The memories came in no order, with no reason to them, a mixing of the first timeline and the second as Jack, deep into her psyche, burned the first one away—long before the chaos of two realities could linger and drive her insane. Peri’s darting eyes slowed in the first hint of release, and at his urging, they ran through the night again, both of them looking in the shadow places of her mind for remnants of the original timeline that could trigger a mental crash.
Peri tensed when they found it, feeling Jack’s grip on her mind tightening. There’d been someone else—a man in a suit. Remembered panic pooled from her to Jack, and she gasped when Jack followed her fear deep into her mind and plucked from it the memory of a man eating a chocolate, reinforcing that she’d eaten a chocolate as she sat in a chair.
But she knew they hadn’t been alone, and an oily voice crying Bravo! echoed against the black edges of burned memory. Jack blotted it away, soothing her.
Her hand throbbed as she recalled pinning a man to a chair, the disdain in his eyes, her fear at his confidence.
In her mind, Jack folded the edges of the first-weave memory in on itself, erasing it. It wasn’t there. It hadn’t really happened.
And then it was gone.
She was left with the memory of Jack standing before the wave screen, cursing the files’ lack of organization, his face lit and pale in the glow. It was comforting—knowing this was real—and she basked in it, feeling the night’s memories in her unfolding like a crumpled paper, the sequence choppy but structured as Jack insisted that they go over it once more, defining a clean memory from both his and her thoughts.
It was only when she eased into the satiated state of a successful memory defragment that fear bubbled up again, rising through the carefully stacked memories, welling up around the jagged edges and swamping her. An unreasonable fear that she was wrong, that she’d made a mistake she couldn’t come back from, took her.
It was from the first weave, the one she no longer had memories of. She had been lied to! She was in danger, foul, loathsome, untrustworthy….
Peri’s breath caught as Jack’s presence strengthened. Not you, Jack said, his unspoken words ringing in her mind as he sponged up her fear, dissolving it with his confidence. Not you, Peri. You’re clean. You are uncorrupt, my dove.
Her chest clenched as his love soaked into her, hiding the fear behind it, and the trembling of her arms eased. Jack burned the fear to ash, telling her he loved her, trusted her, that anything else was a lie. Slowly … she believed. She had to.
“I’m here,” Jack said aloud, and she felt his fingers find hers, both of them touching the button she’d taken from the dead guard. His calm seeped into her as she worked the rough, round edges of the small chunk of blue plastic. Jack had been there, had seen both times, and had burned away the mistake they’d made until there was only one memory, the last.
Peri’s bruises ached anew as she remembered last night and they were given meaning. Her almost-death had never happened, and she only knew of it because Jack had told her about it last night. Secondhand knowledge was safe—a real memory deadly. New Year’s and their anniversary were still gone, but there were ways around that, too: her diary waited at home.
Her eyes opened. Jack was kneeling before her, and he smiled as their eyes met. Her thumb was catching on the button’s holes, and she stopped rubbing it like the touchstone it was. “Thank you,” she said.
Jack leaned forward and brushed the hair from her eyes. “You’re welcome.”
His voice was husky, and sweat had beaded on his forehead. It had been a hard one. Peri set the button on the scratched table, accidentally dragging it off, and it hit the carpet and rolled under the bed.
Jack’s arms went around her, and she leaned into him, breathing the scent of his hair, her arms tightening when she realized he was shaking. Her eyes warmed with unshed tears. “I almost lost you,” he said raggedly. “I did lose you. I don’t know if I can do this anymore, babe.”
She parted her knees and pulled him closer, close enough to feel the warmth of him rising between them. He grounded her, kept her sane when the drafts grew too long and the weaves too elaborate. Most people would say he had the easy part, out of the line of fire as she protected him while he got whatever they were after, but the truth of it was that his job was harder. He saw everything, lived everything, relived it again and again until she remembered it, too.
He was still shaking, and Peri tilted his head up. “It’s so hard,” he said. “Peri, I love you.”
“I love you, too.” She kissed him, tasting walnuts. “I’m okay,” she said, holding him close and breathing him in. “Let it go.”
“But what if I hadn’t been there?” A tight anger eclipsed his grief, his fierce expression hurting her, almost. “What if you hadn’t come back and I had nothing to anchor you? You would have lost everything.” He reached up and touched her jawline. “And I’d lose you.”
Peri took his hands, feeling his strength. There was no answer, no sure thing. To agonize over it would leave them both questioning. “Don’t do this, Jack. It’s part of the job.”
“I don’t know what I’d do if you forgot me.”
“I can’t forget three years,” she said, pulling him close so he couldn’t see her face. It was a wish, not a promise, and they both knew it. A traumatic enough draft could make her do just that.