FANDOM: The Thirteenth Floor
SUMMARY: Looking back, looking forward, and pizza.
His alarm must be broken. Either that, or he never switched it on in the first place. It’s happened before, after late-night coding sessions when he’d have fallen asleep in his chair had it not been for either Fuller or Doug tapping him on the shoulder and suggesting that he go to bed. On those nights he’d stumble blearily into his apartment, kick the door closed, and collapse, more often than not still fully dressed. At least he’s undressed now. He can feel the sheet that was meant to cover him tangled around his calves. How can he make such a mess just by being asleep?
It must be almost noon, and he feels like he hasn’t been awake for days. Fuller is probably on the verge of killing him. Whitney racks his brains to try to remember what might have been on the schedule for the day. Maybe that debugging of his proposed new security features? Really nothing to leap out of bed for, but then that’s what he’s paid to do. At least there’s a chance that he can spend the evening at the Wilshire Grand, letting Ashton feed him olives and make him laugh.
He finally convinces himself that, weary limbs aside, he has to open his eyes and get out of bed. Maybe once he’s in the shower he’ll wake up. The water at Fullercorp seems to be designed to give him instant shock therapy every morning, alternating between freezing blasts and burning jets, and making him jump out in a hurry. Whitney groans and lifts a hand to rub his eyes. As he moves, his fingers encounter warm skin that isn’t his own.
Lying in his arms is a sleeping man, that same man he’s dreamed of finding there for the last month. For so long, Ashton has only existed in his world as nothing more substantial than bursts of electrical energy. Now he’s all too solid, his breath a light touch on the hairs of Whitney’s forearm. Even though Whitney is now fully awake, there’s no reason on earth that could get him to move. Despite his fears, he realises that no one will be phoning him, demanding that he turn up for work. He has nothing to do but stay exactly where he is, where he’s always wanted to be, with the man he loves.
He’s never really watched anyone sleep before. Normally he had been the one being prodded awake by Charlotte, or Tom, or his mother. Seeing Ashton so still beside him is an odd feeling, as if something is deeply wrong. The bartender is normally filled with fluid motion, whether working, making love, or simply smoking one of his many cigarettes. Whitney touches his lips to the back of his lover’s neck, against the unfamiliarly dark hairs there, and breathes in the scent of him.
The slight movement is enough to provoke a violent reaction. Ashton tenses up, abruptly jerking around to break Whitney’s hold on him, and lashing out an arm. It strikes down against Whitney’s collarbone, resulting in a sharp pain, and making him raise his hands to defend himself. Fortunately Ashton wakes up much more quickly than Whitney did. He stares at the younger man for only a second before the realisation hits him, and he sinks back down amidst the sheets. “Shit,” he mutters, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, trying to clear his head. “Did I hurt you?”
Whitney sighs in relief and puts down his hands. “I’m okay. Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I…” Ashton props himself up on one elbow, running his fingers over a reddening mark high on Whitney’s chest. “I did hurt you.”
Whitney smiles at his concern, and reaches to pull his head down to kiss him. “It’s nothing…”
If only it could have always been this way, he thinks, as his tongue carefully parts Ashton’s lips. If only it wasn’t so extraordinary for them to still be together after a night of lovemaking. After a month of knowing each others’ bodies so intimately, waking up in the same bed should be a normal occurrence. It should be utterly casual for him to kiss Ashton good morning while idly considering what to do for the rest of the day. But there’s nothing normal about it. There’s desperation in Ashton’s kiss as he pushes Whitney’s hair away from his face, and draws his body closer. That urgency is what has been normal for him for so many nights, nights when Whitney has been forced to flee after only a couple of hours. Whitney considers the pleasures there might be now that they have forever to enjoy.
“I’m sorry,” Ashton says between kisses. “I’ve just never…”
He doesn’t complete the thought, but Whitney can understand what it might be like to suddenly wake up in an unfamiliar room, with the arms of another man around him. The scars that used to mark Ashton’s body – slashes from knives, burns from cigarettes – have told him of horrors Ashton can’t, or won’t, tell him. One half-asleep strike can easily be forgiven.
Breaking away, Ashton sits up, legs crossed in front of him on the bed, running his hands through his hair with a groan, trying to shake himself awake. “I’m so fucking tired… What did you do to me last night?”
Whitney laughs. He can remember Ashton doing quite a lot to him, first in the back seat of one of Fuller’s antique cars, and then much more gently in bed. For the first time in their relationship, his body can remember it as well. A dull, pleasant ache between his legs makes it feel as if his lover is still inside him. “Fisher said we might feel a bit more tired than usual – side effect of, you know, dying.” As Ashton nods, Whitney stretches out a hand to touch his chest. “You’re okay? No pain?”
“I'm fine. Don't worry about me,” Ashton says, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
“I just like making you feel good…” Whitney lets his fingers drop down to brush the brown hairs at Ashton’s groin, and stroke along the length of him.
It's oddly satisfying, to feel this soft warmth growing rigid under his touch, but Ashton sighs and carefully removes his hand. “Not now, Whit. I’m getting too old for this. I need a smoke and a shower.”
Whitney watches him slide out of bed and stand naked on the carpeted floor, stretching, making his body wake up. He’s skinnier than he used to be, without the benefit of years building up muscle. In some ways he seems younger, without those scars carved into his flesh that spoke of a lifetime of punishment. But he’s the same man, even with those dark curls Ashton detests falling onto his forehead. Whitney untangles his legs from the sheet and sits up, drawing his knees to his chest. “You’re thirty-six, Ash. You’re only too old for it if you’re going to die in five years. Which you probably will if you keep smoking.”
He’s not usually this assertive, he thinks, watching Ashton watch him with an expression of surprised amusement. Then again, he’s never had anyone need him to be assertive before. Charlotte had always quite liked his shy ineptitude, but she had never needed him. Ashton, even if he doesn’t know it, probably does. Whitney considers the world outside their bedroom, filled with computers and space shuttles and god knows what else, and reaches out a hand. “Come on, Ash. All I’ve wanted since I met you was to do normal stuff. You know, dinner and a movie and lying in bed all day with the guy I’m crazy about.”
Ashton raises his eyebrows. “That’s ‘normal stuff’?” The concept of two men enacting all the usual romantic clichés must seem as odd to him as anything else in this future world, Whitney realises. But Ashton takes his hand anyway and drops back onto the bed next to him. “You’ve done that with many men?”
Or maybe his concern is more of a traditional one. “No,” Whitney says, smiling. “Only my girlfriend. You don’t have to be jealous.”
“I am jealous.” Ashton’s expression is thoughtful as he trails the backs of his fingers down the stubble on Whitney’s cheek. “All that time she spent with you… I want to know everything about you, everything that she ever knew.”
“Jesus,” Whitney laughs. “Where do I start?” That amount of information really would take all day to convey, and many more. At least they have those days, that time, now. He knows he’ll spend the night in Ashton’s arms, rather than simply hoping to sneak a couple of hours in the program and then going to his apartment disappointed. “I used to imagine this, you know,” he says, letting his hands wander over his lover’s chest. “I’d wake up in the morning after dreaming about you, and think about what I’d do if you were really here.”
“I’m really here,” Ashton whispers. “So what would you do?”
“I…” He knows what he did, all those mornings, racked with unfulfilled desires, tempted by the dreams that had seemed almost real, and the realities that, in the morning, seemed like dreams. Whitney groans, embarrassed. “I’d… you know… masturbate.” Until he and Ashton get on the same page, slang terms are obviously out. Sadly the medical terms make him no less self-conscious.
“Hmmm.” Ashton licks his lips. “What else?” he asks, placing a hand on Whitney’s shoulder to keep him sitting where he is, as he moves around behind him.
“Uh…” Whitney frowns, trying to figure out what Ashton might be planning. “Well, I’d just have liked to have you around… Grab some breakfast in the canteen, show you my work…” He stops abruptly as Ashton’s left arm snakes around his hips and takes a firm grip of his cock. Obviously sex is not as far from the bartender’s mind as he claimed.
“Go on,” Ashton says softly, his chest pressing against Whitney’s back, his lips at Whitney’s neck. “You know, you're rather... larger than I remember...”
Whitney blinks and, for the life of him can’t remember what the hell he was talking about. It would be so easy just to lean back and concentrate only on the slow circles Ashton’s thumb is making… He’s shocked into awareness by an abrupt pinch of one of his nipples. “Uh, yeah. My work.”
“I saw your work,” Ashton murmurs. “I suppose I am your work. You said something about dinner and a movie?”
“Well, you know, we could do that now,” Whitney suggests, his eyes closed as he rests his head against Ashton’s shoulder. “Miracle of the modern age. You got a phone, you got everything. We could just stay in bed…” That option is looking much, much better with every passing moment, as his erection swells in Ashton’s hand. “You know, order pizza, watch something on TV…”
There’s a pause in Ashton’s caresses that he didn’t expect. “You’re going to have to run that by me again,” Ashton says finally.
If it were anyone else, Whitney would rather ill-temperedly demand why he had to explain things at this particular moment, but Ashton at least has an excuse. “Which part?”
“The pizza. And the TV.” Ashton says the words in a similar manner to Whitney trying to pronounce French.
“You’re kidding me?” Whitney turns around, expecting to see a grin. “You don’t know what pizza is?”
Ashton, however, merely looks blank. “You’re going to have to tell me a lot of things,” he says, kissing Whitney as his fingers resume their work.
Well, this is certainly different from trying to concentrate on images of cold showers and algebra problems in order to prevent himself from coming. “Um, a TV is that thing over there,” he points. “And a pizza… Is a thin circle of bread with tomato sauce and cheese that you bake in an oven and… Christ, Ash!”
There’s soft laughter at his ear as Ashton’s free hand continues to rub his nipples, sending a trail of fire southwards. Holding on much longer will be impossible, even if he thinks of nothing but yo-yo techniques and the lyrics of Duran Duran songs. The responses of his body are completely outside his own volition, as he relaxes as best he can, and lets Ashton take over. It proves to be a decision over which he has no control. In one breath it’s over, his body engulfed by a tingling pressure, and then profound relief.
After a moment, Ashton’s breath tickles his ear. “I’m really here,” he says.
“I love you,” Whitney says after a moment, opening his eyes. It still feels as if he’s dreaming. This is too perfect to be reality.
Ashton leans down and kisses him again. “Now it’s your turn. You have to show me this peat… pizza thing. Sounds disgusting.”
“Hey, man. That’s practically treason,” Whitney objects. “Anyway, I don’t think I can move.”
“For someone who used to spend so much time running off, that’s a little unusual, don’t you think?” Ashton asks, just as a buzzer sounds, indicating that someone is at the door of their apartment. Whitney is more than inclined to ignore it, but Ashton disentangles himself and stands up, wiping his hand with a tissue. “I’ll get it. You might want to clean yourself up.”
He disappears into the next room, pulling on last night’s discarded trousers. Whitney simply collapses onto the bed, exhausted, touching a weary hand to his spent erection. All those other mornings were certainly nothing like this.
The sound of Doug’s voice stirs him into sudden action, jumping out of bed and grabbing his boxer shorts. Cleaning up will have to wait. He pokes his head out of the bedroom, hoping that he looks rather more calm and collected than he feels. “Hey Doug.”
Douglas Hall, dressed in grey slacks and a blue shirt, is standing in the doorway, looking slightly perturbed. Probably Ashton’s presence isn’t helping any. “How’re you doing, Whit? I thought this was your place…” He shoots an unfriendly glance at Ashton as he slips past him into the apartment, pushing the door closed.
“Guess it is.” Whitney hadn’t really thought about it. The previous night, he and Ashton had merely looked for the first place they could find once the foreplay on the beach had turned serious. Neither of them had been very keen on spending a week getting rid of all the sand. “What’s up?”
Doug looks good, and, in comparison to Ashton, completely ordinary. His alter-ego in 2024, David, had been almost exactly like the Doug of 1999 in appearance, and so Doug had quite easily adopted his body. “It’s late. I was worried.”
Whitney glances at a clock on the wall. It’s not even noon, but he can guess the real concern behind Doug’s visit. “We’re fine. Just, you know, talking…”
As Doug shoots him a sceptical look, Ashton touches his shoulder. “I’m going to go and take that shower.”
“Okay.” Whitney watches him close the door of the bathroom before turning back to Doug. “How’s Jane?”
It’s the perfect change of subject. Doug leans against the back of the couch and smiles. “She’s great, Whit. Wonderful. I can’t believe… I mean, have you seen this place? It’s amazing. More than anything Hannon could have imagined.”
“Have you spoken to him?” The world of 2024 has revealed, also, an exact doppelganger of their dead friend and employer. He's more than simply similar in appearance, as Ashton is to Whitney. He’s almost the same person. The man Whitney had known for six years had been, in terms of personality, an exact replica of his real-world user. That's what makes it so difficult. Apart from a few pleasantries, Whitney has spent the last twenty-four hours avoiding him. It's too much like talking to a ghost.
“I've had to.” Doug seems about as uncomfortable with the subject as Whitney does. “If I'm to keep up the charade that I’m David, then he has to help. At least he seems to like me better. I'm not a total psychopath for a start. Speaking of which,” he casts a look in the direction of the bathroom, “what're you doing with this guy?”
“What? You want all the details?”
Doug sighs, giving Whitney his best patient-older-brother look. “You know what I mean. He tried to kill me, Whit. He's violent and... he's a pimp, for god’s sake! There's no reason on earth you should be with him.”
“Doug...” Whitney raises his hands to fend off the words. He can hear water running in the shower, now. At least Ashton won't be able to hear them argue. “You don't know him.”
“And you do? How long have you known him? A month?” Doug asks, raising his voice, before stopping to take a breath and attempting a more reasonable tone. “Whitney, he shot me twice. It wasn’t some kind of joke. I was alone and unarmed, and he tried to torture and kill me. I know what it felt like. It was very fucking real. And this is the guy you want to sleep with?”
He's been anticipating the arguments, has been avoiding the questions in his own head since they first arose, since Doug came out of the 1937 world bleeding and angry, claiming that Ashton had tried to kill him. Whitney had hoped that somehow they would become irrelevant, with all of his friends safe and alive in the future. Doug, however, is obviously far too good a friend to simply drop the subject. “I love him,” he says, and knows how simplistic that sounds.
Doug groans, frustrated. “Whit... Listen to yourself. This guy is bad news. You’re going to get hurt. Hey,” he frowns, reaching towards the red mark on Whitney's collarbone. “What’s this? Did he do this?”
“He was scared!” Whitney takes a step back, out of Doug's reach. “He’s never had anyone hold him before.”
“Jesus fucking Christ! Whitney!” Doug laughs in disbelief. “What kind of sob story did he feed you? That he’s some poor, abused kid? That no one’s ever loved him?”
Whitney hesitates. “That's not funny, Douglas.”
Doug stares at him. “I don't believe it. He did tell you that crap, didn’t he? Listen, Whit, you’re too damn good for him. I don’t know what angle he’s playing with you, but I know he's playing one. He hit you, didn’t he? And I bet that wasn’t the first time, either, was it?”
The guilt must show on his face. No, it isn’t the first time. Whitney remembers Ashton punching him on the first night they met, and then intentionally hurting him during sex a few days later. But neither event had been motivated by malice, had they? The first time, Ashton had taken him for some kind of police agent, out to antagonise him. After they had cleared things up, Ashton had been apologetic, and they had made love for the first time. It’s a sweet memory for him, not something to hold against his lover. And the second time? Ashton had precisely been making the point that he wouldn’t hurt Whitney, that pain wasn't something he could ever fantasise about. Whitney can't imagine Doug ever understanding either instance. Doug doesn't know the context, doesn’t know the man Whitney loves.
“Look, Whit...” Doug shakes his head. “Just be careful, okay? And think about it. You deserve better than him.”
Whitney would be interested to know just who, exactly, Doug might think is better than Ashton. Charlotte? Charlotte would have been perfect in Doug’s eyes: beautiful, intelligent, funny, and willing to selflessly take care of them both, if necessary. Whitney had never been able to explain to Doug why he couldn't make it work with Charlotte. He suspects that he’ll face a similar problem trying to explain why Jerry Ashton is his perfect man. Changing the subject is an easier tack. “So... you and Jane got plans for today? I was going to introduce Ash to the concept of pizza.”
Doug scratches his head. “It might have to wait. Fisher says that the sooner the three of us get up to speed on current affairs the better. He’s set up a log of video footage on the TV system: some kind of guide to the past twenty-five years for us.”
“What about Ash?”
“Well, he's got a few more years to get through, but they’re there.” Doug gestures to the TV in front of the couch. “Guess they’re compressed into the important stuff - you know, World War Two, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, moon landing... He can catch up on everything else along the way. Like pizza.”
“Shit. He missed so much.” Whitney can barely fathom living a life without the knowledge of the world gained in the latter half of the twentieth century. Then again, when he was with Ashton in the thirties, computers and cellphones were the least of his worries. He had missed Ashton more in the nineties than he had technology in the past.
Doug nods. “We missed a lot too.”
He’s right. Just a look out of the window, at the distant skyscrapers built out in the ocean, can tell him that. It’s impossible that things won’t have moved on. Whitney just hopes that they’ve changed for the better. Had Ashton jumped forward only twenty-five years, he would have found himself in a post-Holocaust world, with the USA and Soviet Union poised to annihilate each other. At least, from what he has seen, things are no worse. Yesterday he had skimmed the newspaper and found no hints of imminent disaster.
“We’re going to be okay,” he says. “It’ll work out. And, you know, I think you’ll like him once you get to know him. He’s a good guy, Doug. Really.”
“Yeah?” Doug straightens up, no longer in the mood to argue. “I hope so, Whit. I have a feeling we’re going to need to stick together now, more than ever. Me and you, and even Ashton. It’s a whole new world out there, kid.”
He leaves, with further warnings about Ashton’s erratic behaviour, assurances of friendship, and instructions on how to access the history tapes. Whitney closes the door, a little relieved to see him go. However, for all his caution towards Ashton, Doug seems unfamiliarly insecure. In the nineties, he had more friends and business contacts than Whitney could ever remember. Now there’s just the two of them. Maybe it isn’t all that strange for Doug to be afraid of losing his one remaining contact with the past.
Whitney sits down on the couch, still only wearing his dirty boxer shorts, and plays around with the access codes. The video and audio files at Fullercorp must be immense - something he’ll have to investigate at a later date. However, with the code Doug gave him, a long list of archive material is displayed on the screen, defined by year and event. Almost a hundred years of world events for Ashton to comprehend. Whitney isn't sure how much of it will really mean anything to him. His high school history classes dealing with the twentieth century had seemed like tales of distant events happening to distant people who were no more real than characters in a soap opera.
The bathroom door opens, interrupting his thoughts, as Ashton walks over to him, tying a towel around his waist and plastering back wet hair with his fingers. “He’s gone?”
“Yeah...” Whitney tugs down on the hem of the towel, indicating for Ashton to sit. “These are history programs... documentaries or something. So we can catch up.”
Ashton sits down, and puts his arm around Whitney's shoulders as casually as if they had spent many hours in the past just sitting together. “The Second World War?" he asks, reading the titles. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“Do you want me to watch them with you? I could maybe... explain stuff.”
“You have other things to do.” Ashton turns to him. “And I don’t think this was quite your idea of dinner and a movie.”
Whitney silently contemplates what “other things” could possibly be more tempting than sitting with Ashton for a few hours, just holding him, being with him, maybe letting his fingers slip underneath that towel... But Ashton’s right. This is no endless summer holiday. Besides, he’s been longing to get to grips with the computer systems of 2024. “Okay,” he concedes, getting to his feet. “You want some breakfast or something?”
“No,” Ashton says, frowning at the remote control for the television as if determined to puzzle out its strange symbols. “I’m not hungry. Thanks.”
The shower is a welcome haven from the outside world, once he leaves Ashton to his documentaries. His weary body, still feeling a buzz of excitement from the effects of Ashton's hands, is happy just to let the water wash over him. It’s something of an effort just to stay upright, once his hair is soaked and he breathes in only a hot mist. Perhaps studying the computer science of the new century can wait for another day. It would be easier to lie down, put his head in Ashton’s lap, and drift off to sleep safe in the knowledge that his lover will be there when he wakes up. Ashton seems to be worried about all the time he’s missed spending with Whitney, all those lost years when they should have been together. Whitney can well believe how frustrated he must be, and how much he wants to know. He feels the same way. They have a lot of catching up to do.
It’s a long while later that he leaves the warm security of the shower, dries himself, and wanders off to find clothes in the bedroom. There’s no sign of Ashton in front of the television, but Whitney assumes that he’s gone in search of food after all. The selection of clothes waiting for him in the bedroom is rather restrictive: either last night's sweater and jeans, dirtied by sand and dirt and semen, or other items of clothing cast off by Fisher. He finds another pair of jeans which, although baggy, more or less fit, and pulls on a white t-shirt. Depending on what kind of mood Ashton is in, they’ll be equally good for sleeping or working, or for quickly discarding if it comes to that. Whitney straightens out his t-shirt and smiles. It’s a nice feeling, finally having a boyfriend in the real world, even if Ashton isn’t quite the person he might have imagined would be filling that role.
The television is still on pause when he gets back, showing an indistinct, grainy monotone image of Nazi Germany. Whitney taps it off with a finger to the discarded remote control. As he does so, he catches a glimpse of Ashton sitting on the wooden stairs outside the apartment, leading down to the beach. He, too, has dressed, although only in the same shirt and trousers he had worn the previous day. His lack of fastidiousness is so uncharacteristic that Whitney is hardly shocked when, sitting down beside him, he sees that Ashton has somehow found himself a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
“You didn't watch very much,” Whitney says quietly, aware that something must be wrong. Perhaps the extent of the shift in time has finally had an effect, and has hit Ashton hard. He wouldn’t be surprised. After the events of two nights ago, both of them - and Doug - would have plenty of material to discuss with therapists.
Ashton glances at him, and self-consciously stubs out his cigarette on the wooden decking. “I didn’t have to.” That said, he seems to think better of his momentary lapse in smoking, and taps a fresh cigarette from the pack. “I thought it might be like this, but I...” He snaps his lighter closed and sucks in a lungful of smoke and air. “I didn’t think it would be this bad.”
“It gets better,” Whitney tells him. “It’s not all like that.” He wishes he could be more exact. But the latter half of the twentieth century seems to him to have held more wars and disputes than any great social and scientific breakthroughs he can mention. What significance does the microchip have against the lives of twelve million Holocaust victims? Then again, today he can take Ashton by the hand, walk to the centre of Los Angeles, and kiss him. Heck, they could probably screw on the sidewalk without anyone even noticing. And that’s something, isn't it?
Ashton nods, although his expression indicates that he’s far from convinced, and reaches out his free hand. “Come here,” he says, drawing Whitney close. “Tell me about your world again.”
There’s so much to say, that he has no idea where to start. Whitney wraps his arm around Ashton's shoulders, and starts to talk about the first thing that comes into his head. “You know what pepperoni is, right?”
Ashton’s puzzled look tells him that he’s got even more explaining to do than he first thought. But, as he relates tales of youthful exuberances carried out in the pizza parlours of Los Angeles, the bartender throws his cigarette into the sand and pays him rapt attention, a slow smile crossing his face. Maybe this was all they ever needed to know: not dates and facts related by high school textbooks, but the tiny things that made up their lives, even amidst tragedy and confrontation. Doug was wrong, Whitney thinks with a grin. Sometimes pizza really is more important.
“Come on,” Whitney says, scrambling to his feet and pulling Ashton with him. “I'll show you.”
Wee Damn Table