FANDOM: The Thirteenth Floor
SUMMARY: The night after the end of the world, Ashton stole a car...
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Originally done for highwaymiles. Prompt 236. "Someday I'll go where there ain't no rain or snow. Til then, I travel alone. And I make my bed with the stars above my head and dream of a place called home." Kim Richey's "A Place Called Home"
He’s never been to Tucson.
The night after the end of the world, Ashton stole a car. Maybe it was predictable. He’s always belonged to the shadier elements of society. He had smiled, and decided that he might as well live up to expectations.
Whitney tells him that it’s a veritable antique: some kind of sports model from the 1980s equipped with red paint and leather seats. At least, he thinks that’s what Whitney said. Outside the virtual world, the younger man seems to be forgetting that his nineties Californian slang means nothing to a 1930s bartender. As for the car, it both looks and sounds like a rocket ship. Had he not had more pressing uses for it, he would have been tempted to poke around under the hood in search of its secrets.
He drives. He has to drive. After Whitney confessed to crashing his beloved Chrysler in the simulation, he couldn’t possibly trust Whit with either his life or another car. At least the basic procedure is the same: steering wheel, gear stick, gas pedal, brakes. But, had even those been foreign to him, he’d have figured it out eventually. He always figures it out.
The road, however, is nothing like he remembers. In his mind, only a few hours ago it had been barely better than a dirt track: a strip of tarmac roughly laid down, winding its way across desert hills. There had been no other cars, no gas stations, no hint of noise or lights. It had been a road to nowhere, to the last place in the world he had ever wanted to go.
Tucson. He doesn’t even know what’s there, why anyone would choose to live there. He’s had plenty of reasons to leave California over the years, but had he ever really had the money and the inclination, he would have chosen somewhere better than whatever kind of city lay at the end of that dusty road. He’s always wanted to see Paris, or lose himself in New York City. Maybe he could go to Munich and let the Germans laugh at his accent. Anywhere would do. Anywhere but here.
Yet, almost a hundred years in the future, in another world – the real world, he’s told – he still finds himself on the road to Tucson. It scares him. In 1937 he had been left to his thoughts, dark though they were. The very fact of being the only car on the road, and the only human for miles, had quickly become unnerving. Now it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by light and speed and sound.
“Are you okay?” Whitney asks, breaking a long silence. He’s been sitting in the passenger seat for almost an hour, being as unobtrusive as a man his size can be.
Ashton’s watched him out of the corner of his eye, staring at his fingernails, biting his lip, gazing out at the headlights of oncoming traffic with an expression of vague unease. He’s thought twenty times of things to say, in between the more pressing task of keeping control of the car, but he’s found that he’s nervous. There’s almost too much to say, too much that’s been left unsaid. He has an entire world he needs to understand, but he suspects that comprehending Whitney will be much more complicated.
He glances round and sees Whit looking at him anxiously. He doesn’t know what to say. Even a simple reassuring statement seems beyond him. He’s not okay. He’s very far from fine.
It’s gone. It’s all gone. The road to Tucson isn’t the only thing that’s changed. He’s lost an entire world, an entire life. He can remember dying. His chest burns as if the bullet is still driving its way inside him. When he looks down, he expects to see blood on his shirt. It’s only an illusion, a trick played by his memory, but it’s almost impossible for him not to believe it. After all, he’s believed an illusion all his life. He’s always been something less than real. Tucson had told him that. He had stood out in the desert, at the end of the road, at the edge of reality, and known that his life was a lie. Maybe, in this world, it’ll tell him the same thing again.
Tentative fingers touch his leg. “Ash?”
And Whitney. God, Whitney. A man he’s known for a month, who dropped into his life with nothing extraordinary about him. Ashton’s had so many casual fucks in his life, so many sweet and forgettable nights, that Whitney should never have touched him. But he couldn’t forget Whitney, couldn’t cut him off even when he knew that sex was becoming dangerously close to love.
He had thought about it, sitting on the steaming hood of his car, staring out into the nothingness at the end of the world. The green grid – “code”, Whitney had called it – meant little to him but his own lack of coherence as a man. Maybe he could have walked out there, dropped off the edge of the universe, and disintegrated. Something in him wanted to do it. He had held his gun in his hands and thought about ending it that way. But, even if he were a chimera, a tin man, he was never meant to die on a desert road. Not when someone, after all these years, had told him that he was loved.
How could he believe it? It should have been a lie, told in desperation by a man who would say anything. Hadn’t Whitney been lying to him all these weeks? He’d been pretending to be someone else, wearing a different skin, knowing that everything he could see was a fake. It should have been nothing more than a desperate attempt to prevent him from going to Tucson, from discovering reality. Ashton sat out in the desert and knew it was true. It would have been easier to die than deal with the consequences.
In the face of rushing yellow lights, he makes a decision and pulls off the road, heading as far from the traffic as possible. He wants to find refuge in darkness. Whitney asks him something, concerned at this deviation from their route, but he can’t answer. He doesn’t have the words tonight.
Ashton stops the car by the side of the quietest road he can find. It’s still lit by the brilliant flashes of passing vehicles, more so than he would like, but it’s the best he can do. He gets out and pushes the door closed, relieved to feel fresh air on his face. Would that his unease were only motion sickness. Pain is surging in his chest again – that bullet, ripping through his flesh, leaving the bitter taste of blood in his mouth. He leans against the car door, back to the street, and closes his eyes.
The usual treatments he administers for pain and depression are unavailable. His cigarettes are gone, and he suspects that he’ll have no stomach for alcohol tonight. At least, for once in a thousand nights, his head is clear.
The sound of the other door slamming makes him open his eyes and attempt to smile at Whitney. His fingers gesture, try to articulate words his brain can’t understand. “I can’t do it,” he says finally, looking out into darkness that might, in the morning, reveal fields. There are pinpricks of light out there, in the distance. Otherwise he might be able to convince himself that, in a few more steps, he would fall off the edge of the world. “Not twice in two days.”
Whitney, surprisingly, has no reassuring words for him. Whit’s supposed to be the optimist, the one who rescues him from despair. But the young man just stands next to him, slouching against the metal of the car, and says nothing.
Maybe he’s afraid. What’s he supposed to say, after all? Even the most profound thoughts would seem ridiculous. Ashton can imagine the greatest philosophers struck dumb by their predicament. And what are they? A computer programmer and a bartender. They’re not qualified to deal with questions of existentialism. Whitney, despite all his creative genius, is no god.
Ashton breathes out slowly, trying to convince his lungs that they still function. “Have you ever been to Tucson?” he asks, in what he hopes is a normal tone.
Whitney flips strands of unruly blond hair from his face and smiles. “Nope.”
“I should have chosen somewhere else,” Ashton mutters. “Why the fuck did it have to be Tucson?”
It wouldn’t have mattered, he knows. He would have still ended up on the same road, crashing through those same barricades hoping to dissuade him. But now that one, ordinary, banal city has too much significance in his mind. It’s ridiculous. It’s a place that meant nothing to him. He would bet that, in this world, it really is at the end of the road, filled with families and businesses and ten kinds of boredom. But tonight he can’t risk losing the wager. There’s too much at stake now.
“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Whitney says, shifting his feet.
Ashton waits for him to explain himself, but Whitney just stuffs his hands in his pockets and stares at his beaten, second-hand sneakers. He’s right, though, whatever he means. It doesn’t matter. Two days ago, he had read a letter that had told him ignorance was bliss. He hadn’t believed it, and he had died as a result. He had lost Whitney, had been consumed by guilt and regret at all the things he had never said. And now, given a second chance, they stand in silence. He had tried action instead of words, had tried to go to Tucson as a way of affirming their reality, but even that is now beyond him.
“I’m sorry,” he says, his words hesitant. “I don’t know what to say.”
Maybe Whitney has more of a sense of childish wonder. Maybe he’s grown up to expect the miraculous. He reaches out and grasps the fingers of Ashton’s left hand. “I’m here if you need me.”
The touch of his skin, warm and alive, seems at that point to be so much closer, so much more personal, than all the touches a month has held. Ashton looks at him, at the real him, the man under the disguise. They’re supposed to be the same person, separated only by a few years of age, by hair colour, and by lives in different worlds. It should be like looking into a mirror. It should be horribly disconcerting to look at this man, at the man who has taken over his thoughts, and see himself. But he only sees Whitney.
He stretches out curious fingers and touches Whitney’s hair. Golden locks fall into his fingers. He never looked like this. Even with the aid of chemical dyes he could never have looked like such an angel.
Whitney must see the question in his eyes, because he grins. “You never wanted to piss off your dad?”
Ashton laughs. “I never really had to try.” If only his hair had been the topic of contention with his father. He could have fixed that readily enough. Not that he would have done it, of course. He touches Whitney’s jaw, prickly with the beginnings of stubble. Perhaps they do have more in common, and more to talk about, than questions that properly belong in a philosophy class.
There are things he knows he should ask, answers he knows he’ll need soon enough. For now he lets his mouth find Whitney’s, and ends the demands of his conscious mind. Something deeper than reason binds them together.
He’s not the same man, not the same person Ashton has been kissing during the last month. He feels different. He’s taller. Ashton slides his hands around Whitney’s back, holding him close. For once he doesn’t have to stoop down to kiss someone. He wonders if Whitney is thinking the same thing, as the lights of a passing car flash across his lover’s face. It’s never too difficult to tell what thoughts are crossing Whitney’s mind.
“Why didn’t you show me who you were the first time?” Ashton asks, dipping his head to brush his lips against Whitney’s throat.
It’s not the same body, but its responses are familiar. “I thought you’d freak,” Whitney says, his voice a whisper.
“I don’t know.” Ashton’s fingers are pulling up the hem of Whitney’s sweater before he can consider whether it’s a good idea. “I’ve always been a bit of a narcissist.”
It’s not a good idea. They should have had cool, calm, rational conversations first. He should have analysed the feelings in his heart, considered whether he really wanted to get involved with a man who had been less than honest with him. It’s not a good idea, but it’s the only thing he can do. He already is involved. Whitney’s choice to spare him from the truth pales in comparison to his own past crimes. Besides, he knows he would have done the same thing. He saw Whitney’s tears over the death of his friend, and knew then he would do anything to stop him from having to feel that way again.
Whitney’s chest is hot under the touch of his fingertips, whether stimulated by passion or simply the temperate June air. He wishes he could call the feel of smooth skin and soft hair familiar. If he closes his eyes, he can believe it is. The way that Whitney kisses him is the same: initial caution cast away by desire. Whitney pulls his head closer, fingers entwined with his hair. It makes him remember that he’s not quite the same man he was in that virtual world either. He’s not sure who he is, now that the gift of a new body has taken away the scars of his past.
“I really need you right now,” Whitney whispers in his ear, stroking his groin through the thin material of borrowed trousers. It would be so easy to give in to him. His body already has, getting hard, pushing Whitney up against the car, his breath strained as if he’s never been touched before. In some ways, he never has.
Ashton looks Whitney in the eyes as he loosens the younger man’s fly and pushes his hand inside, against the heat and pressure of Whit’s erection. “Ever fucked in a car before?”
“Yeah,” Whitney admits, grinning. “I ended up in ER.”
“Can’t take you anywhere, can I?” Ashton pulls him away from the car, and opens the door, momentarily breaking physical contact, before kissing him again. “Come here,” he says, pressing Whitney down to sit on the edge of the seat as another car flashes by on the road. If this were the thirties every alarm in his head would be screaming at him to stop. But now Whitney’s hands are on him, and there’s no way he can do anything but continue. Stopping might mean setting back out on the road to Tucson. It might mean that none of this is real.
“Shit,” he mutters as he suddenly understands that they can’t do it anyway. Whitney’s stiff and throbbing in his hand, but there’s no way he can bring himself to dry fuck this young man bent over a car seat.
Whitney, however, is obviously more of a corrupt boy scout. He smiles at Ashton’s concern, and leans back to reach for the front passenger seat, bringing back a jar of lubricant in his hand. “Problem solved?” he asks, dipping his fingers in.
He can’t fight it anymore. He needs this. It’s the reason he stopped the car, after all: the knowledge that he would rather live a life of ignorant bliss with Whitney than stand alone at the end of the world for a second time. Ashton pulls Whitney’s trousers and boxer shorts down below his hips. He’s a little rough, but he’s wasted enough time already on hesitancy, and the bursts of light from the street remind him that he needs to be quick. Whitney’s strokes along his now unfettered shaft are making it hard to concentrate on anything else.
“Turn over,” Ashton instructs, taking the lubricant from him.
Whitney rolls onto his belly, arms folded underneath his head as a pillow, as Ashton ducks inside the car and lies on top of him, fingers gently curling their way inside his lover’s body. “Okay?” he asks.
The response he gets from Whitney’s body speaks louder than words. “I think you need to lay off the linguine,” he grunts, smiling, as he pushes back against Ashton’s fingers. “Enough, Ash. I want you.”
Ordinarily Ashton wouldn’t believe him, would carry on until he was sure Whitney was relaxed, until he knew it wouldn’t hurt. But tonight is a night of desperation for them both. He plants one hand on the seat, taking his weight off the other man, and guides himself inside Whitney with the other. Despite Whitney’s voiced urgency, he takes it as slowly as he dares. For some reason he expects it to feel different, as if something is wrong. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. It can’t… it just can’t be this right, this fucking good.
Whitney moans and grinds his hips against the leather seat as Ashton moves inside him. “Ash… please…”
In the dark, in this half-light, he could convince himself that he’s making love to the man he used to know, the man whose eyes and smile and body seduced him in the first place. All he has to do is close his eyes against the evidence, and he would believe it.
Ashton shifts position, eliciting a sharp intake of breath from the man beneath him. “There?” he asks, stroking Whitney’s hair with his free hand.
Ashton nods and concentrates on stimulating that one sensitive area, closing his eyes and losing himself in the feeling of the moment. Now there’s no way even a lack of vision can deceive him. This is not the man he used to know. It’s something much better. He feels a sudden tensing through Whitney’s body as he comes, a clenching of muscles around his cock that suddenly makes all thought go away.
Moments later, his breath is rapid against Whitney’s shoulder as he fights to regain control. He’s so filled with relief that he wants to laugh. “I missed you,” he whispers.
Whitney twists around and kisses him with a smile. “Missed you too.”
They decide to go home after that, even though home for Whitney is a corporate tower twenty-five years in the past, even though Ashton hasn’t had a home anytime in the last century. He takes the back roads, almost intending to get lost, but Whitney proves to be a reasonable navigator. Perhaps things haven’t changed so much after all.
It’s after midnight when they find themselves back on the beach at the edge of another world, gazing at an inky black horizon. He’s not scared, this time, to stare at nothingness and wonder if he, too, will fade away. This time he’s not alone.
He’s still never been to Tucson.
Wee Damn Table