The smell of coffee permeated Stef’s dreams, and dragged her into the waking world. On autopilot, she lifted a hand and groped for the coffee. Her higher brain, slower to wake than the part that recognised the smell of coffee, wondered why the coffee was coming to her, instead of the other way around. Then again, when it came to free coffee, she rarely questioned it.
‘You’d best sit up,’ Dorian said as her fingers brushed against the hot cup.
‘It wouldn’t be a stretch to think that you’re some sort of pervert,’ she said as she slowly extracted herself from the sheet.
‘I wouldn’t deny it,’ he said as he sat on the bed in front of her. ‘Everyone has their perversions, Spyder, even virgins like you.’
She tried to glare at him, but she was too tired. Instead she growled and grabbed the cup from his hands while trying to ignore the fact that he was half-naked. The sun peeking through the curtains told her that it was still morning, hours before she’d been planning to wake up.
A gulp of coffee dragged some of her still-sleepy thoughts from their comfortable dreams. It was imperfect coffee. That was the problem with free coffee; it was rarely within desired specifications. She handed the cup back to him, dredged some of the sugar packets from her pockets, and poured half a dozen in before returning the trash to her pockets.
He swirled the cup for her, and she caught herself staring at his chest. In theory, it wasn’t that different to the shirtless cheat for a character in a new-gen console game, but in practice, it was a lot different.
‘You’re staring Spyder,’ he said as he handed her the cup.
Her cheeks burned hotter than the coffee in her hand.
‘Confirms your theory, doesn’t it, Mister Gray?’
She pushed a couple of the pillows behind her back and brought her knees up, creating an unstable-table for her coffee. The Englishman sat patient, waiting.
What does he…?
The monster, genius.
Oh right. That happened…
‘So…’ she said as she looked over the rim.
‘The obvious doesn’t need to be said,’ he said as he moved closer.
‘Who else knows?’
‘You, me, Jon. The man who owns the house,’ he said to clarify.
‘Yeah, met him,’ she said. ‘Was it on purpose?’
‘Which part?’ he asked. ‘Did I set the whole thing up as a reveal? No. We genuinely believed we had the right room. I didn’t want to bring her in case she saw him. I rather think that would have ruined the night.’ He sighed. ‘But I didn’t chase after you-’
‘You were kind of busy? If that’s the simple truth, then that’s ok. Shit happens. Please, can I get therapy money?’
‘I didn’t chase after you Spyder, because,’ he said, pointing his finger, ‘I knew you’d be able to handle it. Surely he’s not the first strange thing you’ve seen in your life? I mean…’
‘Well, I’m staring at a fictional character. Where is your portrait, Mister Gray?’
‘Not here,’ he answered simply. ‘But, before this, surely…’
‘Nothing. Nothing like this.’
‘You must have been very young when you die-’
‘Why did you wake me?’ she asked him quickly, not wanting him to finish his sentence. ‘It’s not like I’ve gotten much sleep lately.’
He stared at her for a moment, and she silently implored him to drop his previous train of thought.
‘You were right,’ he said at last. ‘Last night, what you said to him. We are running out of time.’
‘And you expect me to do what?’
‘Nothing, aside from come and meet the new member of the team.’
‘New guy? We have a new guy?’ she asked as Dorian crossed the room to his wardrobe.
He removed a silk shirt from the wardrobe.
‘Friend of one of your colleagues. We’ve had to expand our horizons a little beyond what I had initially imagined. I’ll take recommendations, if you’ve got any.’
‘I don’t know anyone who’d be any good at this.’
He joined her on the bed again.
‘I took back my keys,’ he said as he took her hand and pressed something cold into her hand. ‘But you keep this one, but don’t come up here more than you need to…’
His thumb slid onto her wrist.
‘He is a man. The journey he took, the chance he took, turned him into what he is.’
‘So he’s not a mutie?’ she asked. ‘Not that I’ve got anything against them, although I admit that I’d take Magneto over Xavier any day…’
‘He’s from another world. Another planet. It’s dying. It may as well already be dead. Some people jump into the void, just for a chance at another life. Sometimes they make it to another world, most of the time they simply die. Some just fall forever, trapped in the in-between places.’
She took another gulp of coffee. ‘You’re asking me to take a lot on faith here.’
‘You saw a monster last night, that’s the important thing.’
She shook her wrist. ‘Are you going to let me go?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘because you aren’t as scared as you need to be.’
‘I was plenty scared last night.’
‘But you’re distancing yourself from it. Don’t. He may be a man beneath that visage, but is also a man who was killing to eat before Jon found him. He’s scared, alone and desperate, so don’t come up here more than you need to. He goes out every night looking for her, and I don’t want to think about what he does out there, I want to believe the best. I’m also too afraid to ask. Jon sees him as a last chance to do good and he could never resist helping a starchild.’ With that, he released her hand and rose to his feet. ‘Come on Spyder.’
She stayed still, staring up at him. ‘And you, Mister Gray? What are you?’
‘Trying to decide if I’m man or monster, Spyder?’
‘In the book…’ she began.
‘I am not the monster from the book,’ he said, ‘I came before the book. I am what inspired the book. Well, one part and the name anyway.’ He smiled. ‘Come now, before they run out of pancakes.’
She remained seated; this was the time for answers, not for pancakes.
‘Jon…what’s it short for?’
‘What do you think it’s short for, Spyder?’
‘That,’ he said, ‘is the worst pronunciation I’ve ever heard of it. When did he tell you?’
‘He didn’t.’ She brought her legs up so that she could sit cross-legged. ‘It’s in the code, senseless code strings that peel off and lead toward different sections of the code. I mean, I’d almost think it was like graffiti tagging, some ego maniacal coder that wanted his name all over it, but it’s not, is it?’
‘You tell me.’
‘No, it’s not. I don’t know what it is, but ego has nothing to do with it. I think it’s something a lot different to ego. I don’t know what though, and that terrifies and excites me.’