Are we playing tourist for a while?
“Contemplating,” he said. “Jay has unknowingly given me license to do something I probably should not, and I’m trying to decide if I should do it, or just go home and leave well enough alone.”
What are we doing? Maybe I can help.
“We are doing,” he said, glancing at the transporter bracelet on his wrist, “exactly what I’ve discouraged the kids from doing. Forbidden them, even.”
Big kids or little kids?
Sweet. We’re going on a snooping expedition.
“Something like that,” he chuckled. There was a specific week tickling the recesses of his brain; he knew it had occurred before he left Aisha a blubbering mess on Union Square, but after he had decided that his birthday wish would be for a single kiss. I waited on his shoulder, straining forward to see what he tapped onto the bracelet’s screen. I didn’t fully understand how the transporter worked, but I recognized the month and year we were heading for. He would be nineteen, on the cusp of turning twenty, looking forward to while also dreading the birthday party Aubrey insisted on.
It was a party that popped before the first balloon had been inflated, and he wouldn’t have another until he turned forty-three.
Why are we—
We jumped from Market Street to half a block from the parklet where he spent long afternoons with Aisha, Jax, and Aubrey.
—going there? Well, here now. What’s here?
“Hell week.” He looked toward the parklet and then checked his watch. “We should be there right now. Sit on my left shoulder, Wick. We’re just going to walk past.”
I crawled over his head, moving to his left shoulder.
If you walk that direction, they’ll see me here.
“To the others, I’ll simply be a man walking around with his cat on his shoulder. They might think you resemble Wick, but I don’t think we’ll garner more than cursory consideration.”
What about the Emperor? He’ll pay attention.
“I’m counting on it.”
They were at the picnic table. Aubrey and Jax sat opposite each other, their noses buried in study notes but little fingers tapping against each other; Will had a tablet in front of him and seemed to be asking Aisha questions, but he caught sight of us as we passed the first of Jax’s guards, and until I could no longer see him, he continued to watch.
Okay. What was that for?
“I just want him to know we’re around.”
You’re stalking yourself. That’s kind of creepy.
“We simply passed by. That isn’t stalking.”
Are we done?
Then you’re stalking him.
= = =
We jumped six times, to places he thought he had been that week, and found the young Emperor five times. There was no need for Will to remember exactly where he’d been on any given day; he knew that he’d started most mornings at the coffee shop where Aubrey worked and that he crossed the plaza at six o’clock. He ran the Embarcadero after that, while Jax and Aubrey headed to school, and he spent a considerable amount of time in the city library. His days at the shelter were typically on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, making him easy to find; he left at roughly 1 p.m. to grab lunch and then meet everyone else at the parklet.
The young Emperor was a creature of habit, and from six in the morning until six in the evening, he stuck to his routine.
When did you change that? You’re not as rigid with your days anymore.
“When it occurred to me that following the same patterns day after day made me vulnerable. Once I became someone other than a young man that the prince spent time with and my name was known, I understood that it was in my best interest, and Jax’s, to vary my routine.”
Like your name was known then.
“You know what I mean.”
They made fun of you on the news, you know. Or maybe it was making fun of Finn and Jo. What kind of parents name their son ‘Emperor?’
“I am aware.”
Will never approached the young Emperor but made sure he’d noted our presence before wandering out of sight to jump again. On the last jump, he plucked me off his shoulder and held me to his chest, and said, “You don’t need to be quiet anymore. Once we land, tell him hello. Loudly.”
I blinked, and we were in the middle of his teenage apartment. The Emperor lounged in the oversized bean bag, staring at a video monitor, a game controller in hand. On the screen, a soldier exploded in a mass of computer-generated blood and guts that was a bit too realistic and fit the odor hanging in the air a bit too well.
Dude. It stinks in here. When was the last time you bathed?
He paused his game, not at all surprised that Will had magically appeared in his living room.
“That was not hello,” Will admonished.
The Emperor set the controller aside but didn’t get up. “I wondered if you planned on speaking with me. Do I get to know how you got here?”
“All right.” He rolled off the bean bag and stood, gesturing to the tiny table shoved against the far wall of the makeshift kitchen. “At least it wasn’t one of the royal offspring following me around this time. Nosy little shits. Beer?”
“Scotch.” Will gestured to the refrigerator. “And not the swill you give to Jax. The bottle just inside the freezer, behind the container of meatloaf Donna pressed you to accept. And yes, they are nosy, but they mean well.”
He took the bottle out of the freezer. “Still taking it on ice? Or will I outgrow that?” “Depends on the scotch.” Will looked at the bottle and said, “Straight up is fine. And sip at it, don’t guzzle. This deserves to be savored.”
How did you even get it? You’re not legal.
“No one asks for my ID,” the Emperor said. “It’s a perk.”
“Also, he brought this from home,” Will said. “And there are, what, nine more bottles hidden behind the towels in the linen cabinet?”
“You remember how many?” He set a glass in front of Will, along with the bottle.
“Indeed. And you know why.”
The Emperor nodded. “Savor everything you can when you have an expiration date. I keep repeating things to myself, hoping they’ll stick in my memory. I’m not sure why, though. It’s not like I’ll have much use for the little things in twenty-two years.”
Little things add up to big things.
He reached across the table to rub between my ears. “Says the biggest little thing there is.”
“He remembers your youth now,” Will said. “He’s gradually regaining things lost to the years he rarely saw you.”
That made the Emperor smile.
Should we tell him stuff like that?
“That seems like a safe thing to share,” the Emperor said. “I know my future. Why are you here? I wasn’t surprised to see you around the city but was far less certain we’d meet. Certainly not in my apartment.”
Which still smells.
He sniffed. “I don’t smell anything.”
“It smells,” Will said. “Open the windows every now and then.”
“You sound like Aubrey.” He got up again and opened the refrigerator, and after a minute of digging brought a fruit platter and cheese to the table. “Soft cheddar,” he said to me as he shredded pieces from the block. “The Queen doesn’t like it when we give you this, but we won’t tell her.”
Aubrey gives me cheese.
“She’s not Queen yet. I meant Donna. She worries about your dental health because this sticks to your teeth and you won’t let her brush them.”
“He still won’t,” Will said. “But it’s fine. I’ll give him a dental chew later.”
“I miss caring for you,” the Emperor said as I ate. “You’ve been a good friend to Jax, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I would prefer you lived with me.”
“Be careful what you wish,” Will said with a chuckle.
“I wish many things. But you know that.” He gave me more cheese, which I knew I shouldn’t eat but did anyway because I’m polite. “Right now, that wish is to know why you’re here in the middle of the night.”
“You have the good scotch.”
“I have decidedly mediocre scotch, which passes for good when you’re sharing it with a twenty-year-old prince. Though I stole a bottle of Dad’s better stock. He hides his good stuff. Hid.”
“There really isn’t anything keeping you from visiting your parents. Only a timeline written about in the Old Mint, one to which Finn had an unreasonable attachment.”
The Emperor shrugged. “Staying here is what I was told to do. I’ll wait for him and fix his ship when he gets here, then send him on his merry way. Over and over and over, until time stops repeating itself. Why are you here, old me?”
I’d like to know, too.
“You’ve not slept this week,” Will said. “I can help.”
“You remember not sleeping this particular week.”
Will nodded. “Like you said, savor everything. That includes the pain.”
“I have the feeling there will be a lot of that. Am I ever getting this under control?”
You can’t tell him that.
“I can tell him, Wick. And no, I’m sorry. You’re going to have issues with sleep for the rest of your life.”
“There will be long periods where you’ll sleep well enough,” Will went on. “But that won’t be for many years. But this time, because it’s been horrific, I can help.”
“I’m certain I’ve tried it all. Even a drunken stupor doesn’t help.”
“This requires no pharmaceuticals. Send Jax a message and ask him to pass the word along that you think you’ll be able to sleep for a good ten hours and ask that no one disturb you. Then get ready for bed.”
“Get ready for bed,” the Emperor repeated. “And then you’ll what, tuck me in?”
The young Emperor chuckled. After he fished his phone from his pocket, he slid it across the table. “I’ll go brush my teeth like a good boy, if you’ll text him.”
“Shower,” Will said as he tapped at the phone’s screen. “Wick’s not wrong about the odors in here and I suspect the source might be human.”
“Eh.” The Emperor grunted. “Suck my balls, old man.”
Will didn’t look up. “I’m not that bendy.”
While we waited for the Emperor to remove a small fraction of the smell in the apartment—most of the odor was owed to never-opened windows, the startling pile of sweat-encrusted socks in a laundry basket near the door, and lingering cooking aroma drifting from the family downstairs—Will did something he never did while waiting in someone else’s home.
He examined books piled upon an unlevel shelf the Emperor had nailed to the wall between two windows, he glanced at papers scattered on a cheap plastic end table next to the bean bag chair, and then he picked up the game controller and un-paused the game the Emperor had been playing.
In five minutes, he racked up thousands of points, making sure he saved his position when the sound of the shower cut off.
Is that even fair? It was his game.
“He keeps getting stuck there. I just got him over the hump.”
He’ll be mad when he realizes.
“And he’ll get over it.”
You looked at his personal stuff, too.
“It’s my personal stuff, too, Wick. There’s nothing here that I’m unaware of. He wouldn’t consider it an invasion.”
Well, it is.
“One cannot invade their own privacy.”
Right now, you’re different people. It doesn’t matter if he’s you when you’re not here. You are. If he ate a hot dog, you wouldn’t feel full. You’re not the same.
“Point taken. But I am certain he would not consider it an invasion of his privacy.”
He came out of the bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist. “Whose privacy are you invading?”
“Yours, according to Wick.”
He snooped. He looked at your books and some papers over there.
“He’s already seen all of this,” the Emperor said. “Besides, I keep the hard-core porn well hidden.”
“You have no porn.” Will gestured to the bedroom. “Go to bed.”
He turned around and went back into the bedroom, tossing the towel aside. “Fine. I’ll go to bed. Just what is it you have in mind?” He slipped under the sheet. “You’re me. So what would this be? Masturbation? Incest? Simply weird and uncomfortable?”
“I don’t recall being quite so crass,” Will said.
You were a demented hornball, just like Jax. The only difference is that you used bigger words and had no clue about sex.
“Still no clue, I presume,” the Emperor said. “You’ve got to be close to the end.”
“How’s that feel? Worse than it does for me now? I should be looking forward to my birthday this year, but truthfully, it’s just another milestone to be ticked off on my march toward forty-two. I can’t imagine how it will be in twenty years.”
“The closer you get to forty, the more accepting you’ll be. The years in between will be wonderful, Emperor. I can promise you that.”
“William,” he said softly. “Please. I haven’t heard my own name since I left home.”
Will nodded and sat on the edge of the bed. “William. As difficult as it is not to, focusing on your forty-second year won’t help. Don’t miss all the days in between because of a date that might never come.”
He knew history; he was acutely aware of his own. This was more than information stored in the Old Mint. His life had been written about in dozens of books, and his legacy was worthy of a place in history texts and was taught to young children. He’d known the Emperor’s life in startling detail before he had any notion that he was the Emperor.
There was no escaping that ending.
“Everything you’re doing here,” Will reminded him. “This is all to change the one thing that not only ended your life, but the world. History might not be on your side, but that doesn’t mean your future won’t change.”
Time is spaghetti.
“You’ve seen the data in the Old Mint. You know how many time loops there are in which Dad has tried and failed.”
“It will only take one success.”
No sauce, though. Old Hyrum told us that much.
“The odds are against it. He can try in a million loops of time, but if the end is what’s meant to be—”
“You don’t believe in Kismet.”
“I believe in the data. Look, I know my role. Stay here, fix the damned ship when Dad gets here and has no clue who he is. I’ll spend twenty-five years waiting, just to repair some burned out plasma batteries. A five-year-old could do it.”
“And yet, he trusted you with it.”
“Only because I wanted to leave home,” the Emperor said, nearly pouting. “He could have asked Mom to just show up with her ship bearing extra batteries, and then take him home.”
He wouldn’t recognize her. His brain was Swiss cheese. Which probably isn’t very tasty on top of spaghetti.
“There was more to his reasoning than simply repairing the ship. You’re cultivating a relationship with the future King and Queen, people upon whom Finn will rely. He understood that by allowing you to leave, he was gifting you with family. Something you didn’t have as a child.”
“I have cousins—”
“You were brutally alone, and you know it. Your parents understood that sending you here meant two decades of love and companionship, and the end of your isolation. No matter how it feels, know that they didn’t let you leave to get rid of you. Letting you go was the most difficult thing they ever did, and they miss you horribly.”
“We’ll never really know that, though, will we? Because once they show up here, together, the clock starts ticking. There won’t be enough time to wade through the reasons I wanted to leave home.”
“There will be. I can promise you that much, William.”
“Don’t promise—” He twitched forward. “Is that a wedding ring?”
I crawled onto his legs. People wear rings, dude.
“But I don’t,” he murmured. “I don’t care for how they feel.”
Will held his hand up for the Emperor to get a better look. “All it takes is a single success.”
“How old are you?” He stopped staring at the ring and looked into Will’s eyes. “Please. The truth.”
“Six years and a few months past my expiration date. I was happy before, William. Truly happy. In the years to come, your relationship with Jax and Aubrey will only become stronger, and you’ll be a significant presence in the lives of their children.”
“Australia and Zealand,” the Emperor said.
“Oz and Zed.”
He’ll be significant until they hit twelve or thirteen.
“What happens then?”
“Puberty,” Will chuckled. “A necessary evil. But between their births and then, you’ll be able to touch them. The hugs and kisses alone will be worth it.”
“Wait. You’re married. How?” His eyes went wide. “You’ve had sex!”
That made Will laugh.
He focused, but not on what I thought he should.
“Come on. What’s it feel like? I mean, not the climax, but…it. I mean—”
Use your big boy words, William.
Will knew what he was fishing for. “Rub your finger along the inside of your cheek. Not exact, but similar.”
The Emperor stuck his finger into his mouth.
Great. We traveled how far to teach him what a woman almost feels like?
“He’s twenty, Wick. I recall being insanely curious. I also recall being willing to settle for a kiss. Just one.”
“A quick one.” The Emperor spoke around his index finger before realizing how it looked. “Short enough I won’t hear her thoughts, nor she mine.”
“Is Aisha the one? Your wife?”
He nodded again.
I wanted to know why he was telling his younger self anything, but I stayed quiet. He answered every question the Emperor asked of him—how many kids, when were they born, why did he wait so long to have them? Will sat there patiently and answered every question, only pausing when the Emperor asked him why he hadn’t married Aisha when he was younger.
Will showed him a picture on his phone. “This is Jay. And trust me when I say that you don’t want to do anything that will prevent him from being born.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I didn’t learn to control what happens when I touch someone until after Finn succeeded. Being with her wasn’t possible until then.”
“So she left you,” he guessed. “But she came back?”
“She left because I broke her heart. And so will you.”
“She deserves a life with someone who can do more than love her. She shouldn’t have to wait over twenty years to get that.”
“I know, but I can’t just break her heart.”
“William, you have to. If you don’t, she won’t leave San Francisco. She won’t meet James, and then won’t have Jay. I wouldn’t trade him for those years, I swear.” He took the phone back and looked at the picture. “Truthfully, neither of us were ready for a commitment so intense, even if we were meant to be together. I needed the distance to mature. She needed the distance to find the things she needed most.”
She needed to be a mom, dude. Before she hit her forties.
“She loves you,” Will said. “That will never change. But yes, you will need to break her heart in order to have this life when it’s time.”
There were tears in the Emperor’s eyes. “When?”
“Do I get that kiss?”
Bigger picture, William. You get the girl later, when it matters most.
“So, no, I don’t.”
“Listen to Wick,” Will said. “Bigger picture. The moment will come when it’s time.”
“The wait was worth it?”
“More than I can adequately express.”
You’re gonna fall off a few times, but you’ll get the hang of it.
“Wick,” Will sighed.
The Emperor picked me up and held me close to his face. “I’m glad you get your snark back. You haven’t been nearly as sarcastic as you were when you lived with me. I miss you.”
You’ll get me back. Most of the time, at three in the morning.
“I did say to be careful what you wish for,” Will said. “Lie back. The point was to help you get to sleep.”
He did as Will said. “Wait. Why did you tell me all this? Dad would explode if he knew.”
“Then don’t tell him,” Will whispered. He touched the Emperor’s forehead, and he was instantly asleep.
I sat on his chest, riding up and down with every breath he took.
Is this why we came? To give him hope?
“I came to help him sleep,” Will said. “However, I do have another agenda.”
We waited quietly, until Will was sure the Emperor was as deeply asleep as possible. He moved me to his own lap, and then set his hand on the Emperor’s forehead, closing his eyes as he went to work. I waited for an hour, as he sifted and probed for the things he needed and didn’t speak until we left the bedroom.
You took his memory of tonight, didn’t you?
“There will be a vague feeling of a dream, and the suggestion of possibilities. I left him with hope, Wick. Something he desperately needed.”
“What else might there be?”
You sat there for a long time. I’ve seen you play with memories. It doesn’t take that long.
“I left him with a few suggestions. Ideas that, over time, will percolate from the recesses of his mind.”
In a few years, the Emperor would gift a tablet filled with novels to Prince Andrew, on his eighth birthday. He would continue to curate Drew’s love of science fiction and would quietly—while continuing to foster a shadow of fear in the boy—cultivate Drew’s thirst for science and finding new things to do with existing technology.
In two decades, the Emperor would find himself at odds with the broken pieces of his father’s egg-shaped time machine, unable to repair the batteries he had learned to work with when he was a child. In the midst of his frustration, he would look to my backup transponder as a way to send Finn home. He would build the gate that Finn would then use to thwart the meteor headed for Earth.
The most important ghost that would linger in the Emperor’s mind was the notion that he should be the one to step through the portal when the time came; it wasn’t fair to expect a cat to give up his life simply to see if the world had ended. If it had, his own life was over. It made more sense to go himself, and risk stepping out on the other side into nothing.
You created an insurance policy.
“Something like that.”
Those aren’t free. There are premiums for that.
“And he’ll pay them with pieces of his heart, Wick. It will be worth it. I promised him.”
I don’t suppose you planted the suggestion that he clean up around here and get rid of the funk.
His mouth twitched, the corners tugging upward.
You did, didn’t you?
He answered with a tap on the jump bracelet, and we landed at home, just outside the open apartment door. There was fresh air, and sudden, jarring noise.
Rhys was yelling at Charlie to put his pants back on.
Charlie was yelling that he didn’t have to.
Alex was yelling just to yell.
Just beyond the noise of a little boy about to turn four and the rantings of toddlers asserting themselves, I heard Aisha and Aubrey laugh, and then felt Will sigh.
He didn’t lie to himself.
It was totally worth it.