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WARNING: If you haven't read the warning on the index page, go back and read it. If you don't, and you don't like what you find here, don't come crying to me.
Title: Efficiency Rating

Author: Eleanor K.

Fandom: The Core

Pairing: Rat/Joshua Keyes

Rating: NC-17

Posted: 9 May 2003

Spoilers: minor for the first part of the movie.

Email: emungere@gmail.com

Disclaimer: Not mine, not making any money.

Notes: Thanks to the lovely and talented Chrissy for beta reading.

..___..


Josh squints as one of the halogen flood lights scattered throughout the aircraft hanger catches him in the eyes. He turns away, wondering if it's day or night outside. He can't remember when he last slept, or if it was dark out when he did. Can't remember when he last ate, come to that. He doesn't know what the date is, or how long he's been here. A week, two weeks. Surely not longer than that. His hands clench involuntarily as he considers it. He really has no idea. None.

He looks at the people around him, constantly in motion, always sure of what their jobs are and how best to do them. He stands still and sees not one other person in this whole vast space doing the same. Then his eyes fix on Rat.

Rat is, as always, at his desk/workstation/external brain. People bring him Hotpockets and popcorn and Snickers bars, and he seldom moves. Josh has no idea why he hasn't died of malnutrition by now.

Josh walks closer and stands behind Rat's chair. There is a Hotpocket cut in half on a plate at Rat's left elbow. It is steaming gently.

"You really like those things?" Josh is more startled by his words than Rat seems to be. He hadn't planned to speak.

"Not really. I mean, they don't taste that good. Kind of gluey."

"So why do you eat them?"

"I appreciate their design. They're efficient, you know? Everything wrapped up in one package, and you can eat the package, too."

"What about sandwiches?"

"Crumbs. Plus, stuff can drip out. And these are easier. You don't even need a plate." He picks up the Hotpocket and sets the plate on top of a pile of others under his desk. "I tell them, no plate. But they don't listen. They just come by and pick 'em all up at the end of the day."

Josh nods, though Rat isn't looking at him. "Do you know what time it is?"

"Almost nine."

"Morning or night?"

"Night." Rat hits a few keys, and the display on one of the screens changes. There are two rows of numbers separated by colons, one counting up, the other counting down. Rat points to the numbers as he speaks, leaving smudges on the computer screen. "Months, days, hours, minutes, seconds." He points to the top row. "That's how long we've been here." And to the bottom. "That's how long we've got. According to you." He swivels his chair around.

Josh can't look away from the numbers.

"Doc? You okay?"

Josh shakes himself. "You want to go for a walk? Outside?"

Rat glances back at his set-up. "Um..."

"Don't worry. Nobody will touch it." He takes in the mess of wires, the interconnected monitors and the insanely complicated-looking code flashing across them. "I think they'd be scared to."

"Yeah. Well, they should be scared." His fingers hit the keyboard in a brief flurry. "It's locked down now. The alarm'll go off if anyone tries anything. It's got about the same volume as a Megadeth concert."

"So. Coming?"

Rat stands and tips his head from side to side. The snaps and pops are audible even over the constant low roar of voices in this place.

"Sure. I'll come."

***

They slip out through a side door. The night is crisp, but Josh strips his jacket off and hangs it over his arm. The cold is welcome. The air inside was starting to dull his brain.

The foothills and the mountains beyond are caught in a maze of iridescent green ribbon. The static discharge arcs from peak to peak and dances against a low and clouded sky.

Rat walks silently beside him until they round the corner of the building. Josh keeps going for a few steps, but Rat has stopped and is staring out across the desert.

"Do you see something out there?"

"It's so big," Rat says. "Nothing on the East coast is this big."

"It's a big world."

Rat turns to him, face serious. "Is this really going to happen?"

"This?"

"This." Rat waves a hand at the sky. "All this. The end of the world." He pauses. "You know, when they told me what they wanted me to do, I thought it was some kind of-- I don't know. Some kind of government conspiracy thing. Some scenario they came up with to fuck with my head. Just to see if it was possible to control the 'net."

Josh can't think of much to say to that, except that he wishes it was true.

"So what convinced you?"

"You. And I didn't think the general could act that well. But mostly you."

Josh looks at him. "Me?"

"You're convincing."

Josh laughs, but it comes out sounding wrong. Dark and bitter. He doesn't feel like that. Really.

"Sorry I dragged you into it," he says.

"No. It's okay. I'd rather know."

"I wouldn't."

Rat gives him a startled glance.

Josh rubs at his face. "I didn't mean it like that. I just wish it wasn't happening." He leans against the building and thumps it gently with his fist. "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing here."

"Saving the world?" Rat's voice is quiet. "You are, right? This is going to work? Because I kinda don't want to die."

A drink. That's what he needs. Finishing what he and Serge started in that bar sounds like a damn good idea.

"Sure. It'll work."

Rat turns away from him. "Do me a favor, huh? Try and sound a little more confident."

"I don't want to lie to you."

"Lie to me. I'm fine with that." Rat wraps his arms around himself. "Shit, man, you're scaring me here."

Dammit. Just...dammit. Why do they all think he's the one who should know what's going on?

He pats Rat's shoulder awkwardly. "Sorry."

Rat turns to him, and Josh takes in the wide eyes and sallow skin, too-large ears and teeth that stick out ever so slightly. The combination shouldn't be in any way attractive. Maybe it's the peculiar openness and innocence that Rat has somehow held on to despite his apparently well-developed paranoia.

Rat lets out a shaky breath. "I didn't mean to freak."

"I think we're all freaking a little bit."

"Yeah."

Josh looks at his own hand, still resting on Rat's shoulder. "It'll be okay. This is going to work."

"Nice try. You almost sound like you believe that."

"Hey, that lying thing? Only works if you play along."

Rat smiles a little. "Sorry. Try it again."

His hand creeps up to the side of Rat's neck. "It'll be okay. I promise."

The smile fades away. Rat's face is utterly serious. "I believe you."

"Good."

He takes a step closer. Hesitates, thinking of surveillance, the military, his career. Decides in a flash of fatalism that if they're going to be that petty, they can all burn. In hell, on Earth, wherever.

He smiles as he leans toward Rat and kisses a surprisingly soft mouth. Rat makes a small, shocked noise, but doesn't try to pull away. Josh folds him close, and he likes the way Rat settles into his arms.

When he pulls back, Rat is looking up at him with an expression wavering between shock and wonder.

"You just...um." Rat ducks his head and touches his mouth. "You... Hey, could you maybe stop laughing?"

Josh stifles his chuckles and takes a deep breath. "Do you want to go for a ride, maybe get something to eat?"

***

"Do you take that thing everywhere with you?"

Rat places the bag containing his laptop gently on the backseat of the Jeep. "Pretty much, yeah. I don't like to let it out of my sight."

"You didn't bring it before."

"I didn't want to look like a dork." Rat shifts in his seat. "I really am a dork, you know. I don't want to, like, give you the wrong impression. Or the right one. Whatever. Why'd you kiss me?"

"I wanted to."

"How'd you know that I...?"

Josh shrugs. "Gaydar?"

"When do you get that, anyway? 'Cause seriously, I never know. Ever. I made a move on this guy I knew in my C++ class at college--I would've sworn he was gay. I was so fucking sure, man."

"Didn't work out, huh?"

"He hit me."

"Ouch."

"Not really. I mean, he was a dork, too. Arms like string beans. It didn't hurt that much, but he broke my glasses."

"You don't wear glasses."

"I used to. I got contacts."

"Aren't dorks supposed to be indifferent to personal appearance?"

"Yeah, well. This dork wants to get laid before he dies."

Josh laughs. "You're really not, you know. Dorky. You're cute."

At his age, he should be able to say something like that to a twenty-four year old virgin without blushing, but a wash of heat passes over his face all the same. There is silence from Rat's side of the car, and he looks over. Rat is staring at him.

"What?"

Rat wets his lips. "Don't mess with me, okay, man?"

"I'm not."

"You're so far out of my league, it's not even funny. And I-- I really like you. So don't."

Josh drives on for a few seconds. Then he hits the brakes and twists the wheel to park them neatly at the side of the road in a swirl of dust.

"I'm not messing with you."

"Look, man--"

"Josh."

"Josh." Rat repeats his name softly, but seems to have lost track of whatever else he was going to say.

Josh leans across the bench seat of the Jeep and tugs at the lapel of Rat's jacket. Rat scoots closer, watching him all the time with a growing frown between his eyebrows. Gnawing on his bottom lip until Josh has to touch it. Slide his thumb across a reddened, spit-slicked surface, hear Rat's hiss of breath and feel it as it passes over his hand.

"I'm not messing with you."

"You are," Rat mutters. "Messing with me so bad. Don't stop."

Josh leans over him, bearing them both down to lie across the seat. Rat is spread out full length beneath him, and Josh hovers over his body, one foot on the floor, one knee on the seat, balanced with hands and elbows. The confines of the Jeep cradle them, shutting out the desert and the road, leaving only the sky above, bright with stars and ribbons of light.

Rat's breathing is shaky and hot against Josh's face, and he nibbles at that reddened bottom lip. Rat's hands fist in his shirt and pull him closer.

He shifts toward the back of the seat, pushing Rat's legs apart and undoing his pants. Rat is muttering at him; soft, quick, unintelligible words. He makes out his own name and nothing else. The teeth of the zipper part with an audible hiss.

Rat's body twists on the narrow seat, nearly throwing them both off.

"Wait, Josh." He's panting. "Wait."

"Not really what I was expecting to hear at this point, but..."

Rat's breathless laugh is the most joyful sound Josh has heard in just about forever. Hands tug at his shoulders, and he takes Rat in his arms. The kiss is sloppy, fumbling, inexpert on both sides, but still so good. Josh is not sure whether the hands pulling down his jeans are Rat's or his own. Then a hand closes over his cock which is certainly not his. Smaller, smoother; fingers longer than his own are curled around him now, holding him so gently.

Their mouths break apart, both of them gasping for air. Rat's face burrows against Josh's neck as Josh touches him. Chest, stomach, thigh, straining cock. Their hands mirror each other, moving faster. Rat comes quickly with a whimper that Josh can feel against his neck, but keeps his hand moving until Josh follows him over the edge.

Josh's breath sounds harsh in the utter silence of the night. As it quiets, he starts to hear other sounds: the creak of the seat under them, the ping of the cooling engine, the rush of wind blowing across sand and sage.

He rubs a hand in soothing circles on Rat's back.

"How ya doing there?"

Rat makes no reply, and Josh is seized with belated guilt. The kid's first time. He could have at least waited until they had a bed.

"Rat? Are you okay?"

There are tears on Rat's face when he looks up. "I'm good."

"You don't look good."

Rat scrubs a hand across his eyes. "Sorry." He sniffs. "Don't know what's wrong with me. God, I'm acting like such a girl over this. I'm good, really. Great."

"I should've waited till we got back."

"Nuh-uh." Rat shakes his head violently. "Waiting bad, sex good. I just...kinda wasn't expecting it. And there's all this stuff going on, and..." He sits up, buttoning his pants. "You know. Stress. And stuff. So, we were gonna eat, right?"

"Yeah." Josh straightens his clothes out and zips up. "Any preferences?"

"McDonald's."

Josh looks at him. "McDonald's?"

"You asked."

"Let me guess--it's efficient?"

Rat smiles a little. "Well, it is. Chicken nuggets and fries--that's everything you need right there, with a crappy plastic toy thrown in."

Josh snorts. "Seriously, how are you not dead? Shouldn't you have scurvy or something by now?"

"I take vitamins. Did you hear about that experiment with the rats and the vitamin C?"

"No. Do I want to?"

"I'll tell you over dinner. Let's get going, okay? I'm hungry."

Josh starts the engine and pulls out onto the road. They bounce over uneven pavement for a few minutes. The space between them seems to grow, and the silence gets so loud that it mutes the rumble of the engine.

He takes Rat's arm and tugs him over until they sit side by side, his arm around Rat's shoulders. Rat's body is stiff against his.

"I like you, too, you know. I wouldn't have done this if I didn't."

"You don't have to say that."

"I know. But it's true."

Maybe a mile rolls by as Rat gradually relaxes against him. The lights of the nearest town are visible before either of them speak again.

"Hey, Josh? Do me another favor?"

"What?"

"Tell me you'll come back alive."

"I'm coming back." He drops a quick kiss on Rat's temple. "Believe me?"

"Yeah. I believe you."

"Good."

-------
..end..
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