Save yourself, serve yourself.
World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed.
Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right - right.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light--
It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)--REM
July 4, 1996
The thing about David is that he’s an easy person to like. Surprisingly so, actually, given what a self-righteous prick he can be, but that, Tom thinks as he watches Julius Levinson reach for his son with both hands, dragging David down so he can kiss him soundly on the cheek, probably has at least something to do with his aggravating habit of actually being right all the time.
“Don’t do anything like that ever again, do you understand me?” Julius asks, giving him a little shake, and it’s comical, actually, like watching a terrier square up with a Great Dane, the way David folds his long frame down and lets his father berate him. He’s smiling, still, affectionate and a little bit loopy, and Tom thinks he’s still riding the same adrenaline high they all are, that he’s still so damn glad to be alive that he hasn’t crashed back down to reality yet. Tom can feel the beginning of the crash himself, his hands starting to shake, a headache settling into the bones of his skull. “Why you couldn’t just become a doctor like your mother wanted I’ll never know. Flying spaceships. Spaceships! My son!”
“Come on, Dad,” David says, and wraps him into a hug. “I’m fine. Everybody’s fine.”
‘Everybody’ is a long way from fine, Tom knows. They haven’t even got close to an accurate casualty count, but every major city in the United States was leveled, and even figuring that there were probably survivors, like in LA--
LA. God. Marilyn. Somehow, he actually managed to forget for five minutes. He turns away, pressing his hand to his mouth, and there’s Connie standing in the doorway, watching him.
Her face is full of sympathy, but she doesn’t say anything, and he’s so damn grateful for that that he can’t speak. They just stand there staring at each other, and it’s an odd, frozen moment before she says quietly, “Patricia was asking for you.”
The thought is enough for him to pull himself together, for him to slip out the door as she enters the room. Julius says, “Constance! Come here, come here, let me look at you,” and draws her into the hug.
She goes willingly, accepts a kiss on the cheek with good grace. David loops an arm around her shoulders, and it’s easy, casual and intimate, and Tom--Tom really needs to get the hell out of here before he breaks down crying.
He spins on his heel and starts down the hallway, but not before he see’s David’s head lift, his dark eyes find Tom’s face. He’s not smiling anymore, and Tom swears he can feel the weight of his gaze with every step he takes.
Everything is very busy for a while after that. Area 51 ends up being the de facto capital of the United States on the basis that pretty much every surviving member of the chain of command is there already and Washington D.C. no longer exists. It’s less than ideal in terms of comfort, but it’s secure, and that counts for a lot these days. Tom sleeps less than he has since the first three colicky months of Patricia’s life, less than he did in Kuwait; everything is constantly on the verge of some disaster, and with the functional government down to maybe a couple dozen people, there’s no insulating wall of assistants and aides to take the burden.
In many ways, that’s a blessing as much as a curse. It leaves him too tired to think.
December 19, 1996
“Tom,” Connie says, sliding into the booth next to him sometime past three in the morning. “You need to eat something.”
Tom blinks at her, dazed; under the fluorescent lights, she seems like a mirage, outlined in an angelic haze. Or maybe it’s just that his eyes are too tired to focus properly. “What?”
“Food,” Connie repeats. She slides a cup of something in front of him. Soup, he realizes. Chicken noodle. “Eat it. And then go to sleep.”
“I thought you were my press secretary, not my nanny.”
“I am,” she says, sounding exasperated. “Which is why I would appreciate it if you’d try to keep yourself alive without me nagging you. You need to eat. And sleep for at least four hours in a row. Killing yourself from exhaustion isn’t going to help anyone.”
“She’s right, you know,” says another voice, and that’s when Tom realizes that David is there too, standing a few paces back and watching them with an unreadable expression. It’s a far cry from the warm, frustrated concern on Connie’s face, but he’s still there.
“You’re not exactly one to talk,” Tom says, because he has--more than once--come across David sleeping face-down in a pile of disassembled alien electronics on the conference room couch, but he pulls the soup toward him anyway. Now that he’s paying attention, he realizes that he’s ravenous.
David’s mouth curves into a lopsided smile that if he were anyone else Tom would almost call affectionate. He offers Connie a hand up as she slides out of the booth. “Get some sleep, Tom.”
It’s the first time, he realizes after they’re both gone, that he’s ever heard David call him by his first name.
It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever met either of them that most of the issues between them are on David’s end. Tom wasn’t aware that they were enemies--was, in fact, barely aware of David’s existence--until the latter stormed into his office and knocked him on his ass.
He knew Connie was married--of course he did. And it didn’t matter anyway, since he was married too, and even his most fervent detractors generally admit that he’s not the kind of guy who would cheat on his wife.
But Marilyn wasn’t really the jealous type; she never had any problem with him looking or even flirting, as long as he kept his hands to himself, and Connie was--is--a beautiful woman. Spend enough time cloistered in campaign offices with a beautiful woman, and people start talking. Of course it got back to their spouses. Marilyn thought it was pretty funny.
So, yeah. The first time he met David was when he turned around at a knock on his door to see a lanky, good-looking man watching him with a peculiar kind of intensity. Tom remembers stepping forward, hand outstretched, a smiling introduction on his lips, and the next thing he remembers is David’s fist crashing into his face.
He won the fight, which was half the reason he didn’t press charges. The other half was Connie--she didn’t deserve that. She divorced David a few months later, and Tom won the election by a landslide, and for a long time, his only real impression of David Levinson was the memory of that punch. The man has a mean right hook, he’ll grant that much.
But now Marilyn is dead, and everything has changed. And the more Tom works with him, the more he listens to his rambling scientific explanations and watches him watch Connie with that softness in his eyes, the harder it is to forget that first moment when he saw David standing framed in the light coming through his doorway and thought, beautiful.
May 3, 1997
There’s a growing tent city of science labs set up around the downed alien craft, and from a distance it resembles nothing quite so much as a colony of ants surrounding some large dead creature, tidily gnawing it down to its bones. David is at least nominally in charge of the process, although in actual practice Tom is pretty sure he leaves the management to Connie. David is good at telling people what to do, but making sure they actually do it is Connie’s gift. She’s stretched way too thin, and Tom would worry about her if it weren’t for the fact that they’re all stretched too thin these days, and there’s really nothing to be done about it.
David is the one to meet Tom on the landing strip when his plane touches down, though. He’s been in Belarus for the past three weeks and it’s indicative of--something, probably, that it’s not until he sees David’s long, flannel-clad form outlined in the floodlights that he feels like he’s really home.
“So, I know you’re probably incredibly tired, but I have something to show you,” is how David greets him. He has a few days of stubble on his face, and his hair needs a trim; it’s falling into his eyes and curling at the base of his neck. It doesn’t look nearly as stupid as it should; scruffy is a look that suits David. And given that Tom has been wearing the same sleep-rumbled chinos for the past 36 hours, it’s not like he’s one to talk.
Tom rubs a hand over his eyes. “It can’t wait until morning?”
“Well, it can,” David says, which means that no, it really can’t but probably nothing is actually about to blow up.
“On a scale of one to another invasion, how important is it?”
David shrugs. “Maybe a four? It’s interesting, mostly. Not urgent.” He squints at Tom’s face, grimaces at whatever he sees there. “I forgot about the time zones, I’m sorry. You should go get some sleep.”
“No, it’s fine,” Tom says, and yawns.
David laughs at that, bright and amused, and Tom stomps down on a sudden urge to step into his space, pull him down, and kiss the smile off of his face. It’s not the first time he’s had that impulse in the past few months. He’s getting very practiced at ignoring it.
“--sleep deprivation,” David is saying, and Tom shakes his head.
“You know, you can actually die from sleep deprivation,” David repeats. His smile crinkles the corners of his eyes; it’s unfairly attractive.
“Patricia had colic for the first three months,” Tom says. “This is actually not even close to the tiredest I’ve ever been.”
“That, and you were in a war zone. And in the middle of an alien invasion.”
“That, too,” Tom says, smiling. “I’m fine. Seriously.”
“Well, Connie and I have pretty much moved into the labs, so we can probably find you a place to sleep,” David says, and it’s definitely Tom’s imagination that makes that sound suggestive. David and Connie are--if not quite married, definitely reconciled. “If you want.”
Tom considers for a moment. Patricia is definitely in bed by now, and he’s had about a gallon of coffee in the past few hours; as tired as he is, he’s not sleeping anytime soon.
That, and he’s missed David. And Connie. He can admit that much, at least in the privacy of his own mind. “Sure,” he says out loud. “Just let me grab my bags.”
The downed ship is about three quarters of a mile from the bunker; too short a distance to bother with a car--at least by David’s standards--but still a hike, especially in the late spring heat that lingers well into the night. David has his bike, but he’s just pushing it along; the larger of Tom’s two bags is slung over his shoulder. It’s quiet, this far out, and the black sky above is scattered with stars. Tom has almost forgotten what light pollution looks like, and that’s a bittersweet feeling.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” David asks, and Tom glances over to see him looking up as well. His voice is soft and reverent. “It seems like it should look different, now that we know what’s out there, but it’s just--beautiful.”
“Beautiful,” Tom agrees, and he isn’t really talking about the sky. They're approaching the tents, though, and whatever wild confession he was half-considering stays behind his teeth. Which is as it should be, he reminds himself. The way he sometimes can't look away from the quick grace of David's long fingers is the same way he's always had the urge to run his fingers through Connie's thick hair and see if it's as soft as it looks--that is to say, an idle fantasy brought on by loneliness, and not something that's worth risking a friendship for, especially given that--all other considerations aside--he has no reason to believe that David even swings that way.
It's all hustle and bustle here, especially after the calm dark of the road. Industrial lights are strung up between tents to light the makeshift pathways, a tangle of extension cords underfoot; it’s actually something of a wonder, Tom thinks, that they haven’t managed to burn the whole place down yet.
Connie is sitting outside an old green Army tent, frowning down at a clipboard. She looks up as they approach, and a smile breaks across her face; she stands up as Tom sets his bag down, wraps her arms around him. “Tom, it’s so good to see you, you have no idea.”
“It’s good to be home,” Tom says, and means it. He presses his cheek to the top of her head, breathes in the smell of her sun-warmed hair and closes his eyes. It’s strange, the way things change. The way circumstances change people. He’s known Connie for ten years, and before the invasion, he can only remember hugging her once, on the night he won the election--and yet, the warm, sturdy shape of her feels natural in his arms. Feels like coming home.
He opens his eyes to see David watching him. The expression on his face isn’t hostile, but Tom steps away anyway. He feels unmoored, suddenly, unsure of himself, and he’s absurdly grateful when Connie smiles up at him and says, “Come on into our lair, I know David’s dying to talk your ear off about his latest discovery. He won’t give me a break.”
“That’s--that is just a completely inaccurate and unfair accusation,” David complains, but he’s smiling too as he lifts the tent flap for them.
Inside is somewhat dimmer, most of the light coming from standing lanterns on the two long tables. There are several alien devices in varying states of dismemberment scattered across the surface; at the other end of the tent is what looks like a makeshift living area, with a mini-fridge, milk crates stacked to form a dresser, and a bed that appears to have been constructed of a king-sized mattress and several wooden pallets.
“David doesn’t mind roughing it,” Connie says, following his gaze, “but I draw the line at folding cots.”
“Hedonist,” David says fondly. He has what looks almost like a salad spinner in his hands, if a salad spinner was vaguely organic and emanating an eerie greenish light. “Here, look. This is the fascinating thing, the--um, the harmonic of the broadcast frequency--”
“David,” Tom interrupts. “Please pretend for a moment that I did not graduate with an advanced degree in mathematics from MIT. Small words.”
“Small words, huh?” David grins, turns the thing over in his hands. “Okay. This is the closest analog they have to a radio transmitter.”
“That thing?” Tom asks dubiously.
“This thing, yeah. We were able to analyze it and figure out how they were able synchronize their signals so precisely, and how they were able to break into our communications.”
“And you think you can block it?”
“Better than that,” David says. “We think we can replicate it. The trick with their technology is that it’s a purely biological interface--it just doesn’t work right for our species unless one of the aliens is fairly nearby. We think--I think--that we may have been able to figure out how to override that interface--”
“--so you can actually operate their technology,” Tom finishes, realization dawning. “Can I see that thing?”
David deposits the device in his hand. It’s heavier than it looks, leathery to the touch and weirdly spongy. It seems to be humming beneath his fingertips, but that might just be his imagination. “David, you’re a genius, you know.”
“So I’ve been told,” David says. Distractedly, Tom realizes that they’re alone in the tent, Connie having ducked out while they were talking. Less distractedly, he realizes that David is standing very close. Close enough to reach out and touch. His voice is quiet when he speaks again. “So, I have a confession to make: I may have brought you here under slightly false pretenses.”
“The technology is legitimate--we really can operate it. A little, at least. But that could have waited until tomorrow’s meeting.”
“I was thinking much the same thing,” Tom says dryly. His heart is pounding, suddenly, but he hasn’t spent half his life in politics without being able to hide things like that.
“In my defense,” David says, “it was Connie’s idea. She thinks we need to kiss and make-up. And none of us is exactly swimming in free time, so, yeah. I was a little devious. Sue me.”
Tom licks his lips. “Does this mean that you’re going to apologize for punching me in the face?”
“Among other things.” David takes a deep breath, then says, “Okay, if I’ve completely misread this entire situation, can you do me a favor and pretend this never happened?”
“What are you--” Tom begins, but he can’t finish the sentence because David is kissing him.
His mouth tastes like chapstick and cinnamon gum and his cheeks are rough, and the kiss is slow and sweet in the way that first kisses are. Tom finds himself tilting into it, kissing back without conscious intent, at least until his brain catches up to him and he realizes what the hell he’s doing.
He breaks away with a gasp, and opens his eyes.
David is watching him, brow furrowed, but then Tom meets his eyes and whatever he sees there makes him smile, sudden and bright. It’s a goddamn beautiful sight, and one that Tom doesn’t have any right to; he opens his mouth to say that, or maybe to say that David is too damn smart to take ‘kiss and make-up’ quite that literally, but what comes out, weak and unsteady, is, “David, you’re married.”
“Technically,” Connie says from the doorway, “we’re still divorced.”
Tom whips his head around to stare at her, but she’s smiling. “David, I told you to talk to him, not ambush him.”
“This was the end goal, might I remind you,” David retorts mildly. He’s still standing close enough that Tom can smell his cologne. “I was just streamlining the process.”
“I,” Tom says, then stops, clears his throat. “What?”
“This is why you talk first,” Connie says, stepping into the tent and letting the flap fall shut behind her. She still doesn’t look upset, or even surprised, by what she just walked in on. “Tom, I’m sorry. I should have expected he’d just spring that on you.”
Tom takes a deep breath, lets it out, and says, as calmly as he can, “Okay, I’m confused.”
“I feel like kisses are a pretty clear statement of intent, all things considered,” David interjects. “And you did kiss me back, instead of punching me, which is kind of what I was expecting when I did that. I can’t say I wouldn’t deserve it.”
“I don’t punch people who aren’t trying to punch me. And.” He shakes his head. “Why did you just kiss me?”
“Because I wanted to,” David says, like it’s the easiest, most obvious thing in the world.
“I think she probably wants to kiss you too, but you’d better check with her first.”
“We’ve talked about it,” Connie adds. “The three of us. We’d be--I think it would be good.” She looks suddenly, uncharacteristically shy, and Tom gets it, all of a sudden. They’re not just talking about a roll in the hay. They’re talking about something serious, something real. Something he never even let himself imagine he could have.
“What she said,” David says quietly.
“So you’re--” he shakes his head, laughs. He should probably be feeling blindsided, but somehow he’s not. On some level, maybe they’ve been heading this way for a long, long time. “I should have been expecting this.”
“You mean that in a good way, right?” David asks. “That’s a good thing?”
Tom just shakes his head, reaches out to snag Connie’s elbow and pull her in. She comes easily, settles one arm around David’s waist and the other around Tom’s; she’s smiling in an uncomplicated, happy way that he hasn’t seen in way too long.
Yeah. He can do this.
“Yeah,” he says, curling his free hand around the back of David’s neck to pull him down for another kiss. “It’s a good thing.”