So this chapter of Charlie and Declan requires a touch of backstory. This book is technically part of the second generation of Falker books–Gen 1 is comprised of Harriet Stuart’s solo book project, following Aster Grey and Erik Falker. These take place two hundred years in the future, after an AI designated as Omnometry has taken over Earth, forcing humans to find new planets. Aster and Erik were able to defeat Omnometry and became (rather reluctant) world leaders. They then had five children–including Declan–and formed a time travel agency, the Preservers of Ancient Literature.
And with that, enjoy Chapter Five of the Charlie and Declan Co-writing Project!
Declan took Charlie down to a small ice cream parlour on the corner, about a block away. He didn’t know why he was still with her—well, no, he did. She had the photograph, and he needed that back. She was just being so stubborn. He could offer to pay her again, of course, but he was running low on cash. He hadn’t been home recently, and his infrequent smuggling didn’t make all that much money.
Charlie linked her arm in his as they walked. “I haven’t been out for ice cream in… years,” she said.
“Tragic,” Declan said as they stepped into the shop. “That father of yours doesn’t take you out?”
She looked down at the display of ice cream. “He would. He wants to. It’s just… I never really… It’s not important.”
“Ice cream is terribly important,” Declan replied. That was one of the fundamental truths of life, right? Regardless of time or age, ice cream was divine.
He turned to the man behind the counter. That was one of the great things about this city—they really understood the art of good ice cream. The expansive array of ice cream soda making supplies behind the counter—shiny glass containers, drawers, scoopers, syrups, fruits, chopped nuts… it was practically an altar to the glory of ice cream. “Brooklyn Bridge, please.” The man behind the counter scooped chocolate ice cream into a dish, sprinkling pecans and whipped cream over it and adding mint syrup.
“Hippodrome,” Charlie said to the attendant, then leaned against the bar as he ladled a scoop of chocolate ice cream, orange sherbet, and cherry nougat into a sundae dish, then covered it with chopped bananas, whipped cream, and cherries. Good. The girl liked chocolate. That had to mean something. Declan paid the man behind the counter forty cents—that was the other lovely thing about this place. Yes, he was running out of money, but even a pocket full of change could buy him a treat.
“Thank you,” Charlie said to him as they took a seat. “For the ice cream.”
“It’s not a problem.” Declan stuck a spoon into the chocolate. “Eating ice cream alone is almost as sad as not going, anyway. I don’t have many friends. It’s nice to have someone to go to.” So ‘not many’ was an understatement. But he was just following the rules.
Charlie prodded at her ice cream with her spoon, not actually taking a bite. “I just don’t have friends.”
“What?” That took Declan aback. “Everybody has friends.” Even he had friends—just not here.
“Not me. Not anymore…” she said softly. She stared down at her ice cream. “I can’t eat this.”
“What?” Declan was already halfway through one of the chocolate scoops. “Why? It’s ice cream.”
“Anything I put in my mouth is just going to come back up,” she said, grimacing. “Especially this.”
Declan inched the dish away from her. “Can I get you something else, then?” He winced. Her friend had been murdered… “Or… can I do anything else to help?”
“Maybe just… plain vanilla.”
“I can do that.” Declan stood up, and for a nickel, got her a plain vanilla cone. He brought it back to the table. She was still very, very pale… He had been saved from arrest, but that didn’t change the fact that a man she’d considered her friend had been murdered.
“Thank you,” she murmured, taking a tiny lick of ice cream.
“Charlie…” Declan hesitated. He wasn’t good at comforting people. Or people in general, really. “Are you… okay?”
“Of course I’m not okay, Declan,” she said softly. “You… You don’t understand. It didn’t really hit me until now… but he’s never coming back.”
“Who was he?” Sometimes, people just needed to talk. And sometimes they didn’t. He didn’t know which one Charlie was yet.
“He…” Charlie made a noise in the back of her throat that could have been a laugh or a sob. “He was practically a second father to me. I’ve known him all my life… he helped raise me after my mother died… He wasn’t just my friend. He was family to me. And now… now he’s dead…” She sniffled and wiped her nose with a napkin. “I’m sorry. It’s not your problem to deal with.”
“It is, now, if I’m helping you,” Declan said. He looked down at his hands, then up at Charlie. What were you supposed to do when a girl started crying over ice cream? Charlie was completely ignoring her ice cream, one hand still over her napkin. He reached out and awkwardly patted it. “He was a good man. Charlie… don’t take my reluctance as… not caring. He was a nice man. I want to help.”
She lightly grabbed his hand before he could pull away. “Thank you, Declan. I think… I think I just need a distraction right now… until I have time to process this…”
Distraction. That word again. He really shouldn’t keep doing this. Then again, she was his distraction, too, wasn’t she? She—as well as the missing photograph—was his excuse to stay in New York. She was his excuse not to go home yet. So… Declan let her hold his hand, wrapping his fingers around hers.
“Sugar is always a good distraction,” he said. “Just let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help.”
Her hand quivered in his. “Let’s find trouble, Declan.”
Declan looked regretfully down at the two half-finished dishes of chocolate ice cream. It was truly a tragedy to leave them uneaten. But she’d lost someone today. So she got to decide.
“If we’re going to find the killer,” Declan said quietly, “Are you going to want to look at the crime scene? Or is that… too much trouble?”
“Not yet,” she whispered, the words catching in her throat. “We… We need to go eventually. But not yet.”
“Okay.” Declan stood up, pushing the unfinished dishes to the side. “Do you… want to go for a walk?”
She took another small lick of ice cream and nodded. “That would be nice.”
“Let’s go do that, then.” Declan left the dishes on the table and led Charlie out onto the street. She looked so frail out in the sunlight—in that dress, with the dark makeup, she belonged in a smoky bar, not out in the sunlight, which seemed to shine right through her. Declan took her hand again.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said softly. “I shouldn’t be. But I am.”
“You shouldn’t be? Why not?” He was the one who shouldn’t be there. But then again, it was all just a distraction, so it didn’t count. Probably. “You’re young and pretty and I’m not that bad.”
She winced like she was regretting her words. “Never mind. But I am glad. It’s nice to have someone at my side.”
They walked down the street in the sunlight, Charlie occasionally licking at her slowly melting ice cream. Eventually she just dropped it to the ground, having only really eaten the equivalent of one spoonful.
It was only a few blocks over to Central Park, and Declan found that he had started walking towards it without ever consciously deciding to go there. But that would be nice. Maybe Charlie would look less fragile among the trees.
They turned off of the street and onto one of the main paths, but Charlie looked even more unnatural among all the trees. From her pale face, she wasn’t feeling any better, either. He drew her a little closer to himself, and led her off of the main path and over to a bench from which they could watch the passersby but not be too conspicuous.
She leaned against him when they sat. “I’m not supposed to get attached to you,” she said suddenly.
“And why’s that?” Declan didn’t mind. It made it easier, and he had begun to worry that she actually cared, and that he was just going to hurt her more when he had to go. Which would be soon—probably as soon as he got the photograph back, and had no more excuse to stay in New York.
“It… makes it too difficult.” She sighed heavily. “I never should have let you take my picture. You should never have even come looking for me in the first place.”
“You’re the one who pickpocketed me. I had to come looking.” He hesitated. He shouldn’t flirt… he shouldn’t… but she looked so sad… “And the photograph is lovely. Don’t regret it.”
“That’s what I fear,” she said quietly. “That I don’t regret it.”
He looked over at her. “If it helps, I can’t get attached, either.” Omnometry, but he was bad at girls… there had to be another way to say that…
“Then what are we doing?” she asked, brow furrowing. “Why are we doing… this?” She motioned to their clasped hands. Declan looked, too, but didn’t let go.
“Because it’s a distraction. And we both seem to need that very badly.”
“We both know how it’s going to end, though, don’t we?”
Declan chuckled. He knew how it was going to end—she only thought she did. “Yes. But we’re not at the end, yet. And we won’t be until after I get my photograph back, and we figure out who killed your friend.”
“Can… Can I ask you something, Declan?”
He looked up at her. The makeup around her eyes was smudged—she’d never really started to cry, but she’d been on the brink of tears for the last hour. “Sure, Charlie.”
“If you’re not supposed to get attached… why ask me to model? Why take me for ice cream? Why… Why kiss me in the first place?”
“I asked you to model because you’re beautiful, and I want to be an artist,” Declan said, starting with the easiest question first. “I took you to ice cream because you were sad, and I didn’t know what to do… and I wanted ice cream. And… I kissed you… I kissed you because I’m tired and lonely and there’s nowhere for me to go to fix that. So I thought, for a minute… I could pretend not to be alone.” He ran his thumb over her knuckles, looking down at their hands. “Like right now. Pretending.”
“When does the pretending become real?” she asked softly.
“It can’t. That’s why I have to pretend.” He… he could go home. He should go home. But pretending was easier… it didn’t have any consequences. Charlie didn’t have any consequences.
“I… I want to pretend right now. I want to pretend everything’s okay, that I’m just here with a handsome boy who bought me ice cream and held my hand… just for a moment…”
“Then let’s not say another word about pretending.” Declan brushed a strand of hair back from her face to gauge her reaction. How far did she want to go?
She leaned into him, meeting his eyes. “I won’t steal your wallet this time,” she whispered.
“You’d better not.” Declan put his arms around her and kissed her. This was too addictive. Wrong. Fake. But he was pretending, so he pushed those thoughts away… because it was also so easy.
When Charlie finally pulled away, she was crying. Declan pulled back, surprised. Had he done something wrong? He reached into his pocket, but found that he had left his handkerchief… somewhere. He hadn’t had it on him in weeks, probably, so he ran a finger over Charlie’s cheeks, trying to wipe the tears away, and only succeeding on smudging her makeup all over her face and his hands.
“Charlie?” he asked, softly. “Did I hurt you?”
She laughed through the tears. “No. I just… couldn’t keep pretending all the way through. Normally I can… I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s only pretend, anyway.” Declan took his hands away from her. “Do you want me to go?”
“No…” She bit down hard on her lip and pressed herself against his chest. “If anything… I want you to kiss me again. But… we shouldn’t.”
Declan put his arms around her. It was strange, how quickly a person’s form could become familiar. He kissed Charlie’s forehead. Maybe, he thought, this is all right. She was so sad, after all. She needed somebody to be there for her. As long as she knew it was just a distraction, then only good could come of it, right?
“We’re troublemakers, sweetheart,” he whispered into her ear. “‘Shouldn’t’ isn’t a word we use.”
She looked up at him, eyes still glistening with tears. “Then kiss me, Mr. Falker.”
“You really can’t call me that. That’s trouble too big for either of us.”
“Then kiss me to shut me up.”
Declan tried to imagine that she was a girl he could fall in love with. A girl from back home… but all the girls from back home had known who he was. That was the lovely thing about Charlie. Even though she was kissing him… again… she knew nothing about him. And it would stay that way. He could taste her lipstick—probably toxic in this time period—but that was another thing that he was going to ignore. These kisses were destructive on so many levels. But they weren’t there yet.
Charlie pulled back just slightly, and whispered against his lips, “What if I don’t want this to be pretend?” She kissed him again.
Declan pulled back slightly and opened his mouth to answer her—to hurt her, again, on a day when she’d already been crying—but it was what he had to do. He closed his eyes against her green ones, trying to get it over with quickly, and without seeing how pretty and sad she really was.
“Don’t say it,” she murmured, then pressed her lips against his again. Declan couldn’t help but wrap his arms around her once more. It was a reflex. He wanted to stay so badly. She was just so easy.
“Charlie!” a sharp voice just down the path called out. Charlie hesitated against his lips, but then pulled away. Declan turned to see a tall man with black hair streaked with grey and Charlie’s green eyes stalking toward them. Her father.
Declan stood, releasing Charlie, and felt his cheeks burning. But this was for the best. He couldn’t stay, particularly if she wanted it to be real.
“Father,” she said quietly, standing as well. “I can explain—”
“You can explain at home,” he said harshly. “I’ve been looking everywhere… Charlie, just… come home. Now.”
“Yes, Father,” she said. She cast a glance back at Declan, along with a small, sad smile, then turned and let her father lead her away.
Declan watched her go, still reeling. She wanted it to be real? But not two minutes before, they’d said that it couldn’t be real… He knew it couldn’t be real.
He turned it over in his mind while he walked back to his apartment. He remembered how fragile she was. This wasn’t going to work… he was just going to hurt her. It was a distraction for now, but he would only end up hurting her.
Back at the apartment, Declan packed his suitcase with the more suspicious items—his cameras, his recorders, his calendar book, the orbs—as well as the stack of photographs and newspaper clippings he’d prepared to take back home. It was high time he returned.
A briefcase in each hand, Declan walked back to Central Park as the sun began to set. He had to walk about a mile into the park before he found what he was looking for—a secluded dip, framed on all sides by hills and tall trees. Few people came this far, and even if they did, they would have to walk all the way down into the valley before they could see him.
Declan pulled his pocket watch out, holding it up to the dying light of the setting sun. With his other hand, he took out a small metal disk. He had been gone from home for a little over five months, but there was no point in letting Mum know that. Declan slid a row of numbers on the disk to read two months after he’d last been home—the length of a normal assignment. Below it, he set another row of numbers for that day, a minute ahead. Then, holding the pocket watch and watching the second hand carefully, he waited. Five… four… three… two…
Declan pressed down, hard, on the button on the disk as the second hand hit twelve. He gritted his teeth, and felt a gut-wrenching second of terror as his nerves began to scream at him that he was being torn apart.
Then there was an immense feeling of relief, and Declan opened his eyes. He was in a circular metal room, air-conditioned coolness washing over his body. He threw the metal disk, now spent, into a receptacle, and tucked the watch back into his pocket.
Declan crossed the room to the metal door, unlatching it and stepping out into the hallway beyond. Everything was so silent. It was never like that back in New York—even alone in his apartment, at the dead of night, the noise of the city managed to find its way into his room. But maybe his family was out. It was possible—
Declan turned, and saw a woman in a grey coat rounding the corner. She stopped dead when she saw him, then rushed forwards, wrapping him in her arms.
“Mum,” Declan said weakly.
“You didn’t tell us you were coming home!”
“It was… unplanned.” Declan set the suitcases down. “But you’ll love some of the collections I brought. I did a whole series of children—”
“Come into the house and talk business later!” His mother released him, smiling at him with so much affection that it hurt. He had been avoiding her. He’d been pretending not to, of course—there was always some excuse… he needed more pictures of little girls on the streets, or there was an exhibition that he wanted to be at, or, most recently, his photograph had been stolen. But none of those were truly reasons to stay away.
Declan picked the suitcases back up, and followed his mother back down the hallway, down to where their personal living quarters were.
“Is anyone else home?” Declan asked, dreading the answer. His mother might be oblivious to the fact that he’d been avoiding coming home. She wouldn’t bother to check his calendar book, in all probability. But his father… his father would know that he was hiding something.
“Everyone is, actually!” his mother said, her eyes lighting up. “Well, not the twins. But Jane’s home!” That made Declan grin. Jane was even worse about coming home than he was—maybe, if everyone was focused on the fact that she’d spent another year away from them, his comparatively minor stay wouldn’t be noticed.
Declan stepped through their door and into their house. It hadn’t changed too much since the last time he was here—then again, to his mother, he’d only been gone for two months.
“So how have you been?” Declan asked, before she could ask him what he’d been doing.
“Oh, the usual…” His mother’s face darkened slightly. “They want us to renegotiate the treaty, again. I keep telling them that the current one works, and that to renegotiate the treaty is to risk war…” His mother kept talking, and Declan let her words wash over him—even though they reminded him of exactly why he didn’t like to come home.
They rounded the corner into the living room—and Declan stopped dead. His mother hadn’t been joking when she said that everyone was there—and everyone, apparently, didn’t just include his family.
The swarm of reporters turned to the doorway as Declan entered, mics held in front of them, three-sixty cameras hovering behind them, taking in the room. His mother stopped, too, and had the grace to blush.
“Oh, Declan… I thought they’d be gone by now…”
“—and so it’s arrogant to assume that we can force them to comply to our terms—” Declan’s father, who was standing in the center of the reporters, stopped mid-sentence, and turned. “Declan!” His face broke into a broad grin. “You’re home! You didn’t tell us you were coming home!”
The reporters seemed to notice Declan as his father did, and they turned to mob him. The Falkers’ children were rarely seen in public, but were the topic of much speculation. Celebrity gossip didn’t get much better than speculating about the time traveler children of the two most famous world leaders, after all—especially when those children made it their business to stay out of the reach of the media.
“Declan Falker!” A woman dressed in a smart business suit, spherical camera hovering just above her shoulder, stepped forwards, mic in hand. “Can you spare a few words? Where have you just come back from?” She glanced at his outfit. “The… 2000s?”
Normally, Declan would have been frustrated at this display of historical ignorance, but at the moment, he was too flustered to think of a snarky reply.
“This conference is not about our children,” Declan’s mother said, stepping up between him and the reporter. “And… Erik?” She glanced over to Declan’s father. “Are we done here?”
“Yes,” Declan’s father said, waving reporters off of him. “Go. We’re done here. We’ve told you all we needed to, anyway.”
“But what about the reports of unrest on—”
“They can wait,” Declan’s father insisted. “Out. Now. This is our home, and we were very gracious to let you come at all.”
Disappointed, the reporters slowly filed out of the room. The door slid closed automatically behind them, shutting out the sounds of their grumbling. Declan’s father batted one last spherical camera out of the air, crushing it against the floor—and then they were finally alone.
Declan slowly took a seat on the couch, putting his suitcases down next to him.
“Tell us all about—” Declan’s mother started.
“Aster,” his father interrupted. “Give the boy space to breathe.” His mother sat back, still smiling.
“Do you need tea?” she asked after a moment.
“Yes. Tea would be lovely,” Declan said stiffly. Why had she brought him in when there were still reporters in the house? His mother stood up and moved out of the room.
“So.” His father leaned forward, tenting his fingers. “What’s wrong?”
“Why does something have to be wrong?”
His father laughed. “You haven’t just come home, without giving us further notice… ever. Declan, your mother might not notice, but you stay away for a long time—and then, unlike Jane, you lie about how long you’ve been gone. So if you’re home, now, without it being Christmas or a birthday… then something’s wrong.”
Declan sighed. Everyone else in his family was just so intuitive. It probably came from being diplomats—they’d perfected the ability of reading people to an art.
Declan flipped open his suitcase, pulling out one of his cameras. This one was one that fit inside the period shell—and it was the one that he had used to take the picture of Charlie. His father crossed the room, and sat down next to him, looking over his shoulder at the camera. Declan scrolled through the photographs he’d taken until he reached the one of Charlie.
It really was lovely—orb floating above her hands, blindfold over her eyes, dress glittering from the orb’s light. Next to him, his father sighed.
“Your mother’s really naive, in a lot of ways,” he said.
“What?” That wasn’t the response Declan had been expecting.
“She expects you to take long assignments in the past, and not fall in love occasionally?” Declan glanced over, and saw that his father had a half-smile on his lips.
“It’s not like that,” Declan said. “It’s just…” He didn’t really want to explain to his father that he’d been kissing a girl just to escape his own thoughts. “I’ve spent some time with her. She’s pretty, she’s funny. And she wants it to be real.”
“I take it you left her in such a place that you can’t just forget about her?”
“She has…” Declan glanced toward the door to the kitchen. “She has my photograph. The family one. I can’t leave that behind.”
His father, to his credit, didn’t ask how Charlie had gotten the photograph. “Well, then. It sounds like you have to go back.”
“And you’re going to have to see her again.”
“And you don’t want to hurt her.” It wasn’t a question—looking up into his father’s eyes, Declan knew that he would never approve of the way that Declan was playing with Charlie.
“No. She’s fragile. And alone.”
His father raised his hands, in a gesture of defeat. “Then it sounds like you’re stuck.”
“That’s exactly what I came home to hear.” Declan sat back against the couch. “Omnometry, I really can’t leave the photograph in the past, can I? And I promised to help her, too… and she saved my life…”
“She saved your life?” His father’s half-smile widened. “Then of course you’re going back.” He looked back down at the photograph of Charlie. “I don’t know what you’re going to have to do, Declan. But you don’t leave behind someone who’s saved your life—particularly if you’ve made them a promise.”
Declan sighed. “I knew you’d say that.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I needed to hear it in person.” Declan stood up. “Mum would kill me if I left now, wouldn’t she?”
“Yes. Yes, she would.” Declan’s father stood up, as well. “You’ve got to stay a couple nights.”
“And the reporters?”
“I’ll send them back to Earth on the next shuttle,” his father promised. “And we’ll keep them away from you.”
Declan nodded, and then turned away. “I need to go sleep. Tell Mum I’ll have tea later.”
“One last thing?” Declan turned back to his father. “Whatever you end up doing, son… we want you to come back. I hate that this has become a place that you avoid.” His father stepped up to him, and put an arm around his shoulder. “You can always come back. No matter what rules you break, or what happens back there in the past. We always want you to come back.”
Declan managed to smile, then headed up to his room in silence. Before he went to sleep, he printed two copies of the photograph of Charlie. One for her… and one for him.