prompting, but if it makes this beautiful, charismatic girl like him a little more . . . well, he's not going to object to that. "Yeah, I volunteer down there some. Do a little maintenance work, help out in the kitchen, look after the kids sometimes. Not all of them—some of these kids have learned the hard way not to trust men. It's pretty sad. But yeah, I just help out where I can."
"Wow," says Daisy, and if he had to assign a description to her expression and tone of voice, it would be "reluctant admiration." He wonders where the reluctance is coming from. "What made you decide to do that?"
He shrugs. "Right after I moved here, they were doing a fundraising drive, and I was walking by and I stopped and talked to the woman who runs it. She mentioned they needed help putting up some shelves, and I volunteered, and then I just . . . kept going back." He hesitates, but he wants her to understand why this is important to him. "These kids, these women, they didn't deserve what they got. Supporting them after they've been hurt by the people who were supposed to love them . . . it feels right."
Daisy stares at him a long time, then a smile touches her face. It's tiny, no more than a tugging at the corners of her mouth, but somehow it feels like the most genuine smile she's ever given him. "That's . . . admirable, James."
He can't help giving her a pleased smile; he doesn't get complimented much. And then, uncomfortable with anymore of what feels a bit like bragging about his charitable work, he changes the subject. "So did you hear about that whole thing in Central Park today?"
"Central Park?" she repeats questioningly.
"Yeah, apparently there was some fight there between these government agents and this guy. Everyone who saw it is saying the guy they were fighting could turn his body into water. That's crazy."
"That is definitely crazy," agrees Daisy, taking a sip of her drink.
"I take it you weren't near Central Park?"
"Nope," she shakes her head. "I was in . . . Yonkers."
There's the tiniest hesitation before she says Yonkers. He'd almost think . . . he'd almost think it was a lie. But why would she lie about such a thing? He's imagining it, surely.
"The world is becoming crazier every day," he says. "That's why . . . I know it's not really cool to like them anymore, but that's why I'm really glad we still have the Avengers."
Her eyes light up. "You like the Avengers?" she asks. "Who's your favorite? No, let me guess. Iron Man?"
He shakes his head with a smile. "I like the tech, and I have to admire Tony Stark's intelligence, but actually it's Captain America."
That appears to amuse Daisy so much more than it should. "You're a Cap fan?"
He shrugs, a little embarrassed. Is she laughing at him? "He's so . . . good. He fights for right, he protects those who can't protect themselves, and he's . . . incorruptible. You couldn't convince him to do something wrong if you tried. I wish I were more like him."
Her expression softens. "You spend your mornings helping abused women. I think you might be a pretty decent person yourself, W—James." Her smiles fades, and her expression becomes thoughtful. "Do you ever think about . . . what's the phrase—nature versus nurture?"
He shrugs, shakes his head.
"You know," she goes on, "as in, is the way we are determined by our genes or our upbringing? Like, imagine you have this kid, right? Imagine you . . ." Her gaze slides up to lock on his, and she appears to change her mind about what she's going to say. "Imagine you have Steve Rogers as a baby, and instead of putting him in a home where he learns right from wrong and has people who care for him, you give him to people who don't care about him, who mistreat him, who don't teach him any morals at all. Do you think he'd still grow up to be 'good and incorruptible'?"
James blinks. "I'm not sure," he says, wondering where this is line of thought is coming from. "I'd imagine it's some of each—a lot how we're raised, but certain things are influenced by how we're born. My friend Gaohan who works here, he and his wife have six-month-old twins, and he says already they have very distinct personalities: one's really calm and happy, and the other one's really energetic and high-strung." He shrugs. "But anything beyond those basic personality traits probably has a lot to do with how their parents raise them, I guess."
"Yeah," says Daisy, and she's giving him that searching look again. "I guess it has a lot to do with how you're raised."
. . . . . .
It's another month before she comes back, and once again she shows up right before closing. He'd like to think she did it on purpose, so she could talk to him again. But maybe that's just wishful thinking on his part.
It's felt like a long time that she's been gone. Things are still going well in his new life in New York, but . . . he misses her. He knows it's ridiculous; he's only spoken to her three times. But he misses her all the same. It's strange; being alone never bothered him too much until she came along. He's always been an introvert, and while he does very much like having friends, he also likes his alone time. Being an only child might have something to do with his self-sufficiency, he supposes. And his school friends . . . they were great people, and he still thinks about them sometimes, but he hasn't talked to a single one of them since his trip to the Outer Banks, and honestly, he doesn't miss them at all. He's okay alone. But this Daisy . . . he spends a lot of time thinking about what's best for the restaurant, best for his staff, best for the residents at the shelter. But now that Daisy's around, for the first time in a long time, he wants something for himself.
But what can he do? She doesn't live here. She's only here once a month. And anyway, after that first meeting where she watched him from across the room all night, she hasn't done anything to indicate any interest since beyond just being friendly. No, for now he's going to let her occasional presence in his life be enough. And maybe someday . . . maybe.
She orders the chicken parmesan, and he wishes he could go talk to her while she eats it, but Annie is her server again tonight and he's stuck on hosting duties. Well, not stuck; he loves hosting duties, actually. It's just that right now he wishes he could focus on one particular person, not on the restaurant at large.
But in time most of the other guests have cleared out, and he dares to approach her table as she finishes her chicken.
"James," she smiles, catching sight of him. "Have a seat. Tell me what you've been up to."
And knowing she's happy to see him—well, he can't remember the last time he felt so pleased.
"Same old," he says. "We made some new hires here. Trying a new cheese supplier." He remembers something. "Oh! I got bitten by a parrot the other day."
She looks as flabbergasted and amused as he'd hoped she would. "You got bitten by a parrot?" she repeats.
He nods and launches into the story—all entirely true—and by the end she is laughing aloud. "Wow," she says when it's over. "You're . . . funny." It sounds like that fact surprises her.
He shrugs modestly. "How about you? How's your business trip going? You know, I don't even know what you do."
"Recruiter," she says. "For a big defense company. I bring in personnel with specific skill sets we need. Takes me all over the world."
"That sounds great," he says enviously. "I've never left the US. Have you been to Europe? I've always wanted to go to Europe."
She smiles a little. "Yeah, I have been. All over. It's pretty cool."
"Well, tell me about it," he says.
She looks at him a few moments, and then she acquiesces. Haltingly at first, and then with more eloquence as he encourages her to continue, she talks about her visits to France and Austria and Poland and Bulgaria, about the people she's met and the places she's seen. He gets the sense, from her stories, that she doesn't have a lot of time to go sightseeing while she's over there; she talks about the architecture and the scenery and the food, but never the tourist spots. As far as he can tell she's never seen the Eiffel Tower, despite three visits to Paris. He wonders if she minds. He wonders if she'd like to go.
And he listens and makes encouraging noises and inserts comments and questions where appropriate, and the talk flows like water between them. She's so easy to talk to; he feels like he's known her forever. And as the restaurant empties around them, and Gaohan turns the Open sign off, and the staff starts cleaning up—catching James' eye to make sure it's okay to start closing up while there's still a customer—he knows this is not just a passing fancy. He can see himself falling for this girl.
And Daisy . . . she doesn't seem entirely indifferent. She's having a nice time, at least, and she smiles at him a lot and gives him these looks like it surprises her how much she's enjoying herself, and that's a good sign, right? And he's just getting up the courage to ask if she wants to go out for drinks after this when suddenly her phone beeps. She looks at it and makes a face, then turns to James. "I've got to go—work stuff came up. But . . . this was fun. Thanks for letting me stay late. And tell your chef that the chicken was great."
And she's flitting away, paying with cash again, and he's left standing by the kitchen doors, watching her go with the feeling that he can't stand to wait another month to see her again. But maybe she won't wait that long to come back? Because when he glances down at his watch, he sees that they talked for a full fifty minutes. That's got to be a good sign, too. Right?
"Cute girl," comes a voice behind him, and he jumps about a foot in the air then turns to look ruefully at Luisa. She looks unapologetic. "You should ask her out."
"She lives out of town," he says.
"So?" asks Luisa. "Don't you kids do long-distance relationships all the time, with the texting and the Twitter? You could do that. You need someone in your life, James."
"It's not that easy. We're not all lucky enough to meet the love of our lives when we're twelve years old, Luisa," he reminds her.
She is unmoved. "Ask her out," she commands. "Also, I need a new swing cook. Dale is an idiot."
James chuckles. His brief moment with Daisy is over; back to the real world.
. . . . . .
He thinks about Luisa's words for days to come, mostly because they line up with his own desires. He does want to ask Daisy out. Luisa's right; they could do long-distance, if that date and their future dates worked out. Daisy's in New York often enough, and besides that they have "the texting and the Twitter." Next time she visits the restaurant—if she does continue to visit the restaurant—he's going to ask her out. Or at least find out if she's single. She's got to be single, right? The way she talks to him, it's not flirting, precisely, but it'd be pretty friendly for someone who's already in a relationship.
In the meantime, he focuses on helping to plan the shelter's upcoming food drive and on finding Luisa a new swing cook, and this keeps him pretty busy. He has no new clues in the mystery of the scar, so he tries to put it from his mind. Maybe he did hurt himself and forgot about it. Maybe he got it stitched up so easy and quick that he's completely forgotten it ever happened. That's the only possible explanation. And his dreams—well, he's learning to cope with insufficient sleep. So it's fine. Everything's normal, everything's fine.
Until the day it isn't. Because one morning as he undresses to shower, with his mystery scar still in the back of his mind, he takes a closer look at the some of the scars on his right side. And he jumps a little, and then he stares, and then he grabs his phone to take a picture of them so he can get a better look without climbing on the counter to get close to the bathroom mirror.
They're tree-climbing scars, they have to be. Those are the only types of scars he remembers getting. Except there's two that he's never looked closely at before. Two that look like . . .something else. Little round dents of scar tissue, right along his rib cage.
They look like gunshot wounds.
But if James is sure he's never had stitches on his arm, he's extra sure that he's never, ever been shot. So they can't be what they appear to be.
But what else could they be?
But they can't be.
(But what else could they be?)
For the first time in a long time, he wishes his parents were around, so he could ask them if they have any idea about these scars. But that just makes him feel even stranger, as he suddenly realizes that this is the first time since their deaths that he's missed them, or really even thought about them. He loved them; he knows he did. They were his parents, of course he loved them. He remembers loving them. But as he thinks over a lifetime of memories together, he feels no emotional response, no inward stirring at any recollection. He has to have loved them. But for some reason he doesn't feel that love now.
And a thought crosses his mind: something is wrong with me.
Similar thoughts come whirling faster and faster through his brain. He has scars he can't explain. Every memory in his past that should be laden with emotion instead feels like it's a story he heard about a stranger. And there's no one he can talk to because there's literally no one in his life right now that he's known for longer than eight months. He finds himself sitting on the edge of his bed and breathing so heavily that he worries he's going to hyperventilate.
Calm down, there's nothing wrong with you. What possibly could be wrong? Everything that's happened has a logical explanation. It must.
Slowly his breathing calms, and he sits there until his thoughts are under control again. Then, foregoing the shower, he puts his shirt back on and goes outside. He needs some interaction with other people right now.
The walk works; by the time he gets back to his apartment, his head is clear and he's sure those strange scars are from climbing trees, just as he'd thought. And his parents—maybe he's shutting down how he really feels so as not to be overwhelmed by the grief. That's possible. That's probable. And everything is fine.
But his unease must linger on his face because that night, when Gaohan comes in for his shift, he takes one look at James and grimaces. "What happened to you, man? Are you okay?"
James flinches. "Fine," he lies.
Gaohan looks suspicious, but just then Annie yells for him to come give her a hand. So all he does is point at James. "I'm not dropping this," he says. "I'm talking to you later."
But that turns out to be difficult; it's one of their busiest nights ever, and no one has a spare moment until the night is nearly over. It's long past dark when Gaohan returns to the host station, seats himself defiantly in one of the waiting area chairs, and raises an eyebrow at James. "Now," he says firmly, "talk."
"There's nothing wrong with me."
"Of course there is," scoffs Gaohan. "You look so tense that I can't believe you haven't snapped already. Now talk."
"It's—I'm going crazy, okay?" James finally all but yells. He didn't intend to acquiesce, but he's still so shaken from earlier today that all his defenses are down. And now that he's thinking about it, it occurs to him that if there was anyone in his life he could tell about this, it would be Gaohan. The guy believes in alien abductions and government mind control; maybe this stuff will be right up his alley. At the very least he doesn't think his friend will think less of him for what he's about to say.
"How do you mean?"
James considers a while, then all his words come out in a rush. "I have scars on my body I can't recall getting. And I mean . . . major scars. As in, gunshot scars." A large group of diners leave just then, and James and Gaohan both put on their best professional smiles to bid them all farewell, and then they drop back into their conversation. "And my memories of my past feel . . . weird. They feel like they're not mine. I realized today, I don't even miss my parents. They only died a year ago, and when I think of them, I might as well be looking at photographs of strangers. Am I having some kind of mental breakdown?"
Gaohan, predictably, looks intrigued. But before he can respond, a voice comes from behind them. "What's a girl got to do to get a table around here?" Daisy, of course, tonight of all nights.
James jumps about a mile. He didn't hear the door; she must have slipped in while that other group was leaving. Of course he's got to make an idiot of himself in front of her by being the worst host ever, and of course she'd choose to come on a night when he's sort of a mess.
"Daisy! Right this way," he says, grabbing a menu and hoping she didn't overhear any of what he just said. He's not brilliant with women, but he knows enough to be pretty sure that saying "Am I having some kind of mental breakdown?" is not sexy.
She eats her spaghetti and meatballs calmly, but when he goes to the back to ask Luisa a question, she reaches out and grabs his wrist as he passes. "Do you have a sec?" she asks quietly.
He hesitates, and he looks around the room at the handful of diners remaining, and he figures that Gaohan can handle everything for a while. "Sure," he says, pulling up a chair.
She takes a deep breath. "I couldn't help overhearing what you were saying to your friend," she says. "You're . . . having some problems?"
"What? No," he lies. "I'm fine. Everything's fine."
She looks at him a long moment, and then she reaches across the table and covers his hand with hers. The feeling is extremely nice and somehow almost familiar. "I know we don't know each other well, but . . . it matters to me that you're all right."
His heart sings. And how can he brush her off now? So he comes up with the most mundane possible explanation for what she heard. "My parents died last year," he says. "Car crash; both died instantly. And I'm wondering if I just never processed it, somehow. If I just sort of shut off all my feelings about it so I didn't have to cope with the grief. Because somehow I don't feel as strongly about it now as it seems like I should."
Daisy hesitates. "You said that when you think of them, you might as well be looking at pictures of strangers," she says. "Does that happen with any of your other memories of your past?"
Yes, all the time. "It's really no big deal," he says, trying to force himself not to look down at her hand on his. "I'm just, I don't know, in denial or something. Maybe I'll see a therapist."
Daisy is quiet for what feels like a long time. And then she grasps his hand that she's already touching and turns it over so his scarred wrist is exposed, facing upwards. "One of the first times I ate here, you stood and stared at this scar for a full thirty seconds, like you'd never seen it. Has that ever happened to you any other time?"
There's no way he can answer this without losing any chance he has with her. So he starts trying to come up with a lie, and she notices. He doesn't know how, but he can see from the change in her expression that she sees through his silence and is concerned.
She opens her mouth to speak, and then suddenly her hand goes up to her ear (he immediately misses the feeling of her skin against his). There's a strange look on her face, like she's listening to something only she can hear. And then her expression hardens. "I've got to go take care of something," she says. "But I'll be back. I want to finish this conversation." She hesitates, then reaches out and squeezes his hand. "You're not crazy, James." And she grabs her purse and all but runs out of the restaurant.
James is left staring in shock, and it's only when the door has shut very firmly behind her that he glances down and notices that her phone has fallen out of her purse onto the floor. Maybe she needs it, wherever she's going. He can probably still catch her, if he runs. So he scoops up the phone and jogs out after her.
She's standing a few doors down, at the mouth of an alleyway; her back is to him and her hand is still up to her ear, and as he quietly approaches he can hear her talking to no one. But he can only make out one bit: Skye. "Skye out," maybe, is what she said? And then she turns and jogs down the alley.
And James stands, dumbstruck, for a long moment. Skye, she'd said, and a tinge of something like recognition had swept through him. But there's more than that. Because when she said Skye, he'd known instinctively that she meant it as a name, not as the big blue thing overhead. And he'd seen it spelled in his head—he reads a lot, and sometimes he pictures words when he hears them. So he pictured this word, and he'd known it was spelled with an 'e' at the end. There's no way he could have known that. Spoken aloud, "sky" would sound the same as "Sky" would sound the same as "Skye." But somehow he'd known exactly which one she'd meant.
Shaking his head, he dodges down the alley after her, thankful there's enough light here to make his way safely. Is she crazy, coming down this way in the dark? This is a safe neighborhood. But that doesn't mean wandering down back alleys in the dark is always safe. Ahead, he hears voices, and he creeps closer until he can understand the words.
"I told you I'd find you," a man is saying. "And I told you I'd bring friends."
"I'm trying to help you." Daisy! What in the world is she thinking, choosing a place like this to confront a man who's threatening her? "I'm offering to teach you how to keep it under control. Even use it for good."
"Hmm . . . nope, I'm happy as I am," says the man. "In fact I wanted to show you just what I'm capable of. To send a message to your friends to leave me alone."
And James has heard enough. There's a length of pipe on the ground, and he scoops it up and dodges around a dumpster so he can see Daisy standing and facing a man who's . . . glowing? Yes, he's not imagining it, the man's whole body is giving off an orange glow bright enough to read by. Now running purely on bravado, James steps forward. "Leave her alone," he says, brandishing the pipe. What he'd do with it if pressed, he has no idea. He's never gotten in a fight in his life.
"You brought a friend too," says the glowing man, as Daisy turns around quickly to look at James.
In the dim light he can just make out her face: concerned and slightly exasperated. And then it changes to one of shock. "Ward, behind you!" she yells.
Who or what is Ward? is all he has time to think when suddenly there is a blow on the back of his head. He stumbles and drops the pipe and just barely manages to keep his feet, and though his vision has gone a bit fuzzy, he manages to catch sight of three men who've snuck up behind him. He has no idea what to do—they're blocking the way back out of the alley and anyway he's certainly not going to run off and leave Daisy there—and he winces as he imagines the beating he is about to get. One man steps forward and pulls his arm back, and all James can do is brace himself.
And suddenly it's like someone else has control of his body. As the punch comes, James neatly sidesteps it, grabs the assailant's arm, and uses his momentum to toss him onto the asphalt. And as the man groans on the ground, all James can do is stare. Did he do that?
The other two men approach cautiously, and once again James tenses up, wary and defenseless. But once again, as soon as they attack, it's like someone else grabs the controls of his body—an instinctive and shockingly skilled self-defense. A dodge here, a punch here, a feint here, a toss and a kick. It's . . . elegant. It's exactly as much violence as is needed and no more. And it's effective. If he were watching someone else do it, he'd be impressed. But since he's watching himself do it, he's horrified.
I was right, he thinks as the two men fall to the ground. There is something wrong with me.
But there's no time to think about it. He hit those men pretty hard, but somehow they're getting up. "Inhumans?" Daisy says behind him—probably to the glowing man, as the word means nothing to James. "You had to make this hard, didn't you?" And then, as James backs away from his assailants: "James, take this!" she shouts, and when he turns to her, she tosses him a gun from her purse.
He catches it, but reluctantly. "I can't shoot someone!" he objects.
"It's a tranquilizer gun," she calls back. "You won't kill them." And she returns her attention to the glowing man, and James realizes he's on his own against three men who are impossibly difficult to knock unconscious. Right now a tranquilizer gun actually sounds like a brilliant idea.
He turns it in his hand so he can hold it like he's seen in movies. But this gun isn't like the ones he's seen in movies. It's sleeker, more high-tech, and part of it is glowing blue—must be the tranquilizer part of it, he decides, and puts his finger on the trigger. The gun feels familiar in his hand, the shape and the weight of it, which makes no sense—he's never shot a gun in his life. But somehow he knows exactly which little piece to pull back, exactly how to raise it and aim it, and before he's realized what he's doing he drops the three men charging toward him with three perfectly placed shots.
From somewhere behind him, the glowing man growls. "Your boyfriend is getting in my way," he says, and James looks back at him just in time to see the man fling his arm. Something like lightning shoots from it and races toward James, too fast to dodge.
"Ward!" Daisy yells again.
The blast hits him, knocks him backward and into a dumpster, and this time he really is going to lose consciousness, he can feel it. The last thing he's aware of is a low rumbling, like thunder. And is the ground shaking? Or is just that the head injury making him hallucinate?
"Skye," he tries to call, but he's not sure if it's a whisper or a shout.
The next moment, his head falls back and everything vanishes into the peace of unconsciousness.
. . . . . .