Eliot and Parker rolled into town at dusk. They traveled light, just two bikes, some clean clothes, and the few souvenirs from a previous life that could fit into their pockets. It was enough to get by on; they'd earn their keep in town.
Besides, Parker had stashes all across the damn world of all kinds of random crap, some of which were even useful.
The town consisted of a small grouping of houses around a quaint downtown Main Street. It would've looked cute on a postcard, if you ignored the buildings that showed some recent fire damage.
These seemed like the kinds of places that were thriving these days. Small coalitions were faring better than the big cities. They'd passed through a couple places like this since leaving Boston and generally had found they could get a few meals if Eliot helped out with any reconstructing that needed doing, though the people were neither so well-off nor so comfortable with strangers that either Parker or Eliot wanted to linger too long.
"Tired of biking yet? " Eliot asked Parker
"I've always been tired of biking," she complained. "Who ever does this for fun?"
Eliot smirked at her and started whistling "Daisy Bell."
Parker shuddered visibly. "Bicycle built for two is a lie."
There was something to be grateful for: They were not riding tandem bikes.
"Let's go introduce ourselves to the natives," Eliot said. They were already getting pointed looks from the few strangers in sight, a few women who were standing outside a grocery store and an older man who was already crossing the street to come talk to them.
Parker glowered but didn't move away. Eliot knew that she'd rather skip the part where they talked with people, but the alternative was holing up somewhere outside of any remnants of civilization, or hiding like ghosts on the fringes of town, and those were hardly improvements.
"Hello there," the man said, offering them a welcoming smile though not, Eliot noticed, a hand to shake. His right hand was hanging, casually, over a belt, where a gun sat snugly in its holster. "Name's Jackson Cole, can I help you folks?"
"Howdy," Eliot said, letting his accent slip through a little more clearly than usual. It tended to set people at ease. "I'm Eliot, this here's Parker," because why even bother with aliases at this point?
Parker nodded violently at Cole before taking an abrupt step that put her halfway behind Eliot.
Cole raised his eyebrow at that, slightly.
"My kid sister," Eliot added. Maybe they didn't need to lie about who they were, but that was simpler than explaining and it got the point across real fast that Eliot wouldn't appreciate anyone fucking with Parker in any way. "We were just admiring this fine town you've got yourself here."
"We've been doing all right for ourselves, considering," Cole said.
"Seems like all right is just about what you can hope for, these days."
"You two from nearby?"
Eliot shook his head. "We were on vacation out in New York City when it happened. Hell of a time to finally travel the world, you know?"
Cole shook his head at the misfortune. "Heard the city didn't fare to well."
"That it did not," Eliot said, pausing to push away imagined trauma. "That it did not."
The man's posture eased a little more, and he leaned slightly closer to them. "Heading somewhere in particular? Back home?"
"We were so focused on getting out of the city, I think after that we've just been trying to keep going forward. Haven't been thinking too much about where."
"It's a bad time to be traveling," Cole said. He looked back over his shoulder at the grocery store, where the women had been joined by some friends and were all blatantly staring at the newcomers. Parker hissed – quietly enough that Eliot was pretty sure Cole couldn't hear - and took another step backward.
Cole turned back to Eliot, like he was about to say something, but checked back over at his shoulder. "Best of luck to you two," he said. It was not what he'd been originally planning to say.
Eliot hadn't been expecting on getting shut down so quickly – though the man still sounded friendly, it was hard to read that as anything other than an end to the conversation. Which, fine, they could rough it on their own for tonight, but the lights of town were in sight, and somewhere Eliot ached, for a bed, for real food, and for human company more than anything else.
"Look, I don't want to be forward," Eliot said, as forward as he thought he could get away with. "But we've been traveling so long and it's been a hell of a road from New York. If y'all have any space for us, even just for a night or two – "
"He's good at stuff," Parker said, suddenly, somehow managing to give Eliot a comradely slap on the back without actually touching him. "I can help out, too."
Parker must have liked whatever she was seeing in Cole's mind to pipe up like that.
"We don't mean to take anything you can't spare," Eliot continued.
Cole tugged his beard, clearly at war with himself, but Eliot didn't worry. Parker was relaxed behind him, standing at ease and breathing normally, so he couldn't be thinking anything too bad.
"You'll have to talk to town council," Cole finally spoke. "Not that we don't like helping folks in a pinch, of course, but anyone could just come by..."
"You gotta protect your home," Eliot said. "I get that, no such thing as being too careful. Parker and me, we'd love to meet town council, wouldn't we?"
"Woot," Parker said. If she sounded any less enthusiastic, she'd be dead. Eliot glanced over his shoulder with a meaningful look, and she perked up a little. "Town council, yay!"
It was actually kind of impressive, how much Cooperstown was able to carry on with its business like nothing had happened. As Cole led them down Main Street, Eliot saw that not all the buildings had escaped damage, but several still had power. The grocery store wasn't the only business that was still open, though Eliot couldn't imagine that people were still using money like it meant anything.
Parker looked at him, disgusted, as he had the thought.
"How's business doing?" Eliot asked, nodding at a restaurant that seemed to have a decent sized dinner crowd. "I'd think you weren't still getting shipments, for one thing."
Cole waved at a family sitting at a table on the patio before answering. "Business isn't what it used to be, for sure," Cole said. "Things are working on a strictly barter system these days, and most of the food we've got is local grown."
"I saw we passed some farmhouses as we were coming into town," Eliot said. "Didn't notice them operating."
"You came from the east?" Cole asked, and at Eliot's nod, continued: "Most of the farms that're still running are out the south road. But we've got a lot of people starting up gardens in their yards, building some chicken coops closer to town, that sort of thing. Reminds me of my dad's stories about having a victory garden during the war."
"Everyone doing their part," Eliot said, but Parker stomped over his words with the question:
"Aren't chickens really gross?"
Cole laughed. "They aren't too pleasant, no, but they're worth it. Goats, now, I wouldn't want to raise a goat."
"Obviously. They're like mini horses," Parker said, wrinkling her nose.
It wasn't too long before they got where they were going – not a City Hall; Eliot didn't think he'd have felt too comfortable in that case. Instead, they walked up a perfectly normal looking driveway leading to an appallingly ugly house. The kind that had had a couple different additions added onto it without any care for making sure the new matched the old.
Cole knocked on the red front door and an old man opened.
"Oscar, good to see you. Is Lila home?"
"Not yet, but it should be any minute now." He peered over Cole's shoulder and spotted Eliot and Parker. "You got some visitors there, or do I need to go put my glasses on?"
"Visitors. They want to talk to the town council about staying on for a bit," Cole said.
"Well, come on in, there's plenty of room for everyone inside."
They trooped inside, Eliot carefully wiping his feet before stepping inside and staring Parker down until she did the same, albeit more haphazardly. They found themselves in an honest to God kitchen. Sure, the evening's meal was being prepared in a big cast-iron pot over a wood fire, but it was still the most beautiful thing Eliot had seen in months.
He inhaled deeply. "Garlic?" he asked. The place reeked of it.
"Nothing fancy," Oscar said. "But I do my best."
"Do you mind if I – " Eliot gestured toward the pot.
"Eliot's a very good chef," Parker explained. "Learned cooking on mama's knee."
Eliot just prayed that Parker wouldn't start faking a Southern accent to match his. They'd been down this road before, and it didn't end well.
"Be my guest," Oscar waved him over.
Eliot tasted the stew and found it – wanting. Well, this wasn't the time for haute cuisine, but that didn't mean he couldn't improve things.
He busied himself in the kitchen, though kept his ears sharp for any conversation, especially if Cole or Oscar decided to take advantage of his seeming lack of interest.
Mostly he was disappointed.
"You inherit an interest in cooking, too?" Cole asked Parker.
"I was always off playing in the dirt," Parker deadpanned. "I couldn't keep my hands clean long enough to cook."
Eliot had absolutely no trouble believing that, and he knew it was a lie, or at least based off one.
As Eliot rescued the stew, more people started to drift in. They all greeted Cole and Oscar by name, and were perfectly polite to Parker, if by and large reserved.
Eliot held his breath as the first guest, than the second, attempted to make small talk with Parker, but she handled it admirably.
"Oh, it's been horribly muggy out east," Parker said brightly to a red-haired, freckled woman who had just come in. "But the weather's so nice today."
Small talk must be so much easier when you know what someone is expecting to hear.
Eliot shook his head. It wasn't like Parker was useless at talking to people, before. And she'd done good work on some cons. It was just too easy for him to give her less credit than she deserved.
Eliot looked up, the heat of the fire below him making sweat run into his eyes, and found Parker looking straight at him, her mouth a thin line.
She turned away once he's met her eyes and laughed, brightly and falsely, at someone's joke.
"I said I was sorry," he muttered to himself.
The stew was ready – and much improved – yet the crowd seemed no more ready to discuss business than when Eliot and Parker had first arrived.
"We waiting on anything?" he asked, as Oscar tasted the stew.
"Son, you have a gift," Oscar said, taking a second bite of stew. "If it were up to me, you'd be staying in town as long as you like."
"Who is it up to?" Eliot asked.
His answer came in the form of a new arrival – a white-haired woman who came through the door and was greeted with calls of "Lila!" from all over the room.
Oscar walked forward to clasp Lila's hands and give her a brief kiss. "Lila, dear," he said walking her back over to Eliot. Parker had somehow appeared at his side, and for all his training and instincts and inability to trust anyone, Eliot couldn't for the life of him say when or how she'd got there. "I'd like you to meet Eliot and his sister, Parker."
Eliot shook Lila's hand, firmly but not too firmly. "It's a pleasure, ma'am," he said.
These days, he didn't need to elbow Parker to get her to nod respectfully and say "Thank you for your hospitality," though he had a feeling she was going to have some choice words for him later that night.
"Mr. Eliot, Miss Parker, so good to meet you," Lila said. She had a pretty good grip herself, not to mention a steady, clear gaze that looked the both of them up and down until Eliot nearly felt unsure of himself. There was no telling what she could to do them with one look – but if she were anything too out of the ordinary, or harbored any really unsympathetic tendencies, Parker would surely let him know.
"Eliot here is quite the chef," Oscar continued cheerfully.
"So nothing like you then, dear?" Lila asked.
Oscar chuckled. "Why don't we all sit down together and break our bread."
Dinner was – unusual.
Eliot gathered pretty quickly that everyone around the table – save him, Parker, Oscar, and Cole – were the town council they'd all been waiting for.
It also didn't take him long to realize that "town council" wasn't who he needed to impress. It was all going to come down to Lila.
Each of the councilors brought their problems up – in casual, probably sanitized ways – for Lila's approval, and hung on what she had to say about it.
The dynamic was so creepily familiar after a while that Eliot had to catch Parker's eye and very deliberately think, Court?
Parker shook her head. Soon as it was inconspicuous to do so, she leaned over and whispered to him, "They just trust her."
"Should we?" he asked.
Parker leaned back and resumed eating without answering him.
Fair enough. It was a stupid question.
Dinner was wrapping up and Oscar was starting to clear the dishes – after a mental and physical prod from Eliot, who nudged her foot with his own, Parker volunteer told help – when Lila finally turned to the matter to business.
"Jackson tells me you were thinking of staying in town," Lila said to Eliot.
"That's what I was hoping," he said. "My sister and I, we've been traveling for a long time. It sure would mean the world to us if you'd let us stop and catch our breath."
"I'm sure you understand our reluctance," Lila told him. "We've been very fortunate, compared to some of our neighboring towns. We just want to be sure we aren't opening ourselves up to opportunists."
"I understand," Eliot said. "Hell, I'd probably feel the same way in your place. And if you tell us to go right this second, we will. But – it's been a long way by bike, and longer'n that on foot. A day or two's rest here won't hurt you much and it'd mean the world to us."
Lila looked around at the rest of the council for a moment. "Could you excuse us for a moment?" she asked him.
"Gladly," Eliot said. "I'll just – step outside?"
"I'll come with you," Cole said, rising from the table. "The stars should be coming out around about now. It ought to be a fine view from the porch."
Eliot allowed himself to be steered out to the front of the house. He carefully observed as Oscar led Parker out around the back of the house on some pretext about herb gardens.
"So what do you think?" Eliot asked Cole. "You know the council better'n I do."
Cole sighed. Eliot got the idea he wasn't expecting a direct question. "They're politicians, aren't they," he asked rhetorically. "Even if they are small time. Who can tell what they're gonna do?"
"Seemed like everyone was hanging on Ms. Lila's words," Eliot nudged.
"She's been on the council for ages," Cole waved the implied question off. "And she's done a good job of looking out for us so far. Cooperstown hasn't had outsiders, not since the spring. I think you'd be good for us. But it's easy to see why people's be nervous about you."
"Makin' people nervous," Eliot said with a sigh. "Thought I'd left that behind me."
Cole looked at him, very carefully not reacting. Eliot wondered what information Oscar was trying to wring out of Parker.
Eliot shrugged, like he was uncomfortable with the silence. "I was Special Forces," he said. "Ages ago. But you never really forget a thing like that. How it makes people look at you."
Cole nodded, appeased. "I was Navy, back in the day," he said. "That really was ages ago. Look, if it was my decision – "
Eliot didn't hear the rest of Cole's statement, though he could guess what it was. One of the council – Eliot thought his name might have been Ross – poked his head out. "We'd like to speak to you again," he said, so Eliot and Cole stamped their feet on the welcome rug once more before re-entering the house.
"Mr. Eliot," Lila said, pointing him back toward the chair he'd been in moments before. It didn't escape his notice that Cole remained standing. Eliot did as well. "We've been discussing your request."
"And?" Eliot asked. "Sorry for my bluntness, but I do prefer knowing how I stand with people."
"I do wish you'd feel comfortable enough to relax," Lila told him. "But I suppose that isn't the purpose. Mr. Elliot, we're willing to consider your request to stay here for the time being."
"Why, thank you, Ms. Lila," Eliot said, as genteel as he'd ever known how.
"There are a few conditions," Lila told him.
"I can't say I object to the concept," Eliot said. "Shoot."
"We may seem rather prosperous after your wanderings," Lila told him. "But we're still a community that's rebuilding. We've had our share of trauma. And we expect all our citizens to do their part to help rebuild. That would include you and your sister, for as long as you stay."
"Not a problem," Eliot said. "I'm happy to help wherever I can. But my sister – she's a bit sickly," he said. A few of the councilmen, Ross included, shifted in their seats. "Nothing dangerous," Eliot reassured them. "She ain't contagious. But she doesn't handle excitement too well. People make her tired."
Lila exchanged a long look with Cole. Eliot, trying to remain as innocent and scrupulous as possible, kept his eyes on Lila and missed at least half the meaning of that look.
Eventually, Lila looked back down at him. "Very well," she said. "We're happy to have you with us – provided neither of you causes us any trouble."
"We'll be quiet as church mice," Eliot promised. "You'll hardly know we're here."
"I should hope that remains the case," Lila promised. "Oscar, do you think there's somewhere we could place our new guests that would agree with Ms. Parker's temperament?"
"There's the Noll's farmhouse," Oscar suggested. "Just outside town lines. Small, but it should be perfect for the two of you."
He didn't ask about the former residents of said farmhouse.
In retrospect, that might have been an oversight.
It really was a nice house they'd been set up in. Two bedroom, lights still worked thanks to a generator, but the water was out everywhere but the kitchen. Nobody'd confuse it for a luxury inn, but it provided a hell of a lot more privacy and comfort than they'd been living with on the road.
Mostly, though, Eliot worried about security. It hardly seemed worth locking the doors when the town's council could have kept the spare key.
Then there was the man outside. He was pretty good at hiding, for an amateur. But Eliot was better at looking.
"They're watching us," Parker said, curling up on the couch. Course, she didn't have to look out the window to know. "There's a man on the corner. Behind the wall."
"Yeah, well, we'd be watching us, too," Eliot said. "And we'd probably be more invasive about it."
Parker smiled fondly at the ceiling. "This place has some spacious vents." She sounded almost disturbingly nostalgic.
"You aren't going to start sleeping in the walls or anything, are you?"
Parker shrugged. "They wouldn't find me so easily if they came looking for us in the middle of the night."
"Are they planning on coming for us?"
Parker shook her head. "They're just nervous."
Eliot crossed over to the kitchen to take stock. "Who isn't?"
True to his word, Eliot showed up in town the next morning to help with the town's reconstruction.
"Surprised you even need it," he told Cole as they met up in front of the town's remaining restaurant, where a smiling waitress offered him a cup of coffee. Coffee, for crying out loud, when was the last time he'd had coffee. "Doesn't seem like anything's wrong here to be fixed."
"Everyone's got their troubles," Cole said philosophically. "And we've patched some of the worst of it up already. But I wouldn't mind a hand fixing up some of the outlying buildings."
Eliot shrugged. "I got two good hands," he said. "Where'd you need 'em?"
That was the longest conversation they had all day. Eliot'd half expected Cole to grill him endlessly about where he and Parker'd come from, to try and figure out their motives. But Cole kept his thoughts to himself, except to make short, direct statements about the task at hand.
They rebuilt a fence around one farm and repaired a gaping hole in the wall of another, and Eliot barely had to say anything.
It also meant he had few chances to get any information out of Cole, but Parker'd said they weren't in any immediate danger and Eliot's instincts backed her up on that. He didn't quite let himself feel secure, but it was oddly soothing to fall into the rhythms of working with his hands. Taking something broken and being able to fix it.
Which made it a little jolting for him to come home that afternoon to find Parker curled up on the couch, looking at a charred photograph.
"They look happy," Parker said. "At least, the guy does. The woman's face is all burnt."
Eliot wasn't entirely sure if she meant that the scorch marks obscured the woman's face of if the woman actually had burn scars on her face. He decided not to ask.
"Where do you think they are?" Parker asked. "If they were still around they'd be living here, right? So they must have left. Or maybe died."
"Why're you getting maudlin?" Eliot asked. "Do you really want to know everything that's happened to everybody in the last five months?"
Parker shrugged. "Passes the time," she said. "You wouldn't let me go into town."
"I didn't – it's not – what'd you mean, let you go into town?"
"You thought I'd do something stupid and make people mad," Parker said.
"Is that hard to believe? You drive me crazy all the time," Eliot said. "And I'm used to you. So yeah, maybe I don't think it's a great idea to unleash you on the whole world. That doesn't mean – it's not like you can't leave."
"And what would I do?" Parker asked. "I can talk to people, but only if I don't say anything that could make them worry about us, because they don't trust us and we don't trust them. So I have to be careful what I say, which makes me tired, and I have to listen to what they're saying and what they're thinking so that I know whether or not I'm being weird, which makes me more tired and makes me sad. I don't like listening to what people think. I don't even like listening to what they say, most of the time." She flipped the photograph over. "Oh, look, there's a date here." She squinted at it. "Old photo. Maybe they are dead, after all."
"Look, you want to go into town? Go into town tomorrow," Eliot said. "I'm sure Cole could find something for you to do. And say whatever the hell you want. I don't care. Tell everyone you're an international cat burglar. Maybe they'd think that's a real hoot."
"And then what?" Parker asked, flipping the photo back over. "We make friends and live in a dead person's house forever?"
Eliot's mouth open and shut, torn between not wanting to say I don't know and a refusing to say nothing at all.
Finally, he settled on, "You hungry or what?"
"Starving," Parker answered. "The guy spying on us had roast beef for lunch, it was all he could think about."
"Charming," Eliot said, before starting to look over the things Cole had given him as payment for his day's work.
"Your sister's doing better," Cole observed, handing Eliot a wrench.
Eliot tried wiping sweat off his forehead, but ended up just covering his face with grease. "Yeah?" he asked.
"Oscar says the place really agrees with her." Cole had set Parker up running errands for Lila and Oscar, which mostly amounted to her taking messages and supplies from Main Street to the outlying farms and back. Parker was now on her bicycle for most of the day. Eliot tried to pretend that this didn't amuse him in any fashion, and mostly failed.
"It's a pretty agreeable place," Eliot nodded. "Plus Oscar's an easy guy to get along with."
"And you're liking it here?" Cole asked.
"What's not to like?" Eliot shrugged the question off, turning his attention back to the guts of the tractor they were trying to resurrect.
There was about thirty seconds of silence where Eliot felt sure Cole was going to push whatever point he'd been about to make. They passed.
"Take a look at this, will you?" Eliot asked.
"Having fun?" Eliot asked Parker as she stomped across the restaurant's lawn.
"How could I not?" she deadpanned. "I have a loving brother, a roof over my head, three square meals a day – "
" – yeah, getting enough food to eat is such a bitch."
"I can actually feel this place boring me to death," Parker hissed at him.
"Sorry they don't have a world-class art museum," Eliot replied. He kept an easy grin on his face and casually looked over Parker's shoulder, but it didn't seem like any of the restaurant patrons were paying them any mind. "Is this your way of saying you aren't joining me and Cole for dinner?"
"You know I hate that place," Parker said.
"Didn't know that, actually."
"Well, you should have," she said, hugging her own arms uncomfortably. "Everybody gets together in there and they're all so – fake. It's the end of the world. What is there to pretend about?"
Now this was getting interesting. "They're lying to us?" Eliot asked.
Parker sighed and rolled her head around like her neck was hurting her. "Not exactly. I mean, it isn't about what they're saying, is it? It's more like – they've all got something they don't want to think about."
"Couple hundred people all keeping secrets from themselves," Eliot said. "Can't be a good thing."
"No," Parker said. "And the town council is super interested in what we're doing here, by the way. I'd tell the nice young man they've assigned to follow me, to save him the effort of sneaking around and trying not to get spotted – which he sucks at – except I don't know what we're doing here."
"Building up our reserves," Eliot answered.
Parker raised an eyebrow.
"You got a better idea?" Eliot asked her.
"Yes, it's called bring me leftovers," Parker said, stomping away. "I'll be at our probably haunted house."
"Anytime, little sis," Eliot said, waving at her and smiling hugely. Lila had just stepped out of the restaurant.
"Mr. Eliot," she greeted him. "Your sister won't be joining us?"
"Didn't know there was an us for her to join," Eliot answered. "Anyway, she's gonna have a little lie down. Long day."
"Of course," Lila said. "Then I hope you'll feel welcome at my table."
"It'd be an honor," Eliot said, following her inside.
Lila took her seat, pointing to the empty chair across from her. "Jackson Cole tells me you've been a great help these last few days."
Eliot settled in, smiling and nodding at the other occupants of the table. Most of them he recognized from dinner that first night. So the town council was sniffing around him again. "He's made it easy. Always nice to work with someone who knows what they're doing."
"Funny," Lila said drily, as a waiter brought by the daily special. "He said almost exactly the same thing about you."
Eliot smiled and didn't answer. He was good at creating the right kind of silence.
It seemed Lila was just as good at waiting.
The council members at the other end of the table were starting to squirm a little.
"Ms. Lila," Eliot said finally. "I can't help but feel you want something from me."
"That's a bit gauche," she replied. "But not inaccurate."
"I've always been a cut to the chase kind of guy."
"Very well," Lila told him. "Then I shall not dance around the subject. Since April, there have been some changes to the world as we know it."
"I know it blew up in everyone's faces," Eliot said.
"It was made to blow up," Lila said. "There are people in this world with the power to do terrible things. We can't accept you here until we're sure you aren't one of them."
Eliot nodded slowly. It wasn't an entirely surprising request, but – "If you don't mind my asking, how do you expect to know for sure?"
"We can't," Lila answered. "Hence our dilemma."
"I've definitely run into the kind of people you're talking about," Eliot said. "Nasty customers. And unless I'm very mistaken, I've been helping to clean up after a couple of them right here in town the last few days. Get some drifters before us that made trouble?"
"I'm afraid the trouble came from within town lines. One of our council members, even. There were a few – nuisances, before that. Young people acting out. It would hardly have been worthwhile except we couldn't figure out how they were causing as much trouble as they were."
"What happened to them?" Eliot asked.
"The sheriff locked them up, but they escaped," Lila told him. "Blew the roof right off the sheriff's office and weren't seen since. We all had bigger concerns, what with the news coming out of the cities. Then we lost our connections to the outside world. The news stopped coming, the phone lines went dead, the servers crashed..."
"Yeah," Eliot said. "Yeah, I remember what that was like."
"We had people come through town, trying to get to New York, trying to get out of New York, trying to hide," Lila said. "We tried to be helpful at first but there were too many of them. Before long we were not in a position to be generous."
"And this council member," Eliot said. A few of the other council members were looking green, guilty. They'd be such easy marks, except what was there to take from anyone anymore? "How'd he figure into it?"
"He got rid of them," Lila said simply. "Started chasing people off. Oh, we didn't know it was him at first – and of course, we'd heard a lot of stories about strange things happening, people turning into monsters, but just because it's happened somewhere else doesn't mean you expect to find it right under your nose."
"How'd he chase them off?"
Lila shook her head. Eliot wasn't sure what was distasteful to her, that one of her people had done this horrible thing, or that he'd done it supernaturally. "He conjured up nightmares," Lila said. "Mostly people just packed up and left town, but some of them started going mad. One man killed himself, not fifty feet from here. And madness is dangerous enough in ordinary people."
"Some of those drifters were souped up," Eliot asked.
Lila pressed her lips together. "After a while – I'm not sure what Daniel was driving at," she interrupted herself. "When I first suspected he was behind it, I thought he was trying to protect us from outsiders. But the longer it all went on, the more erratic he became. He chased off most of the drifters, but some of them stuck around, and he would talk to them, constantly, visit them late at night. Then people around town started reporting those same terrible nightmares."
"Maybe the drifters weren't the only ones who started going mad," Eliot said.
"I'm afraid not, since Daniel and his friends tried to burn the town down," Lila told him.
Eliot sighed deeply. "Guess I know where the scorch marks I've been seeing came from," he said finally. "But you stopped them in the end?"
"Barely," Lila said. "And chased them out of town. But it hasn't been easy for us to move on. Things like that can damage your trust in people."
"And this is where me and my sister roll into town," Eliot guessed.
"You must understand why we can't simply welcome you with our arms open and our eyes shut," Lila said. "We can't risk having any unpleasantness."
"Ma'am, it's not my intention to cause trouble," Eliot started.
"So Jackson Cole tells me," she interrupted him. "He's taken a liking to you. But we also can't risk that you've got any secrets hidden away."
Eliot knew he had a damn good poker face. He just hated betting with people's lives. "I don't know how to prove to you that I'm not something I'm not," Eliot told her.
"That's the problem," Lila said.
Eliot had a pretty good feeling he knew how things were going to shake out with Parker when he got home, so he took his time walking home.
The walk was nice; the weather was just starting to have a bite to it, and the stars were something else. The extra time didn't end up changing the probabilities at all.
Parker looked at him when he entered, and kept her eyes on him as he walked around the room, taking off his boots and making himself comfortable, but didn't say anything. Didn't even more anything but her eyes.
"Had dinner with Lila in town tonight," Eliot told her.
"I noticed," Parker said. "So when do we leave?"
Eliot dropped into a chair near the fireplace and thought about chopping firewood. It was only going to get colder here on out, and it could be comfortable, sitting in front of a fire.
"You're joking," Parker accused him, sitting up straighter on the couch.
"I just think we shouldn't make any hasty decisions," Eliot said.
"What's to decide?" Parker asked. "They hate me here. They're going to run me out of town like a bad guy in an old movie if they find out about my weird little brain. And you want to stay here and roast samoas?"
"They're called s'mores, Parker."
"Not the point!"
"Well, what is the point?"
"The point is, let's leave," Parker said. "They don't want us here. I don't want to be here. You're the only one who thinks this is a good idea, and you're not the one they're mad at."
"No one is mad at you," Eliot told her.
"Yet. Because they don't know."
"And they aren't going to know. And even if they did, I wouldn't let them do anything to you."
"Why are you fighting so hard for them? Why are we here, for real?" Parker asked him. "You told Lila and the town council we were just here to rest. You told me we were stopping because you were tired of biking. What are we really here for?"
"We're here because people are here," Eliot said. "Isn't that enough? Aren't you tired of being alone?"
"No!" Parker shouted. "I'm tired of this whole stupid world, and I'm tired of these people, and maybe I’m not alone enough."
Eliot felt the fight drain out of him. "Look, if it's between staying here and you going on alone, we don't have to stay here."
Parker's shoulders dropped, too, and Eliot got the distinct impression that she was exhausted. "Good," she said gruffly. "You wouldn't last a day without me."
Eliot told Jackson Cole the next morning that he and Parker were planning on moving on.
Cole took it in stride, but asked Eliot to stick around long enough that town could host them a bit of a going away party.
"You sure that's a good idea?" Eliot asked. "Didn't think everyone cared too much for us staying, anyway."
"All the more reason for them to celebrate you're going," Cole said. "And you've done good work here. People appreciate that."
Parker's mood had improved dramatically with the promise they'd be leaving soon, so long as that promise held true, Eliot didn't figure she'd mind staying an extra day or two. "Well, all right then. Never let it be said I turned down some well-meaning hospitality."
So two nights later he and Parker found themselves the guests of honor at a giant bonfire celebration.
The town's stocks for partying weren't what they might have been in other days, but there were some strong drinks passed around that did more to chase off the cold than the bonfire itself.
Parker had a smile on her face and it didn't even look terribly faked, despite the large numbers of people milling around, who kept coming up to talk to them. Eliot stayed close by to make sure nobody went in for a handshake or a hug.
The whole thing might have gone off without a hitch if Lila, Oscar, and some of the town council hadn't come by to add their well wishes to the list. Eliot decided to handle them himself, leaving Parker deep in a conversation with one of the restaurant waitresses.
"It's a shame to see you leaving," Oscar said.
"We ought to be moving on," Eliot replied. "We appreciate what you've done for us, but it's time we found our own place. Might even have some folk waiting around for us back home, who knows? And I reckon it'll be one less thing for you to worry about," he nodded toward Lila.
"It was not my intention to chase you away," she replied. "Or not precisely."
"Still, it must simplify things a bit," Eliot said. "Not having to worry you've got more trouble makers on your hands."
Out of the corner of his eye, Eliot saw Parker's head snap away from the woman in front of her and focus directly Oscar.
Shit, Eliot thought automatically, then tried concentrating harder. Parker, what's going on?
Parker didn't look at him, didn't even blink. For the first time in months, Eliot had the idea that Parker couldn't really hear him. He didn't like that that made him feel vulnerable.
Parker started to drift over, eyes still boring into Oscar's head.
Eliot tried stepping into her way, which stopped her forward progress and made her look at him, if only for a second.
"Parker, what are you doing," Eliot whispered.
"I'm mingling," she said between gritted teeth. "It's a party. Isn't that what you do?"
"You look like a shark on the 4th of July," Eliot said, but Parker had already stepped around him.
"Hi, there," Parker said. "Gosh, it's been awhile, hasn't it? So good to see you again."
"It's good to see you again, little lady," Oscar said, way too friendly for whatever it was Parker was leading up to.
"I'm flattered you guys could find the time for little old me and Eliot," Parker said, breaking off her eye contact with Oscar. Since she was looking at each of the town council in turn, with that same burning look in her eyes, it didn't do wonders for Eliot's stress levels. "I know you've got so much to do, keeping this place safe, making sure everyone's on the straight and narrow."
"You know, sis," Eliot said, standing as close to Parker as he thought safe. "I'm sure they are pretty busy, so we should just let them move on."
"Nonsense," one of the council said. "It's a party, we're here to relax."
"And you've had such a hard time lately, too," Parker said. "You deserve to relax, after that person Eliot told me about. What was his name? Daniel?"
One of the councilors starting to look uneasy. That was the one Parker zeroed in on.
"No sense bringing up that unpleasantness tonight," Lila said briskly, but this was already spinning out of her control and Eliot thought she could tell that, on some level.
"You're right," Parker smiled. Eliot recognized it as the one she gave a mark right before she cracked their safe. "This is a celebration. You know what? I propose a toast."
"Parker," Eliot growled, as Parker climbed on top of the pile of firewood. "I don't know if that's a good idea for you, with your condition."
"Come on, Eliot," she told him. "This is a party, we're here to relax. Attention!" she said, pitching her voice louder. The conversations around them subsided as the partygoers turned to look at her. "Sorry I don't have a champagne flute in my hand so I can do that tapping the fork on the glass thing," she said, and received some pleased laughter from the crowd in response.
"As you know, my brother and I are leaving town tomorrow," she said, and a few people boo'd. "And before we go, we wanted to propose a toast to all you wonderful people in Cooperstown."
This caused a round of applause and a few cheers.
"Yes, you are all wonderful people, and you know how I know?" Parker grinned. It was hideous. "Because you're not freaks."
The sounds of merriment died away.
"Oh, sure," Parker continued. "There were some incidents, some unpleasantness, but you all took care of that, didn't you? You rooted out Daniel Higgens and his friends quick enough and you took care of them. 'Chased them out of town,' I like that, that's a nice little euphemism. And I guess they're buried outside town lines, right? Couldn't have any reminders, nope, just had to get the freaks out of the way. Never mind worrying about what they'd wanted. Never mind that they didn't ask for anything to happen to them. Never mind that they probably couldn't control what they were doing, and they were scared, and they couldn’t ask anybody for help, I wonder why? I wonder why Daniel Higgins didn't feel like he could trust any of you for help."
"Parker, get down," Eliot said, two seconds away from throwing her over his shoulder and running until his legs broke down.
Parker looked down at him like she didn't see him, but she jumped off the lumber.
The night was so quiet that Eliot couldn't hear anything but her feet on the grass and the crackle of the fire.
"But it was worth it, right?" Parker said, quieter now, but she didn't need to shout; everyone was fixated on her. "Because now you don't have any freaks to worry about."
Quick as Eliot could blink, Parker grabbed a log from the fire by its unburnt end and threw it at a man standing nearby.
People gasped. A couple guys made a move for Parker, but Eliot stared them down.
The guy Parker had targeted threw his hands up, to protect his face.
When the log hit his hands, rather than letting it drop, he closed his fingers around it and held on.
It seemed to be an instinct, rather than a rational thought. And after a few seconds, he hastily dropped it and stepped away. But even as he lowered his hands and thrust them to his sides, Eliot could see that they weren't burnt. They weren't scratched. Hell, they weren't even red from the heat, and his face didn't register any pain – just fear.
"Oops," Parker sang. "Missed one."
"Listen, bitch – " one of the intimidating guys from before stepped forward to shut her up.
"Did you have something you wanted to say?" Parker asked. "Funny, I had a question I wanted to ask you. Why is it that the weather here is always nice, but only if you're in a good mood? Why was there a thunderstorm when you had a fight with your girlfriend?"
The guy froze in his steps. "I didn't – " he started his denial, but too late.
People were starting to whisper and look at him funny.
"Looks like you missed another one," Parker said, rounding on Lila and the town council. "In fact, wow, you guys are kind of bad at this. There's still a whole mess of freaks here in town. There's even one on the town council," she said, scandalized. "That doesn't sound very safe."
Lila wasn't indulging in any of the whispered conversation, sidelong glances, or muted panic that was going on around her. She was staring Parker down with a cool fury. "Miss Parker," she said. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave town. Immediately."
"Or what?" Parker asked.
"We'll have you shot," Lila replied. Eliot didn't doubt that she meant it.
"Come on, Parker," Eliot said, risking a light touch to Parker's covered elbow. "Let's go."
"Sure. Looks like the party's winding down," Parker said.
The two of them set off, on foot, on the road out of town.
"I hated that bicycle anyway," Parker said lightly.
"Bet you're gonna be singing a different tune in a couple of days," Eliot said.
He badly wanted to talk to Parker, but fuck if he knew what he wanted to say, and fuck if he'd say it where there was any chance anyone from Cooperstown could over hear.
After about a mile, he finally settled on: "It's going to kill them, wondering who's hiding something."
The tiniest, fiercest smile spread over Parker's face. "Good."
Eliot very carefully didn't think I was supposed to be the vindictive one.
By October, Eliot was starting to think he'd sympathize with the folks in Cooperstown if he were capable of feeling sympathy toward anyone.
He was getting really, really sick of getting ambushed by people who could levitate or turn into rabbits or light their hair on fire or whatever crap was going to happen next.
Today, there were four guys, and as of yet all Eliot could determine was that one of them glowed in the dark. He wasn't the worst of it, because his two of his buddies – who had apparently been napping when they handed out magical powers – had some serious martial arts training. Eliot focused his attention on them, and let Parker have her merry way with the other two. She'd gotten pretty vindictive about going for people's weak spots. Eliot might have felt sorry about it, but again: no more capacity for sympathy. And when you attack a couple people camped on the side of the road in the middle of the night, you deserve whatever you're getting.
It was all pretty standard until Parker's guys had run off into the night, limping along and making high-pitched yelping noises, and left Parker free to turn and get a good look at Eliot's boxing partners.
She went completely still, in that freak way only someone who routinely worked her way through lasers could.
Eliot got a good hold on one of his opponents and used her to hold off the human night-light. "What is it?"
Parker grabbed the struggling fighter's face and looked her dead in the eyes. She had all the intense energy of an interrogator, except of course she didn't need to ask questions.
Eliot didn't have that advantage. "What's going on?" he demanded.
Parker took off at a dead run.
With a snarl, Eliot smashed the two fighters' heads together and chased after her.
It was a ten-minute run, breathing too hard to make conversation, before Eliot saw what they were looking for.
There was a building on the side of the road. They'd passed it earlier but kept moving, deciding it looked too unstable to camp out in.
It looked just as unstable now, so when Parker rattled the doorknob and found it was locked, Eliot didn't have any trouble kicking the door down.
Parker took off again, into the building.
"Thanks, Eliot," he muttered to himself as he followed her. "You're such a help, Eliot. Let me explain to you where we're going, Eliot."
Parker took a left turn down the hall, after only a second of wavering, and opened the second door they came to.
Eliot followed, because what else was he supposed to do? He sure as hell didn't expect to like whatever they found in there – Parker had her tense unhappy face on – and the world didn't disappoint him.
Of all the people to survive the apocalypse and barge back into Eliot's life, it had to be James Sterling.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Eliot demanded.
The weasel looked smug. He was still wearing a suit and tie, like he was swinging by the office later today – a little shabby for last year's standards, but princely for this day and age.
"Mr. Spencer," he said. "I do believe I should be the one asking that question. And Miss Parker. How good to see you."
It occurred to Eliot that he didn't really know what they were doing here. He'd chased Parker and she'd come running because – why, exactly?
He shot her a glance and she nodded, slightly, in Sterling's direction. So they'd come here for him but...again, why?
Parker rolled her eyes at him before taking over the conversation. "Sterling. We don't appreciate you sending thugs to rough us up."
"Yes, what happened to my agents, exactly?" Sterling asked, before holding up a hand to silence an answer that wasn't forthcoming. "I suppose if they ran afoul of you two, they can't have been too successful. A pity."
"Maybe they shouldn't have jumped us in the middle of the night," Eliot said.
"The regretful necessities of the modern era," Sterling said. "Though if it's any consolation, I didn't send them after you specifically. How could I? I didn't know you were here. They were simply out looking for information. If you'd cooperated, I'm sure things never would have escalated to violence."
"Right, because you always play things by the book," Eliot said.
Sterling raised an eyebrow at him. "As opposed to yourselves?"
"We never had a book to start with," Parker said.
"Hm, well, I suppose my associates can be a bit too eager sometimes," Sterling conceded. "But it's all for a good cause. We are on the trail of some very important information. Funny that they should tell you where to find me, though."
"What information are you looking for?" Parker asked.
"Ah-ah-ah!" Sterling said, wagging his finger like they were kids getting dressed down by a principal, Christ, Eliot hated this guy. "You can't expect me to spoil the surprise just yet."
"Fine," Eliot said. "Don't tell us. Just leave us out of it."
"Departing so soon?" Sterling asked. "Aren't you going to at least stay and have a drink, for old time's sake?"
Eliot snorted. "This place is a dump," he said.
"And we'd hate to be in your way when your company arrives," Parker added.
Sterling steepled his fingers together. "Now that is interesting. I know that my associates didn't tell you I was expecting anyone."
"Maybe they got bigger mouths than you give 'em credit for," Eliot said, because all he could think was shit.
Parker just looked blasé, which was probably for the best but annoyed Eliot at the same time. It was her damn secret, couldn’t she be concerned about it for one second?
"Perhaps they do," Sterling said. "But they can't have told you something they don't know."
And then he was standing, and stalking across the room, eyes fixed on Parker like he could crack her open just by looking.
So Eliot went with his gut: he threw a solid punch, one that might not solve anything but would probably wipe the smirk off Sterling's face, and would definitely make Eliot feel better.
Or it would have, if Sterling hadn't reached up with one hand and blocked it.
Eliot strained his muscles, but his hand was trapped. Behind him, he heard Parker call out a warning, but he didn't need superpowers to see what was going to happen next.
"You've got to be kidding me," Eliot said, right before Sterling threw him across the room and through a wall.
Eliot was a tough guy, but even he couldn't just brush it off and walk away after crashing through a wall and then having most of that wall, plus a good chunk of roof, collapse on top of him.
In fact, he just about held onto consciousness long enough to hear Parker yelling for him, long enough to think I'm screwed, long enough to hear her turn her wrath on Sterling.
Least if I die, she'll get him back, Eliot thought, and with that he felt comfortable enough to slide off into the darkness.
When he woke up he could tell there'd still be hell to pay before he was back on his feet, but he could wiggle all his fingers and toes and he knew, before he even opened his eyes, that Parker was sitting next to him.
"You're not going to die," she told him bluntly.
"Yeah, nice seeing you too," he said. The room around him was tiny, ugly, and not terribly hygienic looking. "Is Sterling dead?"
"Sorry, nope," Parker said. "If you'd actually died I'd have gotten revenge but since you didn't it just seemed like a whole lot of extra work."
"Maybe next time."
"We're a couple miles down the road," Parker told him. "Couldn't get you to a hospital and I don't even know if those exist anymore, but Sterling's friends helped patch you up."
"Oh, Sterling's friends, now I feel better," Eliot said. "That creep still around?"
"Somewhere," Parker said. "Mostly he's off plotting something."
"And we're okay with him sneaking around?" Knowing about you, he didn't say out loud.
"At least this way he's sneaking where we can keep an eye on him," Parker said. "And he's got some things that might be worth listening to."
"If Sterling says it, I'm not interested," Eliot told her.
"You might not have a choice," Parker said. "Unless you think you can get up out of that bed. You're kind of a captive audience right now."
"Yeah, and you got real nice bedside manner, Florence Nightingale," Eliot told her.
Parker pulled his pillow out from under him and thumped it down on his chest.
It was a few more hours before Eliot had to summon his patience to deal with Sterling, and by that point, it was almost a relief. Both he and Parker were feeling stir-crazy and that energy just kept feeding on itself.
Parker did fill him in on what'd happened since his injury, but since she hadn't had much contact with Sterling's friends, there wasn't much to tell, and Eliot refused to convalesce while listening to tales of Sterling himself, since the only thing Eliot hated more than a rat bastard was a rat bastard who threw him through a wall.
"You're awake," Sterling said, sauntering into the room.
"Yeah, and I got a favor to repay you," Eliot said.
"I tremble with fear," Sterling replied. "Perhaps this shall teach you a lesson about resorting to violence to solve your problems."
"You used more violence than he did," Parker pointed out.
Sterling smiled. "Anything worth doing is worth doing well."
"Why're you here, Sterling?" Eliot asked.
"Your gratitude is astounding," Sterling answered, and didn't give Eliot a chance to argue that patching someone up after you injured them didn't deserve gratitude. "But very well, I shall move straight toward business, if you prefer. I've been looking for someone, someone who's proved quite elusive. And while you're not exactly my first choice, you do have...skills that could help me find him."
"Because of me?" Parker asked.
"I'm sure that recent developments could make you an even more valuable addition to my team," Sterling said. "But no, those are not the only skills I was referring to."
"Doesn't matter, anyway," Eliot said. "I'm not interested in helping you find anyone."
"You could at least listen to my explanation," Sterling said.
"Why the hell would we listen to anything you have to say?" Eliot growled.
"Because I can help you get what you want."
Eliot scoffed. "You don't even know what we want."
"Of course I do," Sterling answered. "You want what everyone wants; you want things back the way they were. Oh, some people had their fun with the little gifts at first, blowing things up and setting things on fire, but that's all gotten a bit worn out and humanity is just crying out for order. People don't really want power, they want to be able to have a lie down and a snack without being obliterated."
"And you think you can provide that."
"I know who can," Sterling said. "Care to find out?"
Continued in Part 4.
- Current Music:Samson, Regina Spektor