Title: A Clock, Ticking
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: Property of Kurt Wimmer & etc., not me. Alas.
Summary: A lifetime of Prozium had left him without the vocabulary for so many simple things. 2500 words.
Fandom: Equilibrium (2002)
Notes: Yuletide 2006 entry, for Sal, prompt "John Preston/Errol Partridge". Mild slash; moody and emotionally textured, even more than my usual. The poem quoted is "He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven" by W.B. Yeats.
Rubble crunched under the soles of Preston's boots as he walked into the ruined church in the Nether. It felt as though a lifetime had passed since he'd last been there, searching for the man he'd trained and fought beside for half his life-- and in some ways, it had been. From an anonymous first class Grammaton Cleric, just one among many leading identical lives scripted by Prozium and Father's teachings, John Preston had become something new: a feeling man, a free individual, and the public face of the transformed, Resistance-based government. The difference was as stark as the transition from shadow to light, where rays of evening sunlight painted the stone underfoot through shattered windows.
And yet, despite the changes, in other ways Preston felt as though no time had passed at all. What were weeks, after all, against the span of a man's life? Each step across the crumbled sanctuary echoed with painful memories. Like a lone Cleric in a room full of hostile gunmen, the event that had transpired here had overrun his entire life: his rebirth as a sense offender, his galvanizing acquaintance with Mary O'Brien, his immersal in the Resistance, and his execution of Dupont, the man millions had known as Father, all had their roots in that one conversation with his partner.
"A heavy cost," he murmured quietly, coming to a halt before the pew where he'd shot Partridge. "But one paid gladly."
Preston saw so much more now than he had then; the hollow beauty of the once-sacred space, the scent of the candles some unknown vagrant had lit in a sheltered corner, the rough texture of the simple wooden furniture, the way the curved lines and soaring reach of the architecture pulled at the soul. It was utterly unlike the sterilized, bland environment Father had spent the last several decades enforcing. Small wonder Partridge had chosen this place to read his stolen text; the words would not have sounded the same in the colorless void of a bachelor Cleric's apartment.
He tugged off a black leather glove-- still practical in a post-Prozium world, as nerve endings accustomed to dullness were overloaded by the slightest touch-- and traced his palm over a darkened patch of wood on the seat. Splinters pricked his skin and a thin film of dampness clung to his fingertips, water absorbed from a recent rainfall lending to the illusion that the stain was fresh. Guilt stabbed at him suddenly; he pulled his hand back with a stifled gasp, still unused to the way his pulse leapt and his throat tightened in the grip of strong emotion.
Movement in the doorway from which he'd come abruptly caught his attention. Preston looked up, eyeing the uniform-clad man silhouetted against the street beyond, and waved a dismissive hand. Jurgen had insisted he bring a guard with him with him on this visit; the transition from Father's Libria to a new, freer society had not been an easy one thus far, and there were many who exercised their newly liberated emotions by hating him as the symbol of everything newly painful in their lives. Still, there was nothing to protect Preston from in this echoing space but his own ghosts, and he was fully capable of dealing with those himself.
He straightened and pulled a thin book from his pocket, a treasure gleaned from Mary's belongings. Much of her hoard of EC-10 material had remained in the evidence rooms after her incineration, and he'd gone through it carefully in recent days, spurred by some nameless, indefinable urge. It wasn't until he'd discovered a volume of collected poetry amidst the clutter that he'd had any idea what he'd been looking for.
When had Partridge ceased his interval? Days before Preston had caught him? Weeks? Months, or even years, as it had been with Robbie and Lisa? For all Preston's vaunted intuition, he hadn't been able to bring himself to notice his wife's sense crimes until she'd made them impossible to ignore. For all his dutiful care in watching over his children, he hadn't known they'd been skipping their doses until Robbie helped him hide the evidence of his own missed intervals. And for all the time he'd spent at Partridge's side, it had taken the nudging of Father's Voice, reminding and chastising Preston regarding his failures with Viviana, for him to consciously admit anything had changed in his partner's behavior.
He cracked open the volume of poetry, swallowing past the unfamiliar lump in his throat, and read softly, feeling the weight of the words on his tongue.
"Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths, enwrought with golden and silver light, the blue and the dim and the dark cloths of night and light and the half light--"
Another boot crunched behind him, and Preston spun toward the source of the sound as a second voice began reciting in hushed, lightly accented tones.
"I would spread the cloths under your feet..."
"But I, being poor, have only my dreams," Preston continued, staring. The world seemed to dim around him; the texture of paper under his fingers grew distant and his pulse picked up again, riding a crest of turbulent emotion. He groped for the pew with his free, gloved hand, catching himself against its back, then eased himself numbly to the seat. He'd been half expecting this encounter, but all the reason in the world was insufficient to prepare him for how it would make him *feel*.
"I have spread my dreams under your feet," his companion offered, smiling faintly, and stepped closer. Light from the broken windows limned the apparition's hair like a halo-- hair several shades lighter than Preston's own.
"Tread softly because you tread on my dreams," Preston finished the poem, then took a deep breath, deliberately calming himself as he faced his visitor with a small, wry smile. "Or out of them."
Partridge smiled wryly in return. "I see I made an impression," he said. "As I was meant to, of course."
"I had wondered," Preston allowed, scanning the familiar profile for any sign of changes. He'd fired squarely at Partridge through the book the man had wielded like a shield, hoping at least to give the other man a swift, painless end, but he'd obviously been discounting the fact that Partridge knew the gun-katas as well as he did. Or-- unconsciously ignoring that, as he had so much else?
Preston swallowed at the thought and continued. "After Dupont told me why he'd assigned Brandt as my new partner and sent me after the Resistance in the first place, the whole setup seemed a little..."
"Convenient," Partridge acknowledged with a nod.
The former Cleric had approached near enough to reach with a cautious hand; Preston held himself back by the strength of his will, not yet ready to test whether the man were real. Many Librians had gone mad when their supply of Prozium ran out, reacting badly to its absence in their systems; it was always possible that Preston had belatedly succumbed to such after-effects. The tan-bound volume of Yeats, and the expression in Partridge's blue eyes as they had disappeared behind its shelter, had haunted his sleep more than once in recent days.
"Yes," he replied, dryly. "Especially considering that his vague hints about my lapse with Viviana were the reason I hunted you down in the first place."
Partridge nodded and moved closer yet, sliding into the pew next to the one Preston occupied. Then he placed a hand on the back of Preston's pew to brace his weight, an action Preston would never have thought twice about a month ago.
Somehow, it seemed much more significant now. Mere inches separated Preston's gloved fingers from Partridge's bare ones, reminding him incongruously of Mary's delicate fingertips sliding across the mirrored surface of an interrogation table. Dangerous, and no less tempting now than it had been then. He breathed deeply, aware of the flush creeping under his skin.
"He told you he'd tried to infiltrate the Resistance," Partridge continued, as calmly as though he were still on the dose. Only his eyes hinted otherwise, clouded with apprehensive emotion.
"He did," Preston confirmed, nodding briefly. "You?" he asked, the shape of the truth forming in his mind even as he spoke the words. "I know you met with Jurgen and gained access to the Underground--"
"But he was wary," Partridge replied. "As well he should have been. I was allowed to move amongst the Resistance due to my relationship with Mary, but they had more eyes in the Tetragrammaton than I knew, and were aware of my orders. They fed me the locations of a few smaller safehouses, and little else, all the while asking things of me in return. Thus I could not perform the task required of me, to expose the entire leadership of the Resistance to a crushing blow from Father, and the longer I refrained from my interval the less Dupont trusted me."
"So Dupont changed tactics and used you as bait," Preston said heavily. Partridge's actions could not be called betrayal, for the word would have meant nothing to the emotionless being Preston had been at the time, but that did not lessen the sting of it now.
"As a trigger," Partridge nodded. He shifted a little on the wooden pew, and his hand crept closer to Preston's; Preston could feel the warmth of his fingers through the thin leather.
The contact was oddly reassuring. "When Robbie reported I'd dropped my dose the next morning--" he continued, frowning.
"--It was everything Dupont had hoped for. It was a simple matter to close the nearest clinic, and let nature take its course. Your every movement from that moment on was closely monitored, both by Father and by the Resistance moles in the Tetragrammaton. And you followed the script Father had laid down exactly-- until the last possible moment."
Partridge's tone changed markedly on the last sentence and a smile crept across his face at last. Preston watched his partner's lips curve with a dim sense of wonder; was that admiration he'd just heard in Partridge's voice? Preston couldn't tell; a lifetime of Prozium had left him without the vocabulary for so many simple things.
He caught his breath and gave a neutral response, designed to cut either way. "Had it been you instead of Brandt, at the end..." he suggested, shrugging.
Partridge shook his head. Ungelled now, his hair moved freely around his face, making him look younger, begging the touch of sense-starved fingers. "No. I may have had the teaching of you, but you surpassed me long ago. And what is the life of one more Cleric against true freedom?"
*Freedom*. It hadn't all been false, then, Preston thought, letting the book of poetry slip to the floor. Deliberately, he raised his ungloved hand, crossing it over Partridge's where it rested on the back of the pew, and grasped it tightly, bare skin against bare skin.
"I saw you go into the flames," he said roughly. "My first night off Prozium, the day after I thought I killed you, I dreamed it. And I heard Mary's voice: 'Without love, breath is just a clock, ticking.' I couldn't bring myself to take a dose again, after that."
The smile slid off Partridge's face; his hand turned in Preston's grasp, releasing the pew to grip flesh with strength equal to Preston's own. "Dupont intended me to die that day, but I wasn't ready, and Jurgen took full advantage of the opportunity. The soldier who brought my body in and the morgue attendant who prepared me for your visit were both Jurgen's men."
Preston's jaw worked as fresh emotion boiled unexpectedly through him, taking a more familiar form: anger. That, at least, he knew how to channel. "Bastard," he growled, pulling back.
"Tell me you would have made it through otherwise," Partridge said firmly, refusing to let go. "Tell me you would have awakened to the truth, found the Underground, and killed Father without a personal tragedy to drive you."
The light in the church had shifted toward sunset, casting shadows on Partridge's face; if not for the glitter of his intent gaze and the iron grip of his hand, Preston might have thought himself back in the morgue again, grieving over his partner's apparent corpse.
"A tragedy," Preston spat. "If they could get you in and out, why not Mary?" he asked, harshly. "What was she, a sacrifice to ensure I wouldn't turn back to Father?"
Partridge flinched, but refused to look away. "I was already dead as far as the Tetragrammaton was concerned. Mary wasn't; there was no way we could have got her out without notice. As for a sacrifice--" He grimaced. "We'd expected you to find the photograph and seek her out, but not that way. Her location wasn't among those I leaked to the Council; her capture was not intentional."
"But fortuitous, all the same," Preston accused him, grimly, tugging his hand back once more.
Partridge flinched again, and his eyes flashed, but he still maintained his grip. "What do you want me to say?" he cried, raising his voice. "That I'm sorry? That I grieve for her? I am sorry, Preston." He swallowed. "John. And I do grieve-- for both of you. Please. I didn't come here to argue."
The rage guttered out at the sound of his first name, and Preston shuddered, exhausted by the volume of emotion he'd just expended. A heavy cost indeed, he thought wearily. "Then what did you come here for?" he asked, dropping his gaze to their joined hands. "Did you expect me to rejoice that everything I did was just a setup? That both sides were playing me from the beginning?" He laughed harshly. "My own children still think of me first as a Cleric, sense offender or not, instead of their father. Is that all I am to everyone? A weapon?"
"Not to me," Partridge replied, thickly.
"Then *what*?" Preston exclaimed, glancing up again in frustration-- only to pause, frozen at the sight of Partridge's expression.
At *Errol's* expression, the likes of which Preston had only seen once before: on his wife's face, moments before she'd kissed him for the first and last time, mingling regret, grief, and... more.
He shut his eyes tight, replaying that bit of memory in his thoughts one more time. *Viviana*, he thought painfully, realizing in a burst of clarity what he hadn't understood then. All the more to grieve over, later, when the press of events left him time. But now--
"I remember," he whispered, decision made, then opened his eyes again and drew a deep breath.
Something in his expression must have given his thoughts away, for the regret in Errol's eyes suddenly lightened toward hope. "You're my partner, of course," Errol answered, softly.
Preston smiled tentatively and met him halfway.
The setting sun painted the floor around them in a kaleidoscope of warmth.