the hollow boy passed out on the universal bedspread

1. an encompassing silence mirroring a bedridden universe

James shuts the door. He doesn't speak, and he doesn't move.

Days pass.

2. i would not want you to shoulder the center of everything for me

"Don't touch me." It's raspy, hollowed. He doesn't sound like himself. The lock clicks.

It doesn't matter. Draven nearly cries at the sound of his voice, the confirmation that the ghost living in his bedroom is James, his James.

The first procedure is scheduled for next Sunday. Draven doesn't know what happened, but everyone involved seems so certain that forgetting, that wiping the three months he'd been gone clean, is worth the risk. No one tells him anything, and he can hear James pacing anxiously and clawing at the walls as he tries and fails to sleep on the floor two rooms away. He doesn’t speak normally, but he talks in his sleep, and what Draven hears scares him so badly that he has to physically restrain himself from opening the locked door and fixing it, making it okay.

They'd found him at the bottom of the chamber two weeks ago, barely alive and bloody and burned, and they'd managed to compress life back into his body. Draven had been there when the surgeries were over, and when he finally woke up all James did was scream. It had scared the shit out of him.

He watched them sedate James, saw the bandages and gauze strain at his joints as ghastly tremors wracked his body, saw the deep, grisly scar tissue marring the soft line of his jaw. Draven had felt numb and outside of himself as they wheeled him out of the room, discussing something in hushed, harsh tones. What happened was something incomprehensible, something horrifying and outside of his grasp; he felt this innately, a primal fear compressed into his spine. It was what spurned him to sluggishly stumble into the infirmary bathroom and vomit until the burning in his throat replaced the numbness, his head reeling with déjà vu.

Draven touches the door for a moment, worrying that James hasn’t eaten, that he hasn’t slept—then gives him space. It hurts, but he's not sure he wants to get close enough to understand. He wonders if he's being selfish.

Dad would have worried himself sick about this, he thinks numbly.

3. an approach to reality at an esoteric angle

The door is unlocked.

There's a smile arranged on James's face, strained and artificial, pulling at the scar tissue around his mouth. "Draven," he says, like it's a foreign language, or a cruel joke being played on him. "Draven. Is that you?"

He's standing halfway behind the doorframe, looking small, so fucking small with the gauze binding his limbs and Draven's worn sweatshirt hanging loosely on his frame and an expression he can only describe as haunted. He reaches out, and Draven steps back slightly because James's eyes aren't quite focused and he looks almost possessed.

"It's me. It's me, James, I'm right here." He's on the verge of tears, but forces his voice to steady. "Do you need anything? I—did I leave you enough of the painkillers?"

James affixes his gaze on him. "Draven," he mumbles again, raspy but clearer now, and he grasps lightly at Draven's hand. He's scared to move too suddenly or startle him in any way; he slowly, painstakingly, gingerly opens his palm, thumb, index, middle, ring—

His pinky hooks around Draven's, and there's blood under his nails. James's hand is shaking, he's supporting himself on the doorframe, and Draven chokes down something horrible that's lodged itself in his throat.

"Stay," James forces out. That unsettling look in his eyes is gone; he just sounds small, pleading, desperate. "Please—please, just stay. Please."

"I will." It's sudden, forceful, the intensity born from anger at the situation that forced gentle, soft-spoken, sweet James into the shell he's living in now. "As long as it takes."

James's face melts into something relieved and soft and disbelieving all at once, like he's waking from a dream. It's better, Draven thinks, better than the starving silence of the weekend.

Two mornings later, Draven carries James's trembling body to a gurney as he bleeds from the shallow gash he's cut into his own shoulder, and his expression of wondered disbelief is exactly the same.

4. can't you help it? will you fix me? can you help him? can't you fix it?

Days pass.

He's sitting on the other side of the door and feeling the heat there from Draven's presence, trying to convince himself that the warmth is present and proves things, that the blood beneath the bandages is present and proves things, that the steady loving worry is present and proves things.

It takes a while to speak again. James is developing a pounding headache from dehydration and refusal to shut his eyes, and he can tell Draven's trying not to ask too many questions and that he's scared for him.

He only asks what happened once.

James wants to answer. It's only been a few days, microseconds in the grand scheme of things, but there's something about this that gives him pause. Something about the guiltless dogged way that Draven refuses to let James destroy himself doesn't feel replicable, and it flutters with anxious hope in the back of his head, something living and human and genuine.

More than anything, James wants to speak. He wants to open his mouth and tell his partner something happened, something terrible happened to me, to tell him there’s something wrong with me and I don't think you should be around me, to tell him I'm sick and everything's still happening to me and I don't remember how to be human. He wants to ask Draven to stop pretending, to get it over with and become some twitching venomous incomprehensible thing and carve him open from the inside out again. He wants to say something.

Words fail him.

He's trying to wrap his head around it, the millions of years of life and death, and his brain refuses to process it. What happened is only visible in the peripheral vision of his mind's eye because something terrible happened, something that's howling and trembling and writhing in him and picking the meat off of his bones, and it's on a scale outside of the human ability to grasp. James opens his mouth to speak, and what comes out is silence, and then a wretched sob.

Draven starts apologizing, something nervous and harried with a lot of nos and heys and you're alrights, and James is too numb for it to register. The entirety of it all is resting heavy in their head, just outside of their grasp yet crushing them under its weight. And if his mind can't wrap itself around it, then

if this is real

that means these are his limbs, his blood and bones, his scar on his shoulder, his life and his love and his reality and his tears on his cheeks, and it's too much to comprehend right now

so he sleeps.

5. how much, exactly, does a memory weigh?—

—he wonders, and he wonders it in that low dark place your mind will wander if you're too occupied with pulling yourself together to keep it on a leash, too distracted by clawing at your skin and tendons as it sloughs off the bone, clothing yourself in yourself, forcing one singular James Martin Talloran into order.

He's never been one for poetry. Now, though, with how he's pinned to the floor by reality, his mind burning out, data etched into grooves worn out by millions of years of angry scraping at the gray matter, his thoughts arrange themselves like an odd sideways dangling-jittering collection of prose.

(—Now isn't the time for that, though. We'll leave this part behind.)

Here, we'll use the metaphor of a hard drive, because there's some relation to technology woven into all of this because of the person piecing it together, and you nod here because you remember that behind this there is a person who is doing everything out of a love for people.

There's a limited amount of storage. Estimates range between ten to one hundred terabytes wrapped up and obfuscated in silver-thin neurons; far more than the average disc drive, but limited nonetheless. Age wears the needle thin, prone to error, hitting scratches, skipping sectors. When capacity is reached, the data is overwritten callously, but a reference remains to the fragment present before, memory-bytes-laughter-faces-terror-instinct-sights-sounds-presence-breath-love scattered and corrupted beyond accessibility.

But the reference remains.

In the event of error, the referenced memory could be retrieved in its bits and pieces and thrust into the light, blinding like a seizure, plucked drifting from the troubled waters of his head. A horrific waking dream. He doesn't know what will happen. He doesn't want to know what will happen, and his brain has disconnected itself from it, refusing to accept the garbled data spit back up from the glial fields, leaving his mind a graveyard of lost data.

Handfuls of single-neuron triggers for horrors from a hundred thousand years ago resurface, present only because of evolution's inefficiency, wrapped in more unspeakable memories millions of years newer and older, and he's entered a kind of hibernation. Self-preservatory disconnection, or an incapacity to process his own lived experience. It's even present on his body, a scrambled mess of deep and unfamiliar scars faded to white, as if he'd had them since birth. Except for two, at the corners of his mouth.

Over time, the fragmentation renders you catatonic.

Just don't think about it.

Any second now, the razor-thin needle will skip, and he’ll forget how to breathe, lose use of his throat, short-circuit. He’s a walking tangle of anomie, he hears whispered behind clipboards. Effectively a ghost.

Seven rounds of Class Cs. James Talloran nods numbly. After a while, they’d gotten tired of playing along with the automata. Either they live with it or die without it, and in their mind, there isn’t terribly much of a difference. They feel like a fragmented thing in his body, no longer James Talloran, or indeed even a human being at all.

He tries not to think about it too much. About what writhed under the surface, about whether or not this is real, or if it’s worth it to pretend it is. He’s tired.

6. well? what of it? what of death, and of life?

James fumbles with a lighter and a pack of slim cigarettes in the passenger seat. His hands are shaking; it takes him several tries. Draven has no idea where he got them, but doesn’t say anything.

He exhales death from the cracked window. It’s raining, but only a little.

7. something borrowed

The first procedure goes smoothly.

The doctors tell Draven this, and he believes them because he doesn't have room in his head to worry right now. James is unconscious and breathes softly on a hospital bed that's a nauseating shade of blue, and they smile in their sleep when Draven squeezes their hand. He looks peaceful like this, at least, as calm as someone can look after experiencing something so unfathomably, devastatingly awful that the memories of it had to be carved out of his head before they killed him.

8. a many-winged thing in a box

Draven carries his lover home.

that wasn't so bad, was it?

← Smoke on the water. ♡ here he is again, being sewn upinterlude a

rating: +8+x
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