Do one thing every day that scares you.
That’s what the postcard on Techie’s fridge tells him. It has a cartoon of a woman in a pink dress, her eyes closed in some sort of meditative bliss as she stuffs her head into a lion’s toothy maw. On the back, there’s a hand-written note for an appointment with his therapist that he attended two weeks ago.
He’s better now. He really is. His tattoos are gone, and he has a little apartment full of clean clothes and quilts and bowls of fruit. He doesn’t own a single electronic thing, except for a radio and a clunky flip phone that had been foisted upon him with an archly insistent, I can’t exactly send a carrier pigeon when I need to call you.
He also has plants now—real ones, not thin, skeletal facsimiles made out of stripped TXL copper wiring.
Techie loves ladyhair ferns the best, he’s learned, because they’re delicate and fickle and he feels a sense of pride and accomplishment that his are beautiful and lush and they like him. They lean into his touch and rustle their appreciation as he waters them, dips his fingers into the potting soil, checks for signs of nutrient deficiency or root rot.
He loves them because they, too, survive in the shade. They don’t mind it when he draws the curtains tight and puts on his radio—he likes NPR, because he finds the hosts’ oatmeal-voices to be soothing, and he suspects the ferns do, too—and doesn’t come out for days on end.
Your photophobia is brought on by chronic, untreated occipital neuralgia. It’s caused by damage to the central nervous system. There are options for treatment, but it’s a permanent condition. Do you understand, Brendol?
Techie didn’t, not really, but he did understand what irony felt like on an emotional level.
Do one thing every day that scares you.
Techie stares at the postcard and chews on his fingers, contemplative, worried that a few silly scribbles of ink on paper have better life-coping skills than he ever will.
Most people had gifts. Talents, abilities, knacks. If a person was old enough to qualify for senior-citizen discount, they might still call it magic.
His twin brother’s gift had revealed itself early. Armitage spoke, and people obeyed.
Well, obeyed until they grew wise to his abilities, at which point the effect of his speech wore off—but by that time, Armie usually already had what he wanted: cookies, an extra hour of cartoons, bacon cooked extra-extra crispy at breakfast, chocolate syrup in his milk.
It was a rarer and far more impressive gift than Brennie’s own beautifully and intricately patterned collections of things. Legos, pebbles, marbles, Fruit Loops—Brennie’d pass his fingers over them, skim them with the lightest, asking touch, and his little assortments would shift and dance into collective order. By size, weight, color—whatever the boy asked of them, softly and politely, whispered between cupped hands.
Delicate things just responded to his touch.
A pretty talent, but one that was effectively useless. Brennie didn’t mind, though, because Armie always made sure to come back with enough spoils for the both of them.
Their childhood was pleasant enough, until their family was shredded apart by the double punch from one drunk driver and zero living relatives. One month after their parents’ funeral, Armie and Brennie had been split up in foster care.
They had to be physically pried apart.
"Hush, sweetheart. It’s only temporary," the pretty woman, Madeline, had soothed a sniffling Brennie in front of the tired-eyed managers. "You’ll be back with your brother before you know it." She held his hand as she led him out of the group home and to the car, where she even buckled his seatbelt for him.
They drove for what seemed like hours, Brennie dozing against the window as night fell. When he woke up, he was being carried by a man with buzzed blond hair and a leather jacket, down a dark, concrete hallway that smelled like oil and garbage. The man—he said his name was Caleb—deposited Brennie at a rickety metal table in a little kitchen-like room, handed him an opened bag of chips, and left.
Madeline then told Brennie to call her mama, and he’d had a beautiful, brilliant spark of hope that he might have someone to call that again, even if it still hurt to say it. "When can I see Armie?" he asked with his mouth full, pulling his skinny legs up against his chest.
Ma-Ma had blinked at him, slowly, then surged forward with frightening speed. She grabbed him by the back of his neck and smashed his head into the table. A wail of shock and terror was building in Brennie’s throat when Ma-Ma leaned down and whispered, gently, "If you ever make another noise, I’ll gouge your eyeballs out with my own fingers."
She waggled them in front of his wet face.
Terror and panic crystallized in Brennie’s tiny lungs, and he had the overwhelming, irrational fear that they might shatter if she pressed him any harder. He bit down on the inside of his cheeks, then, and choked and wheezed and gurgled through his bloody nose.
Ma-Ma held him there, folded in half over the dirty kitchen table, then motioned at two people behind her left shoulder. "Keep the kid quiet while you do it. I have a headache now."
She let go of Brennie’s head and stroked his hair back. "Be good," she said, "Or maybe I’ll throw you outside and see who gets you first."
A new set of hands replaced her’s, then. Just as strong and cruel, and belonging to a voice that muttered, "The fucking thing a boy or girl?" as a tattoo gun whirred to life above him.
Ma-Ma made him do coding, because his kind were good for things like that. He’d coax discrete lines of letters and symbols into functionality, then lean over his dirty keyboards and whisper Thank you, as if they could actually hear him. Bits of data weren’t so different from bits of cereal, it turned out.
Tech was the one who taught Techie. He was a skeleton-faced man with bald patches all over his head where he’d nervously plucked his hair out. His nails were bitten down to bloody quicks, and his hands always trembled, and he was missing an eye, and somehow, miraculously, he was kind.
He taught Techie how to watch four security monitors at once, taught him how to code sharp and clean and lightning-quick. He slept in the chair and let Techie take the sorry, thin mattress in the back of the server room they shared. Their network was closed, no connection to the outside world. Not even a real window in the whole compound, just a dozen grainy, blinking screens into different horrible parts of it all.
It made Techie feel like his life had become a suffocating, pitch-black closet he’d been shoved and locked into—but somehow, somehow having Tech there made it a little less terrible. A little less horrifying. Or maybe just sheltered him from the worst of it.
He taught Techie how to approach Ma-Ma when something was going sketchy, how to talk to her in a way that wouldn’t get him hit or flicked by her switchblade.
Never bring her a problem without offering her a solution—something useful, right? She won’t hurt you bad as long as she thinks you can benefit her, even when she’s pissed.
Techie was fifteen when Ma-Ma shot Tech in the legs.
Tech had fallen asleep at the security station, just long enough for three of Peyote Kings’ low-level thugs to get far enough into the compound to shank Japhet and steal his supply of drugs, or guns, or knives, or whatever Ma-Ma was running that night.
Techie was curled up on their ratty mattress, sleepy-eyed, winding a piece of wire into a weepy long-leafed tree he remembered from his family’s backyard.
Ma-Ma’d stormed into the server room and fired off two flawless rounds before the door hit the wall, one sunk deep into Tech’s upper thigh, the other blasting off his kneecap with a spray of blood and cartilage across the workstation. It took a lifetime for Tech's body to hit the ground, it seemed.
"No! No, no, no, no!" Techie screeched, and scrambled on hands and knees to Tech’s side. Terror morphed into liquid fire that flowed down his veins and out, out through his fingertips with burning pressure. It was instinctive, something buried deep within his DNA that exploded to life beneath the wash of adrenaline and horror—Techie pressed his shaking hands to Tech’s wet, ruined body and he pushed every ounce of his pleading, terrified will into the man.
The pain of it was transformative. Techie knew on some distant, disconnected level that he was sobbing through scrunched-closed eyes—but beneath his hands Tech’s knee, visible through the shredded cloth of his pants, slowly knitted itself back together. Pinked with blood circulation, made strong and whole. Pushed up and out of the man’s newly mended flesh, the metal bullet fragments clinked against the concrete floor.
A healer. Holy shi—are you seeing this? The kid’s a fucking healer!
Techie’s body was aching and exhausted, and his eyes stung like they were full of chlorine. Tears and spit dribbled off his chin, and his thin chest heaved. He clutched at Tech’s pants as the room around them spun into chaos—but Tech was still alive. Tech was okay.
Tech’s face was frozen into a rictus of horror and shock as he met Techie’s bleary gaze. Then his expression had shattered into something terrible and full of grief, as if he knew that Techie had just damned them both, and that Tech would still be the one to make off with the more merciful sentence.
The look they shared lasted all of four seconds before Ma-Ma shoved Techie aside, then planted her boot on Tech’s face and shot him square in the chest.
Ma-Ma gave Techie a new job that day, because he had something new she could use.
Roots and veins, data and DNA. His two gifts really weren’t so different, when he let himself think about it.
It’s called a gift, but people spit out the word healing like it’s a terrible curse. Healers are rare and valuable; they die so quickly and easily because their gift is a finite thing. People can only give as much life and strength as they themselves have. Healers give and give and give, and everything they give takes a little piece of them away that they can never get back.
All of Ma-Ma’s crew had little pieces of Techie. His eyesight, his posture, his immune system, the way he used to be able to walk without his knees and his ankles aching long into the night. The better and nicer, more functional parts of his central nervous system, apparently.
Ma-Ma’s thugs would come crawling to Techie pouring out rainstorms of their own blood, and Techie would heal them. More often than not with a knife at his neck or a gun to the back of his head. On the worst days, Ma-Ma would drag her bloody soldiers back in and line them up in bloody soldier-rows across the floor of the server room.
After a while, she didn’t have to order Techie anymore. He just did it. He would press his skinny hands to their flesh and cry and pour his own life into them and plead silently for their cells to knit themselves back together, over and over and over again, so he could just get it done with.
Eventually, blood would stop, cuts would close, bodies healed atom-by-atom, and Ma-Ma’s soldiers would blink groggily up at him and get to their feet to start it all again another day. Techie was the one who stumbled away, then—just a little more diminished than before.
He’d been a healthy, if skittish, ten-year-old boy when he was ushered into Peach Trees under the cover of night and false pretenses. At twenty-three, when the police had carried him out wrapped in a space blanket, he was malnourished and thirty pounds underweight, asthmatic with painful, irritated eyes, and the nerves of someone who had lived the past thirteen years in a state of constant terror that he might be shanked for sneezing too loudly.
Techie’s hearing was fine, though, and he’d heard perfectly well when the policeman who thought he was still unconscious had called him a sad, sorry bastard that would probably been better off dead like the rest of those piece of shit junkies.
Those were his welcoming words into freedom.
After that, Techie thought he’d rather let the world wither away and die before he let anyone touch him again.
A set of paramedics had given him a sedative so he could sit through a cursory medical examination in the back of an ambulance. It was night when they finally closed the ambulance doors behind him, content he’d at least survive the trip—but when they opened the doors again—the hospital’s fluorescent lights hit Techie’s eyes like needles. He cried out in startled pain and buried himself in the crinkling thermal blanket, pulling it high over his head.
They had put him into a quiet, private room and turned the lights down and then they had asked for his name, and he’d told them it was Techie. They asked about his home, about his family. Is there someone we can call for you?
He just shook his head. Frightened tears pooled in his eyes, no matter how hard he squeezed them shut, and the nurse had taken pity on him then. He was a young man with a sweet, boyish face and blond hair. "It’s alright," he’d said kindly, dabbing at Techie’s face with a tissue and the corner of his nitrile gloves. "We’ll help you. It’s alright, you’re alright. You’re safe here."
He replaced Techie’s metallic space blanket with a real one—light blue and waffle-textured. Then he’d carefully taken Techie’s fingerprints.
He’s that kid that went missing in Arkanis City—shit, Thanisson—
Why did nobody think he could hear them?
He felt like a child again, his blanket his only shield against a terrifying, upended existence; the only thing that allowed him to drift off into a thin, trauma-weary sleep, steeped in the smell of latex and industrial cleaning solvents and other people’s illnesses.
Brendol? We’ve located your brother, Armitage. He’s on his way now. Do you understand, Brendol?
He did but, granted, it didn’t really sink in until Techie heard his own voice on the other side of the hospital-room door. It was nicer than his flat-mouthed accent, polished and clipped and expensive-sounding, but he recognized well enough the undercurrent of tension in it.
"…police still need to interview him, Mr. Hux."
"Well they won’t bloody fucking do it tonight. Open the door."
Armie. His brother, his twin. Armie was there.
Oh, God. He couldn’t, he couldn’t, he couldn’t. Techie’d lived a hellish life and he’d imagined this moment a million times over—but he couldn’t do this, wasn’t strong enough or ready for it. Couldn’t face Armie like this, after all this time—too much, too much, too much.
Techie made a pathetic noise in the back of his throat and hid his face against the wall. The blanket stretched and pulled beneath his fists.
"Brennie?" Soft voice, softer fingertips, just grazing the edge of the blanket. Nudging it back from his face, just a bit.
Techie flinched away on instinct, shoulders drawn high around his ears.
The fingers disappeared. "Oh," Armie breathed out the name in a slow exhalation, softly and half-disbelieving, "Oh, Brennie. They found you."
Brendol, Bren, Junior, Brennie. Techie. Techie. Techie. Techie.
He was filthy, and his teeth were grimy and yellow, and he smelled terrible, and when he could finally speak, he choked on his words like they were vomit in his mouth. "Please don’t—don’t look at me," he croaked, face pulled into an ugly grimace. "Please?"
Techie couldn’t see Armie’s expression, but they’d only been reunited for two minutes and he was positive he’d already hurt his brother’s feelings.
A great, dark silhouette blotted out the light from the doorway, then.
Techie’s head snapped up, eyes wide and pupils dilating black with fear. Enforcer—enforcer! his mind shrieked, and he scrambled back against the wall in cold, animal panic.
The big man cocked his head, briefly meeting Techie’s glassy gaze. His impassive expression faltered just for a moment, as if he’d just glimpsed into the worst and darkest corners of Techie's mind—and he immediately backed up one pace, then two, until his massive shoulders pressed against the far wall of the hallway outside.
Techie’s brain was shrieking its endless, familiar litany of fear. She found me she found me—! "P-Please—" he stammered, dumb. "Please don't—I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sor—!"
"Brennie," Armie said sharply, voice steady with the sort of authority that worked best under duress. "That’s Kylo." His hands wavered for a moment, then came to rest on Techie’s knobby shoulders, grounding him with touch. The hardness in his voice receded like tidewaters, leaving foamy softness in its wake. "He’s my—he’s your brother-in-law. He’s family. Brennie—" Armie’s fingers moved up, just pressing against the edge of Techie’s jaw. "Will you trust me?" he whispered, almost plaintive. "Just for now? Just until we get you home?"
Techie tore his gaze away from Kylo, back to Armie, to eyes that were identical to his own in their depth of color and worry alike. The familiarity of them came rushing back to him—the familiarity of Armie, of family, of Brennie. It made his eyes sting and his chest ache, and something of that feeling echoed in Armie’s face too.
"Y-Yes," Techie whispered. He let the blanket drop away a bit. Let Armie take him carefully by the arm. "Alright…"
They bundled Techie into the back seat of a sleek, black car with tinted windows. Armie buckled his seatbelt for him.
Home was a forty-five minute drive by highway—a chic, ground-floor condominium with floor-to-ceiling windows and pristine, minimalist furniture and carpets so thick, they might have been the softest thing Techie had ever touched. Limping, head down, pressed against his twin’s side—Techie had frozen in the condo’s foyer, eyes gone wide with disbelief.
Armie blinked. "Ah, for now," he responded, voice and demeanor finally starting to fray around the edges. "We’re looking at a place in the country, well—a bit further out from the city—but we’re not sure if we’ll sell—"
Kylo coughed and cast Armie a strange look over his shoulder.
"Yes," Armie bit out, then. "Yes, we live here."
The guest bedroom was larger than the entire server room Techie had lived in for thirteen years.
He shuffled behind his brother and stood silent, awkward, while Armie set a pair of neatly folded pajamas onto the bed. "There are toiletries and plenty of clean towels in the en suite," he explained, long fingers still pressed against the soft cotton. He didn’t look at Techie, and Techie was grateful for that.
He looked at Armie, though, in fleeting glances and out of the corner of his eye. They were identical, but they didn’t look alike anymore. Armie was sleek and polished, buttoned-up and tailored even amid the upheaval of his own life. Techie wondered if he could have looked like that, in another, kinder existence.
Kylo darkened the doorway, and Techie instinctively flinched when he stepped inside—they both saw it. Kylo didn’t look fazed, though. He just set a stack of three extra quilts onto the bed, pulled the heavy drapes closed, then slipped away again like a great, inky shadow.
"Do you want to be alone?" Armie asked quietly, grey-faced and subdued. "If you need some time—to adjust. I understand. If you need anything—"
Techie just nodded again. His back and knees were aching, exhaustion clawing him towards the floor, and his head felt like it would split in half with everything unsaid-but-should-be-said-just-one-thing-anything-for-fuck’s-sake-Techie-please-please-just-think-of-somethi—
"I never stopped looking for you."
Armie’s voice, soft and impossibly sad, tore Techie out of his internal spiral.
"She just—hid you so well. She erased every trace of who you’d ever been." His brother lingered at the door, half-in and half-out, his long fingers curled around the wood trim. "You were never—you were never not loved. Or missed. Not for one, single moment." He slipped away, then, and quietly shut the door behind himself.
Techie didn’t say anything, didn’t even let himself linger on what his brother just said. He was afraid his own heart would tear itself to pieces, if he did that, so he explored his new room instead.
He ran his fingertips over each surface—careful, reverential. He curled his toes into the plush, white carpet. Tested the softness of the pillow-top queen-sized mattress, then worked his way down through the layers of the wash-worn quilts, the feather duvet, the blanket, the silken, thousand-count sheets.
The tile in the bathroom was heated.
His body was an ugly thing that didn’t belong in that room—just bones strung together with scar tissue and weak, red string. He didn’t like to look at it, so he just washed it, over and over and over again, until his hair squeaked and nailbeds stung and his skin was pink and shriveled.
Then he sat on the shower floor and cried so hard he threw up.
It was another day and a half before Techie felt brave enough to leave his bedroom on his own for a glass of ice water. He drifted on ghost feet into the kitchen, lit only by a 40-watt bulb above the stove and Arkanis City’s colorful, sleepless night filtering in through the windows. Down the hallway soft, incandescent light spilled out from beneath Armie and Kylo’s bedroom door, but all was quiet.
Not when Techie went back to his room, though.
He heard murmurs, deep and low, and the steady, rhythmic thud of wood on plaster.
—tell me—you want it—
—right—right there, fuck me right there—j-just like that, baby, please—a-ah! K-Kyl—!
Techie knew those sounds. He’d never made them, but he knew them.
His face burned with shame and mortification and he scurried back into his room, glass of water sloshing against his chest. He only felt worse when a thin barb of miserable envy curled in his gut when he imagined what it might be like to be wanted like that. To get fucked with love and real desire. To have someone, a person who liked you enough to choose you and stay forever.
Even eaten alive by anxiety and self-doubt, Techie was certain he’d never be wanted that way—not by anyone. He curled up under every single one of his blankets and awoke the next morning to the distant, busy sounds of life in the kitchen. He winced into the sunlight that sliced across the bed, let in by a slip in the drapes, and pressed a hand into the concavity of his stomach when it growled at him.
It took another ten minutes of angry gurgling before he gathered the courage to roll out of bed, pull a blanket over his shoulders, and pad on quiet, anxious feet towards the bright white-and-glass kitchen.
Techie froze in the doorway.
Kylo was there. Only Kylo, a bit less threatening in a black bathrobe and bare feet and his dark, damp hair knotted up on the top of his head. Still. He was alone, with Kylo, and it was too late to scuttle back into his bedroom unnoticed and crawl into his nest of linens.
Techie shifted nervously on his feet, and thought—a bit manically—that the man looked like some terrifying ghoul, hunched over a cup of coffee on the kitchen table.
"I get that a lot," Kylo rumbled without looking up, then added, "I made eggs."
Techie thought that was a bizarre statement to make, before it occurred to him that there might be an invitation implicit within it.
The idea of a home-cooked breakfast, of regular circadian rhythms attached to cycles of sunlight, of mundanity and normal, daily rituals seemed strange and unsettling to Techie. It made him think of old, black and white sitcoms and fictional worlds a million miles away, through a computer or TV screen, unreachable even if they hadn’t been fake.
Techie hitched his blanket higher and shuffled forward. He slid into the chair perpendicular to Kylo, so he at least wouldn’t have to face him or the bright sunlight head-on. "Um. Good—good morning." That’s what people said, right? What you were supposed to say?
Kylo grunted and pushed himself away from the table to fix Techie a plate. "I’m sorry you heard that last night," he said over his shoulder, standing at the stove. "We’ll be more mindful."
Techie’s face flared scarlet. "It’s. Uh," he choked, mortified. "It’s. Alright."
That seemed to be the end of it, though. Kylo smacked the wooden spoon against the plate to dislodge a pile of cheesy scrambled eggs. He considered them for a moment, then added a second helping. "You’re a healer," he said without segue.
"Um. Yeah." Techie flinched the way he always did when someone mentioned his gift directly. Kylo didn’t have to look up to see it. Techie ducked his face all the same when Kylo set his breakfast before him on the table.
Kylo hadn’t just made eggs. There was toast with butter and blackberry jam, and slices of pineapple, and fresh tomatoes, and three pieces of extra-extra crispy bacon.
It made Techie want to cry all over again.
"Hux was surprised, is all," Kylo interjected as he retook his seat. "He didn’t know about it. The healing thing."
"It—it showed up late," Techie mumbled, voice thick. Inevitably, he thought about how Tech had sounded, popping and gurgling away under Ma-Ma’s boot as he drowned in his own blood.
Kylo nodded once and squirted ketchup all over his plate.
"Why do—why do you call him Hux?"
"He told me to, when we met."
"Oh," was all Techie said. He slouched down in his chair and tentatively considered his mountainous breakfast. He wanted the ketchup bottle, but he was too shy to ask for it.
Unbidden, Kylo slid it across the table to him. Then he poured coffee from a carafe, added a glug of cream and two heaping spoonfuls of sugar, and slid it across the table, too, before Techie even realized he might like that.
It was only then that Techie remembered the place had already been set for him when he got to the kitchen. "Um," he began, feeling his anxiety begin to ease, just a bit, beneath that glimmer of silent, anticipatory kindness. "What does he do? Armie?"
"VP of Development for an aerospace navigational software company." It was a lot for Kylo to say with his mouth full.
"Oh." Techie dragged the cup of coffee closer and stirred the thick sugar-sludge at the bottom for the sake of having something to do. "And—and you?"
"Right. Okay," he said very quietly, feeling very small.
"You’re welcome here," Kylo said abruptly. "Hux wasn’t even this happy when we got married, but he doesn’t want to freak you out with it." He speared a raw tomato and dragged it through the ketchup. "Anyway. We want you here. Both of us."
Techie clutched the coffee cup close against the hollow of his chest. It burned his fingers and through his thin shirt, but he didn’t mind the feeling. "You don’t even know me," he protested weakly.
Kylo shrugged his massive shoulders. "You’re family," he said plainly, as if this were the answer to all of Techie’s hesitations, then he reached over and topped off Techie’s cup of coffee. "Eat." Kylo cleared his throat and adjusted his tone before Techie could shrink too far down in his chair beneath the command. "Please."
Techie picked up a heavy, jam-sugary piece of toast and took a tentative bite. "Oh!" he exclaimed around his mouthful, eyes wide, baseline terror momentarily forgotten in favor of blackberries and rich butter and actual, real, home-cooked food. "This is—good," he managed to say. "Really, really good."
Techie started in with his best effort, then, stabbing at the eggs like he’d been waiting to do it for thirteen very long and hungry years—and apparently he and Kylo didn’t have any table manners between them. Techie thought Armie might have been a bit horrified at the way they shoveled food at their own faces, hunched in their seats like a matching pair of gargoyles.
The thought made Kylo smirk.
Or maybe I’ll throw you outside and see who gets you first. Or maybe I’ll throw you outside and see who gets you first. Or maybe I’ll throw you outside and see who gets you first.
Techie is fourteen again, on a rare trip outside Ma-Ma’s compound. A man has been following him for the past four blocks, one of those hollow-cheeked junkies that hung around the clan compound entrance. Techie walks quickly, checking over his shoulder constantly because he knows—he knows what can happen to boys and girls caught by themselves out in Peach Trees Commons. Ma-Ma’d considered him worth the risk, though, when she’d stuffed his pockets full of slow-mo and sent him out to resupply Amos on an especially lucrative day.
He makes a mistake, though. He’s distracted by sunlight streaming in through a grimy skylight.
The last day he’d ever seen the sun had been the last day he’d ever seen Armie.
Techie’s steps slow and he gazes up and up and up with a strange smile, struck by the sudden, absurd hope that maybe the day he saw the sun again would be the day he saw Armie again—
A fist seizes the back of his shirt. "I know what you are, boy!"
The man behind him snarls, shoves him forward and topples him off-balance.
Techie cries out and forgets what it means to hope and falls hard on his backside. He scrambles away, Ma-Ma’s precious vials of slow-mo clattering out of his pockets as the man claws after him, nails scraping bloody lines down Techie’s bare legs. "I see you!" the man rasps, eyes wild and black. "You can’t hide it!"
"I’m nothing! Please!" Techie shrieks and keeps shrieking, over and over and over again, scrambling back towards the dumpster, scraping his hands raw on filthy concrete. "I’m nothing!"
"I could get a lot of money for you."
It was an old, familiar memory-turned-nightmare-fodder, and Techie woke up screaming. His sweaty t-shirt was tangled around his neck as Armie knelt over him, frantically trying to rouse him back into sense and reality without making his panic worse.
Techie was stammering, incoherent as he clutched at Armie’s shirt and struggled fiercely against his weight. "I wasn’t—I couldn’t—" he heaved out, eyes glassy and darting wildly about the bedroom.
He’d been attacked once, long ago, by that stranger in Peach Trees Commons. He’d escaped only through a lucky kick that crunched the man’s nose beneath his heel. He’d fled to the comparative safety of the compound, only for Ma-Ma to beat him within an inch of his life for losing her product.
"Hush," his brother soothed him, with some strange, soft undercurrent to the words that settled over Techie’s frayed nerves like a heavy blanket. "You’re alright," Armie added. He pulled Techie’s shirt back down, trying not to touch the thick, lopsided M carved onto Techie’s back, just under the stark line of his ribcage. His voice was calm, but his hands were shaking.
Only when Techie stilled did Armie release him, and sink back against the headboard. He scrubbed his hands through his hair, then down over his face. "I don’t know how to help you," Armie admitted quietly, sounding weary and defeated. "I can’t—I don’t know what to do, Brennie."
Techie just curled onto his side and pressed his forehead into his brother’s leg, clutching at his pajama pants. "I’ll—" he paused, irrationally afraid of his own words for a moment, before he swallowed thickly and forced them out. "I’ll tell you about—about them. The—my scars."
Armie was quiet for a long time before he said, "Only if you want."
Techie pulled the blanket high around his shoulders. His fingers, thin and restless, found a loose thread and began to mindlessly fidget with it. Beneath his touch, the piece of cloth spun and wove itself into strand of intricate, beautiful knot-work.
Techie started to speak, softly and haltingly, Armie’s grip around him hitching tighter with each story of every tiny, lingering trauma.
Armie did his best with Techie. He was nothing if not methodical, and so he decided to start from the outside and work his way in. It took a few weeks, but Techie’s outsides did begin to look more normal.
Armie had bought him new clothes and paid for a nice gentleman to stop by to trim Techie’s hair. He’d found a dentist who was willing to put Techie under general anesthesia before she cleaned his neglected teeth and fixed the rotten ones with needles and picks and drills. He'd found a doctor who made house calls and appalled noises when she saw Techie unclothed. She gave him shots and vitamins and pills for his cracking headaches and joint-pain and then, strangely enough, a hug.
Armie’d also found an unwitting lady who lasered Techie’s gang brands off, leaving behind nothing but sore, pink scar tissue on his neck and forehead. It’s sweet you got a tattoo for your momma, she’d said with her hand against his throat, and, You’re very good at staying still, sweetheart.
It sounded so much like something she would say.
It was a sign of extraordinary progress that Techie held himself together until they made it out to the parking lot. Armie had sat with him through that particular panic attack, out in the car, rubbing Techie’s back while he’d stuffed his head between his knees and cried ugly rivers of salt.
Techie felt nice but awkward in his new clothes sometimes. Armie had bought his twin the same size he wore, logically enough. Even so, everything hung just a bit too loose, a bit too long and baggy. They may well have been the same size, but Armie’s body hadn’t tried to crawl inward on itself and shrivel up like a bug.
He probably hadn’t considered that when he bought everything.
It was fine, though. The first time Techie’d emerged from his room in his nice clothes, hair clean and dry and knotted onto the back of his head, Armie had smiled a real smile and said, approvingly, "You could fit right in with those coffee-shop hipsters down on Flora Avenue."
Techie self-consciously balled his sleeves up around his fists. "What’s a—hipster?" he had asked, and blinked when his brother laughed and told him it was just as well he didn’t know. Then Armie had left for work, and come back at the end of the day with a giant decaf caramel macchiato with whipped cream and extra caramel drizzle that was so outrageous, Techie’s toes had curled up and he’d giggled at how delicious and indulgent it was to have something like that, like breakfast on Christmas morning.
Two weeks after his rescue from Peach Trees, Armie had also found Techie a therapist. Armie had scheduled the appointment for him, and the office had followed up with a cheery reminder-postcard of a toothy lion and a woman in a frilly pink dress who had a recklessly warped notion of recovery.
Dopheld Mitaka was an empath, like most mental-health professionals. He had a tiny office in a bland, modular medical park a fifteen-minute drive from Techie’s apartment. The receptionist liked to leave a sugar-cookie-scented candle burning, which Techie, tangled up in his own anxiety and bouncing his knees in the waiting room, interpreted as a gloomy portent on his very first visit. All wonderful, inviting cookie-smell to get him through the door, with no actual cookie-substance once they had him there.
Why should their counseling services be any different?
Dopheld had asked about Techie’s scars on their initial appointment together, and watched in spiraling regret as his patient lit up like a Christmas tree in a horror movie. It was a terrible way to start their working relationship, and the man had looked mortified and apologized over and over again, crouched at Techie’s feet, then admitted that Techie was one of his first real patients in his new practice and Oh, gosh, oh, heck—that was too much too soon, I know—I’m so, so sorry.
Techie had forgiven him, after he’d finished heaving into a brown-paper bag that smelled like cheesesteak.
It all wasn’t so bad, though. After two months of seeing each other weekly, they were actually sort of friends.
During appointment hours, at least.
Techie blinks, startled back into the present moment.
He’s curled up in Doph’s squashy, beige chair, spaced out and chewing on the sleeve of his cotton-cashmere sweater. Navy is a good color on you. On us. He looks up. "Hm?"
"It doesn’t have to be anything major," Doph adds, kindly overlooking his patient’s lapse in attention. "Just… find a spot and sit outside for a bit. You don’t have to engage with anyone or anything beyond that. Just take it in. It will be good for you, I think. To start reacclimatizing." He leans forward in his chair, brows knotted with concern and care that is startlingly genuine, even after it passes through Techie’s mental paranoia-filter. "Do you think you can do that?"
The therapist’s eyes flicker in the empty air around Techie’s head. Doph reads the shift in energy around him, reads the uncertainty written in it, but all he does is smile and say, "Next week, then. Oh!" His dark eyes widen and he holds up a staying finger. "Before I forget—" Doph leans over and rummages in his desk drawer, only to come up with the biggest, ugliest, darkest pair of wraparound old-man sunglasses Techie’s ever seen in his whole life. "For you," Doph says, handing them over. "For your light sensitivity. It’ll make being outside easier."
Techie pauses for a moment, already halfway out of his chair. He snatches the sunglasses up with a jerky nod, and stuffs them away into his pocket.
Armie’s black Lexus is waiting for him, with Kylo in the front seat. Squinting against the bright sunlight, Techie slips into the back seat behind Kylo. His brother-in-law doesn’t offer to move, because he already knows Techie doesn’t like to have people at his back where he can't see them.
"How was it?" Armie asks, while Techie buckles himself in.
"Fine," he responds automatically, the same way he always does. "It was fine."
"Good," Armie says, pulling out of the medical-office complex.
Techie fishes around and finds the sunglasses Doph gave him. He slips them on, and is surprised when he feels the tense muscles around his eyes begin to relax—a constant, unforgiving pressure he never even been aware of easing under the polarized darkness.
"Where did you get those?" Armie scoffs, eyeing him in the rearview mirror.
"From Doph," Techie responds, tapping his thin fingers along the shiny, black acetate. "He asked me to, um. Go outside more. Just to, you know, try it out… to reacclimatize?"
"They’re positively hideous," Armie remarks.
Techie gives a short snort-giggle. "Yeah…"
Armie turns his eyes back to the road, Techie thunks his forehead against the window, Kylo types away on his phone, and they’re all smiling just a tiny, tiny, little bit.
For the most part, Techie loves his new home in Arkana Greens.
It’s a quiet, understated complex a three-minute drive from Armie and Kylo’s condominium. His apartment is a small one-bedroom, just like he’d wanted; it’s located on the neighborless corner of the farthest-back building. It has honey-colored hardwood floors, soft blue and green walls, and a narrow balcony that looks over the far, wooded tree line and not the artificial, neon lights of Arkanis City.
Armie’d had it decorated within a day of move-in, with a brand-new bed and squishy, second-hand furniture and a colorful mishmash of dishes that were so unlike his own, Techie secretly thinks Kylo picked it all out.
The property manager, Leslie, had tried to aggressively upsell Armie on a two-bedroom with a fireplace and first-floor exterior access. The very idea of being responsible for all that space and ground-floor windows and doors had sent Techie spiraling towards a panic, before Armie had recognized it and run interference on his brother’s behalf.
He had leveled one of his coldest looks on the woman, and then he spoke to her.
Her brown eyes had gone hazy for just a moment, before she snapped back and offered them the smallest, quietest, most private unit available. Then she’d offered them a whole plate of chocolate-chip muffins while Armie scrutinized and modified the lease contract to the Lessee’s staggering and ethically questionable benefit.
There’s a strange man in the complex, though. Techie doesn’t know if he lives there, or works there, or simply cuts through the courtyard on his way towards downtown.
He’s hideously ugly, decades older than Techie, with a sharp and twisted-up face and dark, rodent eyes. He watches Techie sometimes, when they cross paths in those few vulnerable moments when he’s going to and from his apartment and Armie’s car—but the man never approaches.
The man is there the morning after Doph gave Techie his old-man sunglasses and the directive to begin his one thing that scares him every day which is sitting outside to get reacclimatized to places which are not windowless concrete junkie-bunkers. He ambles through the yard exactly two and a half minutes after Techie has settled himself—he hopes—unobtrusively next to the farthest row of hedges in the complex’s central courtyard.
Techie scoots back until he’s half-hidden in the vibernum shrubs, pressed against the sun-warmed brick of Building A. He squints hard enough to give himself a headache, too wired and self-conscious to get comfortable or relax. Secretly, Techie’s just hoping that any passers-by will just mistake him for a miserable garden gnome, and pay him no mind.
He’s not so lucky.
The old man sees Techie. He stares at him, scrutinizes him, as if he’s considering how to approach this strange, other person. His steps slow, and Techie’s whole body tenses up on instinct, readying itself for flight mode—because between fight-or-flight, it’s always, always flight.
The man just turns his head, though, and resumes walking with his strange, uneven gait.
As soon as he’s out of sight, Techie scrambles away and back to his apartment, already defeated by his first ten minutes without a brother or a locked door to hide behind.
Techie’s foggy, depressive mood lingers all throughout the next day. It’s a bad one through-and-through—his joints are sore and his head is pounding and his eyes sting and water, even though the drapes are closed. He’s subdued, quieter than normal during Armie and Kylo’s visit with takeout sandwiches and groceries for the week.
Armie is unpacking his reusable bags on the counter, things like fortified cereal and full-fat milk and cheese that are a subtle, unobtrusive ploy to get some weight back on his brother’s bird-skeleton body.
"You don’t eat enough fresh vegetables. And fruit," he says pointedly, thunking down a mesh sack of oranges.
Techie is growing all sorts of plants now—herbs in his narrow window boxes, great pots of tomatoes and strawberries out on the little balcony, thriving sweet beneath his care despite being off-season—but he doesn’t tell Armie he just can’t bring himself to eat them. "I eat—I have noodles?" he offers in flimsy compromise, "I mean. They’re instant, but. There’s onions in them."
"He’s got multivitamins," Kylo intones, without pausing in his texting. "It’s not nothing."
"Not nothing," Techie echoes.
Armie shoots them both a withering look, but there might have been something secretly pleased beneath it. "That was not an invitation to debate," he says, but before he can get anything else out, his work phone interrupts them with the incongruous sound of wind chimes.
Armie glances at the name and rolls his eyes. "Oh, for fuck’s—" He swipes to take the call and bites out, "Before you say one word—know that if the mock-ups aren’t on my proverbial desk by 2:00 this afternoon, I expect your resignation letter on official First Order letterhead by 2:03…"
He marches out onto the balcony and sweeps the glass door shut behind himself. It leaves Techie alone with his brother-in-law, which Techie finds he doesn’t mind anymore. It’s oddly comforting that he doesn’t have to talk to Kylo about his feelings or pain or needs or wants, because Kylo knows everything already and doesn’t judge him for it.
Still, he deflates a bit beneath the silence, caught between the compulsive need to fill it and the knowledge that Kylo doesn’t need him to. He begins to fidget for the sake of doing something—then reaches to open the oranges, since he likes the way it feels to tear the netting open. Techie rolls one fruit between his palms, working his stick-skinny fingers over the waxy, rippled skin.
"Um. Kylo?" The words sound like they’ve been shoved out of his mouth. Techie almost regrets giving them voice, but it’s too late now.
Kylo’s fingers pause on his phone. "Hm?"
"What—what do you see?" Techie asks softly, hands going still, "In my head?" He stares down into his lap and his shoulders slump worse than normal, like his whole body is sinking into dismal quicksand as he waits to be told how inevitably foul he is.
Kylo lifts his head. He sets down his phone. The gaze he levels on Techie is almost tangible in its intensity. It is stark and unwavering and penetrating, inescapable, and it makes Techie’s nerves twist and squirm inside his own body.
Techie gets the bizarre sensation that his brain has just passed through an invisible cobweb, and the air inside his mouth tastes faintly of anise and summer-night petrichor. He begins to regret his question immensely—but just as quickly as they came on, the ephemeral taste and sensations gently dissolve away again, drawing the worst of his headache with them.
Kylo just stares on, unblinking, unmoving. "Interminable noise," he finally states, voice flat. "Fear. Anxiety. Paranoia. Pain, especially. You feel it, always. Floating like oil on the surface of everything you do, everything you think."
Techie’s face crumples. He looks down and tucks his long hair behind his ears with quivering fingers, over and over again, compulsively. "I’m so-sorry—"
"Strength," Kylo adds, as if Techie hadn’t spoken at all. "Improbable reserves of it, so far down you don’t see it yourself. Your mind is the model of human resiliency." He picks his phone up again and resumes typing. "I like it."
"Oh." Techie blinks once, twice. "You don’t—oh," he says, and then he has to blink again to clear his eyes when the world goes blurry with something that isn’t pain—at least, not the bad sort of pain. It’s a resonant, expansive sort, that prickles with warmth inside his ribcage. "Thanks," Techie whispers, overcome. "Th-thank you."
When Techie goes outside to scare himself a second time, he picks the boxwoods.
He knows how strange he must look, sitting wedged between the bushes like he is. He doesn’t just like them for the shelter, though—he loves the soft thrum of life that he can feel beneath his fingertips, in a way only few can. He loves it when a million, gloss-green leaves rustle and seem to lean towards him, as if recognizing him as one of their own on an instinctive, elemental level.
In exchange, he wiggles his long fingers into the dirt and makes sure their root systems are growing strong and healthy. I can hear you, he whispers, every day to every plant. Thank you.
There had been nothing green and living in Peach Trees—at least, nothing that wanted to be alive in Peach Trees. He’d made do with his stripped copper wires and his imagination and his memories of the outside world. He’d often wondered if Ma-Ma would let him keep his figurines with him, when she finally threw his used-up body down the garbage chute.
"Those are nice sunglasses."
Techie startles and peers up—and up and up and up, up a great big oak tree of a man with wild blond hair and dirty coveralls with a patch name tag that says "Matt." He’s holding a messy can of paint that’s the same soothing, watery shade of blue as Techie’s bathroom walls.
"Um," he croaks. "What?"
"Your sunglasses," the stranger repeats. "I like them."
Techie smacks his hands to either side of his face, holding the ugly things in place before he realizes the big man probably doesn’t want to steal them. He covers for it by stuffing his hands into his pockets, and he realizes only too late it makes things twice as awkward because he’s sitting down. "Thank you. Uh. Thanks?"
The man pokes a big finger at his own oversized pair of single-visions. "I had a really nice pair—like, those expensive ones? They were stupid thin, though. It was like looking through a crack in the door, but everything else was blurry. You know?"
"Not really," Techie admits lamely.
"I—I know," Techie says, before he realizes how creepy that sounds. "I saw your, uh, your name tag," he adds hastily.
"I work in building maintenance," Matt offers. "I’ve seen you before. What’s your name?"
"Um," Techie starts, "Tec—Bren." He frowns a bit. "Or Brennie?" He still thinks of himself as Techie, but he’s trying to divest himself of the habit. Brennie seems like a convenient, happy medium between his old-new name and his new-old name, so he repeats, more firmly this time, "Brennie."
Matt doesn’t appear bothered by Techie’s confusion over his own name. He just parks his big hand on his hip and rocks back on his feet. "Why are you sitting in the bushes?"
Techie’s too on-edge to think his way around a halfway believable answer, so he just blurts out, "Because I get, like, anxious. Sometimes. Being outside, where people can see me? I have a—I have a therapist, and he says I should do one thing every day that scares me, just a bit, so this is my thing today. Sitting here. Um. Outside."
Matt stares and he doesn’t blink.
The silence stretches on for just a moment too long, and Techie colors in bright humiliation. "Fuck. S-sorry," he stammers, feeling himself edging towards a panic. "Sorry, that was too much—I shouldn’t have said all that. I shouldn’t say—"
"—There’s a pretty good spot over by C Building," Matt interrupts him, either unperturbed by or ignoring wholesale Techie’s mortified word-vomit. "It’s got one of those willow trees? You could try that. For your thing tomorrow."
Techie’s words gum up in his throat, and now it’s his turn to stare. "Oh. I—okay?"
"Your face is red," Matt observes. "Are you Irish? Irish people sunburn stupid quick."
"I don’t—I don’t know?"
"Here." Matt plucks the baseball cap off his own head and tosses it into Techie’s lap. It’s black and says Finalizer Fitness in bold red letters. There’s a ring of damp around the inside, and it smells a bit like sweat and cheap shampoo.
Techie clutches it against his stomach.
"You can keep it," Matt says. "I have a metric fuck ton of them." He does a goofy little salute-thing, jostles the paint can, and says, "I have to go. Leslie’s been up my ass and a half about a wall over in Building B for, like, three hours now. I’ll see ya around, Brennie."
He sees Matt around a lot, after that. Painting the window trim on Building A, kicking the old riding lawnmower, hauling stuff around with his giant muscles, kicking the lawnmower some more. He always waves to Techie. He’d sailed through a bed of petunias on that lawnmower, once, too distracted waving to steer the thing.
He’d spat curses and rage up until the very moment he noticed Techie watching from the hydrangeas and laughing behind his fingers—and he’d stopped to let a grin crack across his face, sun-bright and lopsided and crooked-toothed.
Sometimes he ambles by and asks Techie with confoundingly genuine interest, What’s your thing today?
Techie is sitting out on the back lawn, next to a different set of boxwoods, when Matt comes up and asks, "What’s your thing today?"
Techie’s transplanting his kitchen herbs into little ceramic planters shaped like elephants. He’d seen the planters in a shop window on the drive back from therapy that week. He had smiled to himself, charmed, then forgotten all about them until Kylo showed up with three at lunch the next day—one green, one blue, one yellow.
Basil, rosemary, mint. Normally Techie’d move them into their new pots out on his own balcony, but it was a lovely, overcast day and he was feeling bolstered by his string of tiny life-successes as of late.
Techie pats down the last bit of potting soil and whispers, Thank you. The basil shivers once beneath his touch, then unfurls its leaves like it’s happily stretching its legs and getting comfy in this pretty, new home.
"Whoah," Matt utters and pokes his big finger into the leaves. "These are nice."
"Plants like me," Techie explains, cheeks pinking. "Lots of small and finicky things do—plants and software codes and wires and stuff. It’s, uh, my gift?" At least the only one he’ll talk about. "Like, making sense of detailed stuff? Or I guess making it make sense of itself for me. I mean—they’ll pretty much do whatever, if you—if you ask them nicely."
He’s afraid to ask what Matt’s gift is, or if he even has one at all. He spent most of his life in a filthy, lawless hellscape, but even he knows it’s an impolite thing to ask someone.
"That’s cool," Matt says brightly, and then without any decent warning, whips his t-shirt off and wraps it around his sweaty, blond head.
Techie’s mouth goes dry.
Matt’s shredded. There’s no other word for it. Maybe that’s his gift, Techie thinks through the hot, confusing, and very sudden fog inside his head. Being shredded, and kind, and funny, and giant. Making nervous people feel confused and happy and safe from the frightening world beyond the boxwoods.
Matt sits down gracelessly and offers Techie half of a squished cheese and pickle sandwich, produced from the pocket of his cargo pants.
Techie swallows thickly and accepts it, feeling something funny twist in his gut as their grubby hands brush together. His mind whirrs away as he tries and fails to remember the last person who touched him that wasn’t Armie. Or wasn’t Armie and he’d wanted to have touch him.
Techie thinks he might have a new thing that scares him—a thing that’s maybe not so terrible.
Matt finishes his half of the sandwich in two messy bites, then tumbles back onto the lawn, head pillowed on his arms. He closes his eyes, basking in the summer-humid warmth. "I like this sitting outside every day stuff," he says idly, rolling his head back and forth. "It’s good to, you know, let your mind air out. Remember life’s not all fucked-up HVAC systems and rotten potatoes and work orders and shit."
"I guess…" Techie picks the crusts off his half in neat lines, nibbling on them bit-by-bit, pointedly not looking at Matt’s enormous body or the way the muscles of his shoulders pull and stretch with every movement. "The grass gets—itchy? After a while, at least," he says and brushes crumbs off his lap so he’s not forced to consider the existence of Matt’s eight-pack. "I heard somewhere it’s because it leaves, like, microscopic cuts all over your skin."
Matt hums out a thoughtful noise, rumbling deep within his chest. "Doesn’t bother me," he says, with an easy shrug.
It’s another two weeks before Techie sees the old man again. He’s stayed out later than normal, happily delayed by a long and lazy talk with Matt about everything and nothing as hazy dusk settled over the complex.
By the time he does, it’s already too late.
"You," Techie hears in a voice he’s doesn’t know—a fact alone that sets alarm sirens off inside his brain. His head snaps up, and the man is standing only ten feet away. He towers over Techie where he sits on the ground over a cardboard egg-carton full of seedlings.
"I wasn’t sure at first," the man begins, in a voice that is startlingly low and gravelly for his narrow frame. "The sense of you was—off."
Tech’s voice echoes in Techie’s brain. Be good around Ma-Ma, but never box yourself in—always have a clear path out if she does come after you.
He’s boxed himself in. Between brick and bushes and imminent, hollow-eyed danger, Techie has boxed himself in. Fear and panic begin to stiffen his limbs, and the stranger’s next words drive fresh terror, hot and sharp, right to the center of Techie’s chest.
"You’re a healer." The man’s nostrils flare wide and his pupils dilate, huge and black even in the dim light.
"I’m—I’m n-not," Techie whispers, eyes wide and darting around the darkening courtyard—for help, for someone—anyone—finding no one. "I swear, I swear—I’m not, I’m noth-nothing—"
"Don’t lie to me," the man says, as if Techie is already his to command, to own. "I see you for what you are. You can’t hide it from me." He steps closer. There’s a strange glint in the man’s eye and Techie realizes exactly what he is.
In Peach Trees, they called them Headhunters. People who had no discernible gifts of their own beyond sensing those of others—good for nothing and useless for little beyond plucking people up and selling them off to the highest bidder.
Or maybe I’ll throw you outside and see who gets you first.
"You could make a lot of money with a gift like that."
I could get a lot of money for you.
Techie presses himself back against the wall and feels brick rough against his shoulder blades. "I’m not. I’m nothing, I’m nothing—please—" he babbles and begs, but he doesn’t know what for.
"I can help you." The man seizes Techie by the forearm. His skin is cold and papery-thin but his grip is appalling strong.
Terror and adrenaline flood Techie’s mind and shove him forward into action. "N-no!" he shrieks, and then he fights. He twists and lashes out and digs his heels into the dirt, screaming over and over again. "No no no—!" He fights and claws until he feels skin and oily blood beneath his fingernails that, for once, aren’t his own. "Let go! Let me go!"
Techie fights harder than he’s ever fought for anything—because he’s not fourteen anymore, and he has so much more to lose now than a pocket full of drugs.
The man falls back and releases his grip—and Techie thinks he might have won for a moment, until the red cloud around his mind clears enough for him to hear Matt’s voice between heavy, dull thuds. "What—the fuck—you—" Two more thuds and something cracks. "You fucking fuck—?!"
Pitched forward on hands and knees, Techie stays frozen, panting and dumb, just long enough to realize that Matt is there and he’s punching the man. Not punching him—beating him. He has him pinned to the grass, and he’s slamming his fist into the man’s face with terrifying force, until teeth and bones crunch and blood spurts.
"Matt, stop! Fucking stop!" Techie scrambles forward and seizes the back of Matt’s shirt. He pulls with the weight of his entire body and tears the cloth as he hauls him away. They fall back onto the ground together, Matt sprawled between Techie’s feet.
The old man is groaning and half-incoherent as he rolls back and forth, clutching at his face. He cracks an eye open behind his bloody fingers and stumbles upright. He points a dirty, shaking finger at Techie. "I could have helped you, healer." He spits out the word like a filthy epithet, then spits out blood and chunks of teeth onto the ground at their feet.
"Get—get the fuck out of here," Matt snarls between heaving breaths, the tendons in his neck bulging as he lunges forward, once in threat. Techie shreds the last of Matt’s shirt holding him back.
The man flinches. His dark eyes skitter over Matt, then widen with something like dawning trepidation—and he runs. "Freaks," he flings back over his shoulder in a cowardly parting shot.
Matt shakes Techie off and surges to his feet, looking as though he wants to give chase before Techie pipes up behind him. "M-Matt? Don’t—please—please just let him go!"
Matt whirls on Techie, fearsome and wild-eyed. "He hurt you!" he hisses through his teeth.
Techie shrinks back. "Matt—"
"He hurt you!"
"He tried," Matt insists, softer this time. His chest is heaving, fists still flexing and wet with the man’s blood.
The sight of Matt like this makes Techie feel ill in a whole different way. Relief begins to taste like bile in his throat. The urge to fight is draining away from him, leaving only the urge for flight—and that feeling never, never goes away.
Matt takes a wobbling step closer.
Techie doesn’t go outside the next day, or even the day after that. He doesn’t open his curtains, doesn’t eat, doesn’t even change out of his pajamas. There are familiar, unwelcome echoes in the way his hair is greasy and tangled, and his stomach is empty and hollow, and how he can’t bring himself to do anything about it—can’t bring himself to move, or think, or speak, or do anything beyond marinate in his own fatalistic misery.
One step forward, two steps back. Two steps forward, three steps back. Three steps forward, four steps back, he chants to himself for hours, a spinning eddy of distraction inside his own head.
He hates himself twice as hard for it now, for all he knows he shouldn’t feel like this anymore, for all the things everyone has done for him, and for all they’ve tried to help him. This particular meltdown started as one thing—a visceral panic-reaction to what happened in the courtyard with Matt and the strange man—but by the end of his first day in isolation, it had morphed into something else entirely.
The news story has been on the radio all morning.
He’s heard it at least five times now, heard every new development, heard every editorialized and dramatized iteration. It’s some sort of deeply entrenched masochism, or perhaps his own disbelief, that keeps Techie listening to it over and over and over again, hurting just as much every time.
This time, the story is interrupted by the sound of his front door opening.
"Brennie?" There’s a note of alarm in Armie’s voice that makes guilt feel like a switchblade against his stomach.
Armie only lets himself in if Techie doesn’t answer after the fifth knock. He said that, explicitly, on the very first day Techie moved in, and this is the first time he’s ever done it.
"Brennie? Are you okay?" Armie’s voice is closer now. "I tried calling—" He goes quiet when he reaches his brother’s dim bedroom and takes in the sorry scene.
This is Cora Goldman, with NPR News—Madeline "Ma-Ma" Madrigal, indicted on a host of Federal charges ranging from drug trafficking and identity theft, to kidnapping and child abuse—
The mattress dips as Armie sits on the edge of the bed, his body blotting out Techie’s view of the curtained-off window. He threads his long fingers through Techie’s dirty hair, pushing it back from his face with agonizing, frustrating tenderness Techie doesn’t think he deserves anymore. "Hey," he greets softly.
—found murdered in her prison cell this morning—
Armie’s hand goes still.
—reportedly stabbed more than twenty-seven times with an improvised prison weapon—authorities continue to investigate—
Armie shuts his brother’s clock-radio off, then jerks the plug out of the wall entirely.
"Ma-Ma’s dead," Techie mumbles into his pillow. "Someone—someone got her. She’s dead. She’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead—" he chants in a macabre, excisive litany. His hands creep up next to Armie's, and he pulls at his hair as he tries to drive his own words home with pain. "She’s dead. She’s dead."
"Brennie, stop." Armie’s voice cracks and he grips his brother by the wrists.
Techie lifts his head, then, and meets his brother’s worried gaze with a watery, acidic smile. "They took her eyes out."
Laughter, hot and black, bubbles up inside Techie’s chest and bursts out of his constricted throat. He gives into it, lets it wrack his whole, pathetic body—until he really sees Armie’s stricken, heartsick expression, and Techie realizes he’s sobbing.
Armie stays with him for hours, coaxing Techie back from the brink with cups of tea, or soup, or just sitting next to him like a strong, supportive bolster at his back.
He waters Techie’s neglected houseplants, and he sleeps on the floor of Techie’s room that night.
The next morning, knees pulled up beneath the covers, mug of cocoa and whipped cream clutched against his chest, Techie finally tells Armie about the man who came after him. About the way he’d been watched, been targeted. Hunted, just like he had all those years ago in Peach Tree Commons and all those weeks ago in his nightmare.
He tells him about the incident in the courtyard, but he doesn’t tell Armie about Matt—he’s afraid of what his brother will think. The idea of Matt is still too close to Techie, too sweet and precious to be introduced this way, soaked in blood and rage and physical violence.
He tells Armie the man gave up and ran off into the night.
Armie listens to it all, and is quiet for a very long time afterward. The room feels strange to Techie, like it’s growing more thunderous and electrified and dangerous with every ticking second.
Finally, Armie reaches over, squeezes his arm tightly, and pulls his phone from the inner pocket of his suit jacket. "A moment," he says, and slips out of Techie’s bedroom and onto the balcony for a scant five minutes. When he comes back all he says is, "Ren is handling it."
Not Kylo. Ren.
It’s the last Techie ever hears about the strange, old man.
He never sees him again.
It’s another two days before Techie dips a tentative toe back into his old-new habits, and goes outside with a book he has no intention of reading.
Matt finds him in the azaleas and offers half his sandwich before he even sits down. "Are you okay?"
Techie is beginning to associate the smell of cheese with people who want to help him. He accepts his half and takes a small bite. "Not—not really," he admits, then sighs. "But I’m, you know. Better. I think."
Matt takes that for the concession it is, and his whole body seems to relax. He sinks down into the grass next to Techie, legs splayed wide and graceless. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Techie swallows, then takes another bite. He stalls for a moment and digs his heels into Mattie’s lovingly tended grass, but not enough to uproot any of it. Then he mumbles with his mouth full, "I was in, uh, Peach—Peach Trees? That compound that got raided over in Mega-City One? I lived there for a while." He swallows. "Um. A long time, actually. Since I was ten. Armie and I got split up in foster care, and I ended up… there. With—with Madeline Madrigal." He grimaces and nudges his ugly sunglasses up the bridge of his nose, smudging the mono-lense with cheese grease. "Ma-Ma," he adds softly. "We had to call her Ma-Ma."
Matt’s been watching him the whole time with laser-like intensity. He blinks once, then shakes his head. "Fuck," he breathes out in a loud rush. "Fuck. Brennie, what the fuck? What the fuck? That place was like a fucking splatter film. It was on the news for weeks." His eyes are wide behind his glasses, staring so intently that Techie turns red and tears up bits of sandwich bread.
"I didn’t see it," Techie mumbles. "The news. I didn’t, you know, look at screens and things for a while. After."
"No fucking joke," Matt mutters, still gaping. "Holy shit," he repeats, probably to himself, "you’re from Peach Trees."
"Yeah. My gift—my other gift, my big one. It’s, uh, healing people? So," Techie mumbles the last bit, "she made me do it. For her people. For years. It’s why—it’s why I’m all. Um. Messed up now. Mostly."
Techie wishes for a moment that he could just finish up the job, to wither away into nothing and crumble into the dirt. "And, um. Why that guy came—came after me. I think? People—people want it. For themselves."
"Shit," Matt blurts, forcefully enough to startle Techie. "You were a fucking healer in fucking Peach Trees." His tone becomes breathy and awestruck. "Now you’re living here, and you sit outside and eat sandwiches with me," he says. "Shit. That’s fucking incredible."
"What?" Techie blinks. "No, it’s not," he says mournfully. "I’m a—I’m a disaster."
"So the fuck what?" Matt counters fiercely. "You survived that shit and you’re still a good person. Fuck, Brennie, you’re here. That’s amazing. You’re fucking amazing."
Techie considers all this for a moment, brow notching. "You—" he swallows, suspicion and confusion and a strange hope warring over his expression, "You think I’m a good person?"
He’d never really had the chance to consider himself as a person. Much less what kind. Certainly not a good one, because there’d been nothing good about his former life. If he was nothing when he became a part of nothing good—how could he be good on the outflow end?
Techie trusts Matt, though, because if the man is anything at all, he’s aggressively, clumsily, recklessly honest.
"Of course I do," Matt responds, as if Techie had just asked if he breathed air, or walked upright on two legs. "Pretty much the best I know. I mean, you put up with my weird shit, which is more than most people do. Or have."
"But I did terrible things," Techie insists. It’s a last-ditch effort to cling to the notion that he’s ruined through-and-through, even as Matt tries to tear him away from it. "I helped terrible people."
"But you had to, right? To stay alive?" Matt shrugs, batting away Techie’s self-recriminations. "You’re not the shit they made you do in that place." His expression furrows then, darkens. He begins chewing on his thumbnail. "Is that why you freaked out? No—wait—shit. That’s a dumb way to phrase it." He pulls a strip of skin off with his teeth and stares at the ground, like he’s trying to set it on fire with his eyes. He finds whatever he’s been sifting for inside his own head and rephrases, "Did it upset you when I lost my shit and went after that guy?"
Matt’s obviously making an effort at honesty, so the least Techie can do is reciprocate. "I—yeah," he admits softly. He wants to cringe for how dumb and simplistic he sounds.
"You probably saw a lot of it, right? Like, people dying and shit?"
"Fuck," Matt huffs out. He grinds the heel of his boot into the grass and says, "I’m sorry. I can’t help when I go off like that, always. But I’m trying." His frown deepens with some fresh determination he’s found inside—or sitting beside—himself. "I’ll try harder." He adds with new ferocity, "I promise."
Techie has been quiet for all of this, chin resting atop his knees. When Matt says this, he sighs and gently reaches over to nudge Matt’s abused finger away from his teeth, because blood is beading up where he’d chewed the skin off around his cuticle. Techie then scoots a bit closer, and Matt’s giant body is like a blast furnace next to his own cold one. "Thanks, Mattie," Techie says softly.
"You’re welcome, honeybun."
Techie knows Matt is teasing him, but being given an endearment like that—one spoken so warmly and earnestly—makes his cheeks flush and his toes curl up with delight he can’t quite explain.
It feels better. It feels good.
"You look better. Good," Armie says at the end of the week, watching Techie from across the kitchen counter. He brought with him a massive collection of fruit—oranges and grapefruits and kiwi and things Techie doesn’t recognize—and he’s dispatching them all into neat, peeled, cut-up chunks so Techie can have it in his fridge all week.
Techie’s sitting at the island, knobby feet curled up around the rungs of his tall chair. "I have a—friend now," he says with shy pride, then puffs a strand of hair out of his face.
Armie’s knife pauses at this, and his eyebrows shoot up. "Who?"
Techie flushes. "Uh, his name’s Matt? He’s the maintenance guy here. We, uh. We talk and sit outside. And he shares his lunch. With me. Sometimes." He protects me, he listens to me, he doesn’t want anything from me, he’s not frightened of me and what I am, he gave me his hat and he didn’t even know me, Techie doesn’t say.
Armie’s knife thunks down again. "I’m glad," is all he says for a very long time. He gets through another three oranges before he asks, casually, "Have you thought about what you might want to do?"
"Do?" Techie echoes. His brow notches in confusion.
"For work," Armie clarifies, then quickly adds, "I’m not pushing you into anything. Not until you’re ready, of course. You’ve adjusted remarkably well, and it might be good to consider a new goal."
"I didn’t even go to middle school."
"Don’t worry about that. Just… think broadly."
Techie hums and pillows his head atop the counter, warmed by his brother’s praise. His fingers dart forward to pluck a chunk of orange from the cutting board, and he dribbles juice all over his sleeve. "No more coding. Or computers," he says with his mouth full, and rubs his cheek against the soft, expensive fabric of his dark-green sweater.
He’s relaxed, here, sitting in his own apartment, in his just-too-big pullover, safe beneath Armie’s watchful gaze. It might not last, but in this moment Techie is happy. The realization is a gentle one, and it fills his skinny chest with thrumming, resonant heat. His eyes drift shut, and when he speaks again his expression and voice are warm and just a bit dreamy.
"I think I want to grow things."
Next week Armie drops by on his lunch hour with an armful of brochures for his brother. Horticulturist and arborist programs at the local community colleges, a brochure from the Master Gardeners—even a glossy, beautiful map for a self-guided walking tour through the Arkanis City Botanical Gardens. He leaves them on the countertop for Techie along with a trenta java-chip frappucino with extra whip and chocolate drizzle.
"Drink that, read those," Armie instructs him, covering the mouthpiece of his phone and already on his way out the door. "I’m on with Hong Kong in twenty, so I have to run. Dinner here tomorrow, Kylo’s making—something?" He reaches out to smooth Techie’s hair back and says, "Let me know what you think—we’ll talk later—I love you—Christ, not you, Phasma—"
And Armie’s gone again, leaving a smiling brother in his wake.
Techie hauls his bounty outside. He sits on the grass with his sunglasses and Finalizer Fitness hat on, half a cheese and pickle sandwich balanced on his knee. He holds his coffee monstrosity in one hand while he flips through the brochures and reads them aloud to Matt. He has to shout, because Matt is high above him on the twelve-foot ladder, scraping crackled paint off Building B’s wood siding.
"This one has classes online," Techie says, craning his neck as he waves a glossy trifold up at Matt.
Matt’s tongue is poking out and he’s squinting in the afternoon sun as he produces a steady snow-flurry of green flakes. Sweat beads and drips off his jaw, stains the back of his baggy t-shirt and makes the cloth cling to the ebb and swell of his thick muscles as he works.
It makes Techie grateful in a whole new way for his great, big, ugly sunglasses. He sucks in a gigantic slurp of his coffee and hopes the ice will cool his flushing cheeks. He swipes the cup across his forehead for good measure.
"That’d be good," Matt calls back down, "but are you alright with, you know, screens and junk?"
Techie has to think about this for a moment. "I think so?" he finally responds. "I mean, if I start getting, you know, anxious or something I can just, like, turn it off, right? Step away?" He chews on his straw and chases a glob of whipped cream around the cup with the end of it while Matt lets that sink in.
"Yeah, that’s good," Matt confirms, leaning in to scrape at a stubborn patch. The ladder wobbles beneath him, just a bit.
"Blech." Techie pulls a face and eyes his half-empty drink. "I don’t think I can finish this." He peers up. "Do you want some?"
It’s like a moment from one of the old, black and white TV shows. One that’s too fictionalized, too far away to be real but suddenly, horrifically, is. Techie doesn’t know if Matt’s foot slips, or the wood rung snaps beneath it—but he falls, and everything happens in slow motion until the exact moment Matt’s head cracks against a concrete planter.
Techie can hear his bones, sees a splatter of blood and gore beneath Matt’s skull. He knows he’s screaming—he knows it, but can’t hear it—and reaching Matt is like trying to battle against a riptide of filthy, murky water.
The world rushes back, slams into Techie like a freight train. He surges forward and seizes Matt by the shoulders. Everything beyond that is instinct, ingrained now even without the knives at his neck and guns at his head.
Techie heals him.
At least—he tries to.
"Matt! Matt!" he chokes, dry-sobbing, pawing at Matt’s slackened face and smearing blood and coffee all over it. He’s pushing every last, shrieking ounce of his own life and energy and will and being into the man. The pain of the healing is almost exquisite in its savagery, and it’s not working.
It has never not worked, and it’s not working. It’s not working. It’s not working it’s not working.
"Matt," Techie begs wetly, pathetically, pleads with Matt’s broken bones and the ichor leaking out of his head to just fix itself, fix yourself please take everything I am just fix yourself. "Matt, please—please, please, please—!"
Fresh blood trickles out of Matt’s ear, thick and glossy.
Techie heaves out a dry sob and clamps his hands around the back of Matt’s head. His own is cracking open with blinding pain that ricochets, trapped, inside his skull with no release. Fucking stupid—stupid to imagine he could have something nice, that he ever deserved anything touched by sunlight. Stupid, stupid, stupid fucking Techie fucking idiot—they never died this fast before, they never died this fast before—even with bullets in their brains they never died this fast—but a stupid, pointless, freak accident—
Matt’s head rolls to the side, the angle ugly and unnatural.
Weakly, this time. Techie shakes him, pushes at his shoulders. "…Mattie?"
An hideous noise rips itself from his throat—an inarticulate, animal keen of anguish in the horrid face of reality. Techie curls forward over Matt’s body, unsure if he’s trying to keep the heat of it in or steal all of it he can, while he still can. "I had you—I could’ve—could’ve—" he breaks off into a moan, presses his face into Matt’s chest, gives himself over to despair as if he’d just been caught red-handed trying to escape it.
He’d almost made it, too. The trauma is too fresh, he’s still too numb to it, but Techie knows the devastation coming for him, barreling towards him over the horizon. He thinks, maybe, it might not be worth surviving this time around.
There’s a rumble of protest beneath his ear, as if someone heard the thought.
Then there’s a groan, then a cough.
"Fuu—uuck," Matt’s voice wheezes above him.
Techie’s head snaps up. He’s still clutching at Matt’s shirt, still an incoherent mudslide of snot and panicked misery. "Wha—"
"Fuckity fuck bananas." Matt moans and presses a shaky hand against his damp forehead. "Shit fuck. That one was bad. Bad."
"Matt?" Techie’s voice is tremulous and tiny, soggy, raw with terror and disbelief. "Y-you’re h-hurt. You’re blee—" his breath hitches, "—eeding. I couldn’t—"
Matt blinks owlishly at him. He moves his hand to the back of his head, and realization dawns over his face when it comes back wet with blood and gobs of his own hair. "Oh, fuck," he blurts, shaking it to get the mess off. "Oh, babe—babe, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry—it can’t hurt me. I’m fine. I’m fine."
Matt scrambles to sit up and clutches at Techie’s arms. "I could literally get run over by a dump truck and I’d be fine. See?" Matt smashes one fist into the brick patio, presents his torn-up skin for inspection. His glasses slide down his nose and his hand is trembling, but not from pain or injury, as his flesh carefully creeps back together, pink and healthy.
Techie’s eyes are wide, uncomprehending, and his breath hitches again, harder this time.
"I can’t get hurt—it’s my thing, right? My gift. I can’t get hurt, babe. I can’t get hurt," Matt babbles. "I can’t get hurt—" He repeats it over and over, hurrying to gather an insensate Techie into his lap. His hands leave tacky, red smears over Techie’s cashmere sweater as he pets him, soothes him back into life and reason.
Techie’s hand scrabbles over the back of Matt’s head—it gets covered in sticky gore, but the flesh and bone beneath is smooth and whole.
Techie begins to weep in earnest.
His eyes are wet and stinging as he paws and clutches at Matt’s coveralls. Then he presses his face into Matt’s big chest, and feels the man’s arms wrap around his skinny body like a great, iron band. Techie cries and cries, soaking Matt’s shirt—already soggy with his own blood and sweat—beneath ebbing tides of grief and terror.
Matt rocks him and shushes nonsense into his ear, gathers all the pieces of Techie back in and holds him tight, holds everything in place until it settles down and stays there. Calms. Stabilizes. Long after his blood has dried and Techie has worked himself into catatonic exhaustion, Matt holds him and croons away into his ear. "It’s alright, Brennie, alright," he hums, almost sing-song. "I’m fine, we’re both just fine…"
It might not be completely true. Not in that moment, but it will be.
Every week, that same colorful appointment postcard arrives from Dopheld’s office, that same, manically cheerful woman stuffing her head inside a sharp and slobbery deathtrap under the guise of personal development. Or something.
Do one thing every day that scares you.
Thinking about it more, Techie decides he feels a bit incensed by this pink woman’s blasé attitude towards good sense and personal safety. He decides it sends a terrible message, that he’s had enough fright for a lifetime without having to seek it out on the other end of things. He decides he hates decorating his personal space with it.
He decides he won’t do it anymore.
"I don’t like your appointment cards," Techie blurts out one day, in the middle of his counseling session. He’s in his usual squashy, beige chair, fingertips curled around a leafy pothos vine he’d gifted Doph a few weeks ago, like they’re holding hands as old friends. "They don’t—they don’t make sense. It’s dumb," he insists, and sallies forth with a tumble of words. "I’m—I’m terrified of getting, like, hit by a car or something but I’m not going to run out into traffic just to prove a stupid point to myself. That’s—that’s not healthy." The truculent wind leaving his sails, Techie heaves out a massive sigh and just says, again, "It’s dumb. They’re dumb. Your postcards."
Doph’s kind eyes flicker to the air around Techie’s head. Whatever he reads there makes him smile so brightly, he looks like a beam of sunlight breaking through dense, morning fog. "Then we’ll change them."
Almost eleven months after he was rescued from his own existence, Brennie thinks he’s finally beginning to understand what normal is supposed to feel like.
Normal is lunches with Matt under the shade of the willow tree, dinners with Armie and Kylo where Armie snipes at them without any heat, and Kylo and Brennie exchange amused, understanding glances when Armie isn’t looking. It’s when Brennie finally brings Matt to meet his family, and Armie looks at Matt like he’s a strange and giant insect until Brennie mouths Be nice at him, and Matt turns red in the ears when he sees Kylo and introduces himself with, We found out my gift is I can’t get hurt when I stuck my finger in a light socket.
Normal is when the glass-sharp edges soften away from his nightmares and his thin-but-never-again-neglected body, as he slips farther and farther away from his life in Peach Trees.
It’s Matt kissing him, sweetly and clumsily and finally, out on the sun-warmed, back patio. When he smashes his eager mouth against Brennie’s and then says, Shit—wait—sorry, sorry— and tries again, gently, holding Brennie’s face between his massive, careful hands as if it’s the most precious thing in the world to him. Their second kiss is terrible but wonderful all the same, because Brennie’s grinning too hard to really do anything with it.
This thing between them is patient and slow, but Brennie can’t help thinking sometimes—late at night—about overhearing Armie and Kylo in their bed, and wondering if someday Matt will make him make those kinds of sounds, too. The idea fills him with hot, sparking pleasure that is giddy and hopeful all at once.
Normal is every third Tuesday morning spent at the Arkanis City Botanical Gardens, chosen simply because it’s the least crowded day, and because that’s the day the bakery down the road makes orange-cranberry muffins, which are Leslie’s favorite, so she’s more inclined to let Matt take off for a bit.
On this particular morning, Brennie’s wearing Matt’s baseball cap and his old-man sunglasses; Matt’s wearing cargo shorts and rubber flip-flops and a stretched-out tank-top from Finalizer Fitness. They’re slouched against an ivy-draped wall, deep within the shade of the English Rose Garden.
"It likes you," Matt says, tipping his head down at the greenery.
Brennie grins. He makes soft, shushing noises and scritches his fingers at the shivering vine, like he’s coaxing forward a skittish animal. "I like it too," he says idly, and rubs his cheek against Matt’s shoulder. The slender tendril creeps closer, then closer still, and blissfully curls itself around Brennie’s thumb the way his hand is curled around Matt’s.
"That’s amazing, babe," Matt breathes out, eyes gone wide behind his glasses because the wonder of Brennie Hux never, never seems to wear off for him.
"And you," Brennie says, still feeling a bit shy when it comes to admitting things like that out loud. "I like you too." He kisses Matt on the cheek, then gently shakes his fingers loose from the ivy with a murmured, Thank you.
Normal is when good days slowly, subtly begin to outnumber the bad days. When the bad days only become remarkable for how few and far between they’re becoming, because they are not normal. Not anymore. In his ongoing quest to be well, to be happy, to be normal—Brennie only needs one thing now. He tightens his fingers around Matt’s and pulls him with excited, childish yanks deeper into the garden.
He already has it.