Jim's problem has always been with physics.
He understands it all, can break the universe into shattered fragments of equations, can see the patterns that people mistake for God. No. It's just simple functions compiled on top of one another. An equation within an equation. Numbers scattered into oblivion, because that's what it all amounts to. The universe is expanding, growing and growing, devouring the empty void beyond. It's all so hungry. But it can't eat forever. It will gorge itself, the fat glutton, and have a heart attack. Cardiac arrest of the nebula.
And Jim can see that. He can see the chaos ruled by logic. His logic. The numbers he can so easily twist and chew and spit out in a new model, his model. Just as God created Man to his own image, Jim creates his own reality in a mirror of the broken mosaic of himself. It's rather philosophic of him. But the only factor he can't control is himself. He's an unknown, a variable untested, a quantity not identified. Like protons were once solid particles, now broken into quarks, he is constantly dissembling and rebuilding, a bacteria. A mutation.
He doesn't abide by the laws of physics because he can't. He is a force unique in this universe because of it. He's constantly accelerating, has no terminal velocity. He's always falling and flying at the same time, his mind racing as his heart slows. If you took the average velocity of the individual components of his body and graphed the resultant equation, it would look like a child's scribblings. His momentum is always building, always growing, and he's always going faster, like the universe, always eating more and more. His mass isn't constant, either. Sometimes he's helium, too light, much too light, bouncing erratically through everything and nothing. Other times he's Atlas, has the whole of the world on him, weighs too much to be carried by anyone else. And he needs to be carried, needs someone to hold him up. When you look up and all you see is the universe dying, you need someone there to watch it with you. Watch the stars burn out, watch the tide of the growing cosmos crash onto the shore, then come receding back, come back to wipe away all that had grown in its wake.
When Moran found him, he was mentally assembling an image of his skull should he take a 9mm bullet to his temple. All physics. Even blood and brain matter obey the laws of physics. He just didn't trust the thing inside him to die, the thing that kept him alive through beatings and abuse even when he was begging for it to go away, this thing, this life, this unwanted hassle. He'd never begged for anything since. So he was sat there, painting a mental image of his skull blown open by a firearm, when Moran suddenly piped up, "You haven't said much, boss." But he wasn't his boss, not yet, this was just the interview, and it was that damn gun slipped into the "concealed" pocket of Moran's jacket that had started this in the first place. The least he could do was show some courtesy and shut up so Jim could finish arranging his neurons on the wall.
He huffed and slipped Moran a card, starched white and crisp like an autumn morning. No. That wasn't right. Too poetic. Things weren't subjective to Jim; he should be thinking of the structure of the card's molecules, not arbitrarily choosing objects to compare to completely dissimilar objects. A card isn't a morning, no matter what time of year it is. And then Moran smiled, just the barest hint of a twitch of his lips, a predator threatening to bare its teeth. Suddenly, Jim was reminded of a calculator instructed to divide by zero. User error.
"You're babbling, boss." And he was Moran's boss now, had been for almost a year. Moran was good, steady, vicious. Adhered to every word Jim spoke and could grill a damn good steak. He liked his red in the middle, too. Liked to see the pink slowly sliced open by serrated edges, was a serrated knife himself. He never cut smoothly, always liked to grind and rip before breaking the skin open. A straight edge was too kind. Moran wasn't kind.
Jim turned and looked at him, his eyes blown wide as he realized, yes, he was babbling. Had been for quite some time now, if the dry feeling of his tongue was anything to go by. Like he had been outside licking the hot pavement instead of talking. There it was again. That thing his brain kept doing; the elaborate metaphors and similes all designed to help Seb (Seb? Since when? Moran, always Moran.) understand the winding course his mind had taken. He never stopped moving, never slowed down, never turned back, but he expected Moran to keep up, needed him to keep up, because for once he could feel a crutch under his arm and it held him up, kept him sturdy when his knees buckled and his back ached. Jim's spine was too fragile to hold up his growing mind for much longer. It wasn't gluttony that would kill the universe after all.
He doesn't say any of this, just stares at Moran and slowly drawls, "Have you ever tried climbing a crane?" Because that's what he wants to do. He wants to tower, to feel important, because his ego needs it, just for tonight. Moran will understand. He'll climb too, behind Jim so he can steady him when he inevitably changes his mind, when suddenly the wind's rushing too fast by his ears and he can't feel himself for numb hands and aching muscles. He'll make sure Jim gets to the top, because that's what Moran does. He's fuel for the fire; Jim is the impetus and Moran is the execution. Or rather, executioner.
Moran smiles, an actual smile, a slow grin creeping across his lips like ivy, and says, "No, I don't think I have." I don't think as if he might have and just not remember it. It might be true. He did strangle a man and then have absolutely no recollection of it later. Probably it was best he didn't, though. He only strangled the man because the man had nearly put a bullet in his crotch. It's best not to remember that sort of thing. A missing nipple Moran is fine with, flaunts it, sometimes, talks about the tigress that took it. A missing testicle just couldn't be tolerated.
He's laid in bed when Seb finally returns bearing gifts: a laptop for the boredom, some soup for the hunger, vicodin for the leg. He could calculate the exact force of the blow it only Seb would tell him the angle of displacement and how many centimeters the bone had moved, but Seb won't say, only grunts, "Far enough," before doing something sickeningly maternal. Jim isn't used to this, isn't used to being hurt automatically equating to being pampered. Usually he had to prove he was hurt and through no fault of his own before he garnered even an ounce of sympathy. But Seb just gave it. Just looked at him on the concrete floor and took him home, called a doctor, got it patched up.
He was lucky the crow bar hadn't landed on his knee.
He hasn't been fully lucid often since Seb first scooped him up off the filthy warehouse floor. He has flashes, snatches of screaming pain, a horrible cracking, so much like a gunshot he thought that Seb had opted for a mercy killing instead of fixing him. But then the crack echoed through his nerves, signals sharp and clawing, begging for attention. He couldn't give it for long, though, only until Seb pressed a cloth over his mouth, saying, "Sorry, only anesthesia we've got is chloroform." Seb always was so inventive.
"You need a bath," Seb said. "You look like one of those Greasers."
Jim's falling asleep. Doesn't understand why. Just knows that the spoon is too heavy, can't lift it to his lips. And the pillow is so warm, so inviting, a mammy with soft bosoms, the sort of mammy he never had. He falls back on them, blinking up at Seb.
"Sorry," says Seb.
"I didn't think you'd want to be awake for it," says Seb.
"I'll get you some drug-free ice cream when you're awake," says Seb.
Jim wakes up and he's wet, staring up at blue inside white inside tan. He hears a rumble, a rumbling chuckle, a slosh, and suddenly the blue and white and tan are all covered by warm, wet black. For a second he panics, can't breathe through the cloth, but it pulls away and the colors are all replaced by Seb's face. "Go back to sleep," he says. "I've got you. You don't want to be awake when I clean that leg, either." Jim obliges. For once he's just himself, not helium or Atlas, just little, scrawny Jim, and Seb is the one holding everything up.
The board is large, big enough to cover half the wall in his study. Seb's standing to the side, a smirk playing at his lips while he works a cigarette between them. "Well?" he asks. "Think you can solve it?" The writing is in black, neatly scrawled across the top of the board, clearly Seb's hand. "I don't think you can. This mathematician bloke said he was the only one in the world that could. And I believe him. He's a right proper genius, you know. Was doing calc at age seven. What were you doing at age seven?" he asks casually, but Jim feels the barb. He wants to answer. Wants to say he was a bit too busy hiding his third concussion of the year from his school teacher, but he doesn't. Seb already knows. Had already seen the scars, the slight indentations in his skull that would never quite go away.
Instead he picks up the marker. He's never turned down one of Seb's challenges, not even the time he said Jim wouldn't be able to eat an entire quart of hot peppers without crying or vomiting. Jim had done it, then added a pint more just for show. Then been sick for days. They did this to each other. Paid for friendship in spades, spades which dug each of them a grave that was deepening each day. The wave had finally crashed, now it was receding, moving backwards to devour itself.
"Let's make it more interesting," say Seb. A thick leather band slides around Jim's throat. "For each interval of five minutes that it goes unsolved," breathes Seb into Jim's ear, "The collar gets a little tighter." He buckles it closed for emphasis. It's not tight, barely presses against Jim's skin at all, but he can feel it there, just sitting there, a threat or a promise. He begins working.
The first five minutes pass and Seb makes him stop so he can pull the collar tighter. Jim isn't even half finished. The collar cinches into his skin. He can feel it now, feel it squeezing into his adam's apple.
The next five minutes pass. Jim's finding it harder to focus when every time he swallows the collar squeezes his throat. It itches unpleasantly. He vaguely wonders where Seb got it, if he had used it before, as it is pulled one notch tighter. It makes him aware of his pulse, the steady thrumming of his carotid artery now pinched under the leather. A bit of the equation is giving him trouble. He can't resolve two variables. He worries, just a bit.
A third and fourth interval passes. The collar is constricting, choking his breathing. It's harder to focus now, between Seb's smug smirk and the press of the leather over his windpipe. By the time the fifth interval passes, he can feel his mind turning unpleasantly fuzzy. The numbers and symbols writhe and dance under his scrutiny. He thinks it's pretty, the funny little jig they are dancing. His writing is angled strangely, unnaturally. The sixth interval makes him start to panic. He can't solve it. No matter how he looks at it he will always be dividing by zero. You can't divide by zero, you just can't. That answer can't be right, can't possibly be correct. He erases the last three steps and starts again, manipulating the numbers into a more pleasing arrangement. Still, it's wrong, it's all wrong, everything is incorrect.
By the end of the eighth interval his hands are shaking too much to write and his knees are weak. He falls to the floor on those wobbly knees, his head slumping forward onto the board. He is defeated, but mostly he is oxygen deprived. He can't breathe, not hardly at all, and his vision is blackening around the edges. He hears that rumbling chuckle, feels the peculiar whoosh of being lifted, carried, held, and suddenly he is on his own bed. Seb is there too. Jim expects him to loosen the collar, but he doesn't. He loosens the neat little bows in his shoe laces, taking his time as he slides first the shoe then the sock off Jim's feet. He takes a few moments to rub the soles of them, so small and with toes that never experienced the game This Little Piggy.
Jim gives a gurgling groan, wanting air, wanting to clear the haze from his mind, but Seb doesn't pay him any attention. He moves up, plucking open the buttons on Jim's shirt. He pushes the fabric aside, rubs his hands up Jim's ribs, under his back, then back down again. One hand rests over Jim's stomach, rubbing slow circles over the slight pudge around his middle. Jim was rarely pliant enough to let him do this, and Seb was going to take advantage of it. A man this soft needed to be touched. He pulled the shirt away from Jim's shoulders, kissing either one before moving back down. Jim's trousers come off inch by inch; Seb is too busy exploring the thready lines of his muscles underneath his skin to hasten the process. Jim moans again, this time a soft whimper, begging for air. His voice will probably be scratchy for days after this. Seb ignores him and continues stroking and kissing Jim's body as he sees fit.
Finally, he reaches up and pulls the collar off, smiling as Jim begins gasping desperately for fresh oxygen in his lungs. He holds Jim's wrists, gently pinning him to the mattress, while his mouth works over the angry red circle winding around Jim's neck. He bites and licks and sucks and kisses, bringing more blood to the surface of his skin. He wants this to bruise, wants Jim to feel it for days. To see it every time he looks in the mirror.
Jim can feel it, can sense every nerve of his burning so hot he must be in hell, because this isn't normal. Seb is doing things he shouldn't ever be allowed to do, stroking him in places he never wanted to be touched again, but he likes it, he wants more, and he doesn't even fight when Seb takes off his shorts, lays him bare to the world. But it's not the world, it's only Seb. Jim still hasn't caught his breath, he stopped trying as soon as Seb slid his hand down between his legs and pressed at his entrance, and everything feels like more. His mind is too lethargic to interrupt with equations and calculations. Instead, his body is ripped open, a conduit for nerve signals and nothing more. Pressure here, burn there, tightness and stretch, filled and empty. He is binary, he is reduced to simplicity that only becomes complex when Seb programs him to. Sudden heat, too much to be kept inside, and he's finally gasping, finally filling his lungs up with air if only so he can empty them again while crying out Seb's name. He falls limp, feeling utterly wrecked completely whole at the same time as Seb fills him with his own heat.
They are quiet for too long, neither saying more than what their harsh panting conveys. Then Seb is rolling over, he is petting Jim's hair back, he is grinning broadly because for once he knows something Jim doesn't, couldn't possibly know. "Baby," he says, and that's new, it's warm and soft and wraps all around Jim, becomes a special part of Jim that only Seb will have, "You couldn't solve it because it wasn't solvable. It was a load of crap, like trying to make apples equal oranges. Sometimes, things don't have an answer."
And just like that, Jim has met terminal velocity. He won't accelerate any farther, can't possibly, not when Seb is holding him back, keeping him in check. He has a limit, a line, a threshold. All the things he needed to fit himself into his own world. He built this universe of his, and now he can live in it. Be a part of it, a cog that fits, not a faulty spring about to snap loose. Things fit because instead of reducing himself to his simplest bits, he can take the sum total and accept that he can never be reduced to simple equations that govern his behavior. And he aches for Seb to show him more, for Seb to make split him open again, but it's too soon. Seb is sleeping, Seb is holding him and Seb is warm. Jim can't wake him, not now, not yet, not until he's ready. Because Seb was the final solution to Jim's final problem and he needs Seb to stay that way.