chapter one: bell jars
You’ve always remembered this one: it stuck into you like a splinter. You were never into poetry, never cared all that much for Grand Works of Literature: the language in which they were written tended so often toward the vague and imprecise, and one thing you want out of your language is precision. No program can run with metaphors and similes clogging up all the damn lines of code. If/then. The world would be improved by the application of binary logic.
But you read this one ages ago, ages long ago and you have never forgotten it. You think maybe it was AA who sent it to you, one of her occasional astonishingly insightful out-of-nowhere acts that make you wonder just how well it is possible to know another person without being with them every hour of every single day. You miss AA, sometimes, when you remember to. You wonder where she is, who she’s become.
You have come back to it with increasing frequency, these past months, as you become more and more aware of the work involved in the business of existing. You know that the world isn’t really going dark around the edges, that color isn’t really draining from sky and grass and your own mismatched eyes, but you can’t deny that it might as well be: perception is everything, when you are descending into this old familiar hole and watching the little circle of light that indicates the surface receding into meaningless, unreachable distance. This time there’s no one there to notice when you start to fade.
The thing about this hole (it is your hole, it was made for you) is that once you begin the journey down into it, not only can you not extricate yourself, you want to less and less with every passing day. It’s almost comforting. You think it must be the way drowning feels, once you’ve given up trying to breathe; the hole knows you, the hole fits itself to you the way nothing in the world above ever has or could.
(except him, but that was then, and this is now.)
ii 2hut my eye2 and all the world drop2 dead;
ii liift my liid2 and all ii2 born agaiin.
(ii thiink ii made you up iin2iide my head.)
Because really, logically, how else could you explain it? He was improbable even back then, a collection of contradicting tropes that somehow worked, somehow made paradoxical
sense; you hated him, oh, you hated him so much and he hated you and briefly just briefly years ago he had taken off his armor and let you see his eyes: he had let you in. And you had fit. His absurdity against your logic, your binary balance against his singleminded purpose, his even line of a mouth against your stupid lisping toothy wreck of a face-hole, his slenderness against your slenderness, your manifold insecurities twined together in a collision of fucked-up helpless joy. It had been raining: you were in the library together on the second floor with the huge windows still wide and the smell of rain on the wind lifting your hair and he had reached up and slipped off those horrible goddamn aviator shades and you had seen his eyes for the first time, red as danger, red as cigarette-embers in the darkness. Red as wounds.
the 2tar2 go waltziing out iin blue and red,
and arbiitrary blackne22 gallop2 iin:
ii 2hut my eye2 and all the world drop2 dead.
Even back then you’d known it wasn’t going to last, things never lasted for you. Six months, maybe, of stupid giddy breathless panicky perfection. You were lucky to have that much.
ii dreamed that you bewiitched me iintwo bed
and 2ung me moon-2truck, kii22ed me quiite iin2ane.
(ii thiink ii made you up iin2iide my head.)
god topple2 from the 2ky, hell'2 fiire2 fade:
exiit 2eraphiim and 2atan'2 men:
ii 2hut my eye2 and all the world drop2 dead.
You’d hung on even while the edges were eroding, but by the time you both graduated he’d moved on, and he sent you the occasional email, no-caps red text without punctuation until finally you had had to ask him not to. His name in your inbox physically hurt. Reading the text itself did to you what you’d done when you were younger with the tips of cigarettes. He hadn’t sent anything else after that. You hated knowing that he wouldn’t; you hated the little sick-making squirm of hope that one day he would, that he’d say, Sollux, this is bullshit, it’s always been bullshit, I fucked up, come home.
He’s in LA now. You try not to know things like that. You have a shitty but reasonably well-paid job as a programmer, exactly the way everybody always knew you would; you’re in Boston, you have a nice-ish apartment and a pretty okay bank account and nobody knows your name or asks you about your weird fucked-up eyes because for the most part you don’t talk to people in person. And he’s in LA, and his second movie has just come out, and he’s all over the fucking news.
ii fanciied you'd return the way you 2aiid,
but ii grow old and ii forget your name.
(ii thiink ii made you up iin2iide my head.)
Briefly, years ago, you had a shrink. It was difficult to make yourself realize after college that nobody was actually going to make you see a therapist, just like nobody was going to make you go to the dentist or the eye doctor: you saw a shrink because you’d been seeing shrinks all your fucking horrible twisted-up life and it was only after the shrink told you that you needed to move on from your college ex-boyfriend and develop new interests that you realized you could, in fact, tell her to go fuck herself and save the hundred fifty bucks an hour each week. That was a lot of cans of Monster, after all. And since then you have talked to nobody about your feelings; since then nobody has been paid to notice when you started to go longer and longer between showers and laundry runs, or when you started sleeping as if it were a recreational activity.
Because you are Sollux Captor and telling you what you already know, what you have always known, has never once done a blind bit of good. You should do this; you should not do that. Should does not mean can.
People don’t understand that. Real people, that is. People who aren’t fucked in the head.
You think, aware of the stupid mindless effort it takes to breathe, that you would give anything, anything at all, to have stopped yourself looking into Dave Strider’s eyes that day in the library all those fucking years ago. Before that, you’d had a chance. Before that, you might have come through college with only a couple of extra scars, lost your virginity, learned a couple things and forgot a great many more, lived; but once you’d seen those eyes that was pretty much it.
Down here in your hole the air is heavier, thicker, the pressure of the great deeps squeezing you. Out in the Hollywood hills you think it must be brilliant, pellucid, crystal-clear, air like wine under a sky the same blue as half your mind. The other half is red, of course. That particular shade of red.
ii 2hould have loved a thunderbiird iin2tead;
at lea2t when 2priing come2 they roar back agaiin.
ii 2hut my eye2 and all the world drop2 dead.
(ii thiink ii made you up iin2iide my head.)
Should does not mean can, and again you wish that the languages people talk to one another were as precise and unmistakable as the code you type each day. There is no question, in your strings of command, whether something should or should not be: it is or it is not, a perfect discrete binary.
You are Sollux Captor and each day you write love songs in ones and zeroes, and each day it gets harder and harder to breathe.
You remember to pay your bills because you have told your computers to remind you to do so; eventually you just set them up to autopay and forget about things like what day it is entirely. You order your cigarettes on the internet and then you start to order brandy on the internet and then you lose count of how long it’s been since you actually left the apartment; that doesn’t matter, the only thing that matters is the only thing you are good at, the only thing you have ever been good at, the only thing you were even remotely worthwhile at doing. Your boss thinks you’re a little eccentric but one of the best programmers she’s ever worked with, and she doesn’t mind the fact that you need to work from home as long as you keep in contact and keep sending in the code.
(You have your news feeds filtered, but even so you can’t help seeing the occasional mention of his name: Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff The Moive Part Deux is breaking box office records around the world, sales of aviator sunglasses are up, asshole scene kids are dyeing their hair stark straw-blonde and learning how to talk with a Texas drawl. You try to ignore this. You fail.)
Sometimes when you haven’t slept in days you end up sitting wrapped in a cocoon of blankets on your couch, the TV wittering away to itself, and you type things that you don’t remember writing the next morning, the only evidence of what you’d been up to being the word count in your unnamed document and the descending level in your bottle of Salignac, and over and over in this dull frozen head-thumping haze you have typed:
ii 2hould have loved a thunderbiird iin2tead
ii 2hut my eye2 and all the world drop2 dead
It’s interspersed with mad things, utterly alien to you: you don’t even remember the thought process that led to ii hung iin the blackne22 untiil a rat kiing came for me or hiit the beacon on the cyliinder head and ii wiill fiind you or god 2ave the 2weetne22 of your iiron heart. But over and over chunks of Plath are knotted in with the gibberish and you think: this is almost cliched enough to be ironic, if anyone could find it in themselves to care.
You cough in the mornings. It counts as morning if it’s earlier than noon, right? It’s so hard to breathe, it has been so damn hard to breathe for weeks now and you wish the air at the bottom of your hole wasn’t so fucking thick. You watch Toddlers & Tiaras and you cry; you are late in submitting your work and your boss sends you an email asking you if everything’s okay.
ii’m dealiing wiith 2ome per2onal ii22ue2 riight now, you write back. ii apologiize for the delay two the project.
She sends you an email a few hours later saying that it’s okay if you take a few personal leave days, you haven’t been using your holiday time since you signed on with them.
thank you. ii appreciiate your under2tandiing.
You spend the rest of the week playing a little game of how-long-can-I-stay-awake with yourself and maxing out Netflix’s store of shitty reality shows. Emptying the ashtray seems to be far more effort than you can manage, so you use a saucer instead, and then another saucer. Your cough is worse now, rattling deep in your thin chest, and you wonder absently if you have lung cancer, and if it matters in the least: on the whole, signs point to no, and you ignore it the way you are exceedingly good at ignoring things you should not ignore.
(Should does not equal can.)
Dimly, a long way away, somewhere up in the column of choking air that fills the hole above you, you’re aware that you’re falling apart in a more impressively dramatic fashion than you’ve ever done before, but you cannot make yourself care.
The doorbell is ringing. You blink up at the ceiling: you’re lying on the couch drifted in blankets, your head pounding and your chest full of cold mud. For a moment or two you can’t figure out if it’s actually real or if you’re still half-dreaming, but then you hear someone muttering outside the door and the chime goes again. Cold anxiety spills into the pit of your stomach: will they go away if you don’t answer or is it the landlord with keys and if it’s the landlord with keys what are you going to say when he sees the state the place is in and fuck, you feel like death, and...
You haul yourself off the couch and hang on to the back of it while your head spins, but only for a moment: then you’re sort of shuffling across the carpet to the door and undoing the locks. You shouldn’t be undoing the locks, of course. You should leave it on the chain in case it’s a burglar, but you’ve already undone the chain and
you stare, because the person who has half-turned away from the door is a slender pale-haired man in dark expensive clothes with exceedingly dated aviator sunglasses shielding his eyes and
jesus fuck you thought you could not be more unhappy than you’ve been but hey, check this shit out, the universe just fucking loves surprising Sollux Captor, and you take an unsteady step back and he’s staring right back at you and you can’t breathe at all: the cough grabs you, drubs you unmercifully, shaking you to pieces and you stagger and
you can’t really see, doubled over, your eyes watering but you are suddenly grabbed and held, smooth warm fabric under your cheek, a pair of arms around you all firm strength against your shuddering weakness, and a familiar voice is saying “fucking Christ, Sollux,” and this is cruel, so fucking cruel, hasn’t the universe had enough fun kicking you in the nuts lo these many years that it has to do this to you and
you just don’t have any strength left at all, and you cling to him because even if he’s just going to vanish again you need this, oh you need this, you need it so bad.
He’s talking, saying something you can’t make out, and then the world rocks and vaults around you as he scoops you off the goddamn floor like a kid and carries you over to the couch. You’re still gasping, trying to make your stupid chest behave, and he disappears; there’s the sound of the kitchen faucet running and then he’s back with a cup of water.
“Fuck, Sollux,” he says. His voice sounds funny. “What happened to you?”
You wonder where you ought to start.
illustrated by the wonderful givenclarity!
As it happens you don’t get very far with explaining that you are perhaps a tiny bit of a mess just at the moment, if you’d known he was stopping by you might have done something like consider picking the empty bottles up off the floor or at least building an aesthetically pleasing pyramid with them, because he waves you quiet and pulls out an iPhone.
“Hey,” he’s saying to someone, still kneeling beside the couch. “Need you to cancel whatever I’m supposed to be doing tonight. Actually, whatever I’m supposed to be doing the rest of this week. Something’s come up.”
You watch Dave dizzily. He hasn’t changed and somehow that’s almost the worst thing yet: he’s exactly the same weirdly graceful improbable series of angles and planes that you’ve seen in your goddamn dreams for so long now, his hair’s exactly the same shade of silver-gilt and cut exactly the same way, short in the back and long in the front in a sweeping French curve of bangs that should look incredibly douchetastic and just looks incredible. You can just see the arch of his eyebrows over the rims of the sunglasses and they’re drawn together in what has to be a frown.
“The investors can suck it,” he’s saying. “Worlds are not going to end if they don’t get to see me for a couple more days, crazy as it may seem to imagine. Send them a fruit basket or something.” He pauses, and you can tell he’s rolling his eyes, there’s almost no evidence but you know that little quirk of the eyebrows so very well. “--Resignation not accepted. Stay chilly, babe.”
“...what are you doing?” you ask, blinking at him as he slips the phone back into his pocket.
“Right now I’m hauling your ass to the shower, cause I get the whole unwashed programmer trope, I really do, but you kind of fucking reek, Captor.”
“No...what...why are you here?” You try not to cough and fail. “What do you want?”
A faint vertical line appears between those half-seen eyebrows, and he seems to shrink almost imperceptibly, as if you’ve punctured him. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says, “and thought I’d stop by. Come on, up.”
He hauls you to your feet; you make a brief flaily effort to extricate yourself from his grip but he’s still as strong as you remember and you are almost completely worn to shreds, and you just slump and let him propel you to the bathroom and try, try so hard, not to think. You try not to think as he shrugs out of his two-thousand-dollar jacket and rolls up his sleeves; you try not to think as he peels you out of your disgusting clothes, or as he deposits you in the steaming water--oh god that’s nice, that’s ridiculously nice--or as he soaps up a washcloth and gets on with scrubbing away your grime.
You manage to hang on until his long clever fingers are working shampoo into your hair (your disgusting greasy hair, your brain pipes up gleefully) and then the awareness that millionaire cinematic wunderkind Dave Strider is actually here in your apartment and is actually washing your hair for you breaks whatever fragile dam is left and you are crying in horrible convulsive retching sobs that echo terribly in the little room. Oh God it hurts to cry like this, your chest is knotted tight and each gasp aches.
“Ah, fuck,” says Dave, and he just wraps his arms around you, wet and covered in lather as you are, and holds you tight while you break into pieces.
You cry for a long time, and when it’s over you feel somehow empty, hollow, a blown eggshell, and you let him finish cleaning you up and hauling you out of the tub, wrapped in towels. He pushes the debris of Cheetos bags and power cords off your bed and finds the pillows that fell down behind the headboard a week ago, and gets you settled under your duvet. Surrounded by warmth and softness, your hair drying in wispy tufts, you look up at him.
“Sollux,” he says, quietly. “What happened?”
“I fell down the hole,” you tell him. You’re floating; you can breathe a little more easily now, and you are so tired. “All the way down. It’s okay. It’s okay, Dave. It fits.”
He looks at you and the line is back between his eyebrows. “How long have you been like this?”
“Dunno,” you shrug sleepily, wriggling a little under the covers. God, this is nice. “When did we graduate again?”
It seems like that was the wrong thing to say because Dave actually slumps, the perfect line of his shoulders breaking, and he says “Sollux” in the sort of voice that you would probably really regret hearing if you weren’t so dreamy and zoned out right now. You drift a hand bumping over the duvet to pat his knee clumsily.
“‘s okay,” you tell him again, and then you let your eyes close and fall away from the world.
You don’t dream, or at least you don’t dream anything you can remember when you drift awake again curled up like a comma around your pillows. You’ve been drooling. For a while you can’t really remember how you got here, and then it comes back to you in little light feather-touches of memory: Dave catching you as you staggered, Dave telling his phone to cancel things, Dave washing your back for you, Dave holding you as you cried like a goddamn baby.
For some reason none of it hurts very much. You sit up and the movement shifts stuff in your chest and it makes you cough, and the door opens and he’s there: he’s still there, he’s still real.
He looks...tired, you think. It’s very hard to tell but you know him well enough to pick up the little hints: the way the hair is ever so slightly not quite smooth in the front, the little lines faintly bracketing his mouth, the slight stoop to his shoulders. He’s wearing a different shirt and no tie.
“Sup,” he says, and comes over to sit on the edge of the bed, setting a cup of something on the table. “How you feeling?”
“Better.” It’s true: wow, you really had been disgusting, you’d needed a pressure-wash. “Um. How long was I sleeping?”
He checks his phone. “About...sixteen hours, give or take. You needed it. Jesus Christ, Sollux, you are a wreck.”
You chuckle, manage not to start coughing again. “This is not news. Sorry about the, uh, the mess. Didn’t know you were coming over.”
He actually runs his hands through his hair, an astonishingly human gesture. It stands up all over the place and he doesn’t even seem to notice. “God damn it, Sollux, I know you’re the worst at taking care of yourself but this is...how long have you been this bad?”
You investigate the contents of the cup he’d brought: oh, hey, ginger tea. Awesome. “Can’t remember. What day is it? I think I’m on personal leave from work but I might need to, like, email them to check.”
A very faint flush mantles his cheekbones; on anyone else it’d be imperceptible but he is so pale, he always has been, alabaster, marble, that it stands out. “You think?”
Shrug. “My boss said something about it being okay to take some personal days. I should probably call or something. Did you stay here? You changed clothes.”
“Fuck, Sollux, would you snap the fuck out of it? You’re scaring me.” There’s anger in his voice now, actual anger, and you blink up at him, surprised. “Stop being so....ugh, put that down and look at me.”
He takes off the sunglasses.
Now you can see the fatigue, violet stains under the delicate skin beneath his eyes; you can also tell he has aged after all, he’s got lines beginning at the corners of those eyes as well and the bone is subtly more pronounced beneath the skin, but it’s still Dave, and Dave’s eyes are still exactly the crimson of bright oxygenated arterial blood, and he’s looking at you and into you. For the first time since he’d knocked on your door you realize that Dave Strider is unhappy.
“I was this goddamn close to taking you to the hospital,” he’s saying. “You’re not allowed to pull this shit, okay? Don’t you...isn’t...doesn’t anybody know how sick you are? Do you even talk to anybody?”
“I’m fine, I just have a, a cold or something. Probably should eat more, I guess--”
“I can’t stand this,” he says, almost absently.
“Yeah, I know, it’s pathetic--”
“Shut up.” His voice is a cold whipcrack that makes your whole chest tense. “Shut up and actually listen to me instead of whatever bullshit is going on inside your head. Can you do that for me, Captor?”
You nod, wide-eyed.
“I came to see you because I was in the neighborhood, yeah, but also because I wanted to talk to you. You’re the only person I know who actually knows who I am. Shit in the movie business is awesome and great and all that but surprisingly enough it’s also incredibly fucking artificial, and after a while it starts to make you kind of sick, and you start to think hey, you know what would be wicked sweet as shit, hanging out with someone who actually knows you under all the hype: yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
He still hasn’t put the sunglasses back on.
“You always saw through my bullshit, okay? That was like the one thing nobody else ever really did. I guess it...kind of freaked me out a little.”
“Shut up, I’m not done. So I was thinking wouldn’t it be cool to, you know, like, come surprise you. I didn’t forget that you asked me to quit emailing you like five years ago but I guess I thought maybe in the interim you might have changed your mind.”
Something in your chest is closing like a fist, just under the end of your breastbone.
“I had it all planned out and shit. And then I get here and you’re....jesus fuck, Sollux, you’re a goddamn zombie.”
His voice cracks ever so slightly on the last word. “Do you even know what that fucking did to me? Seeing you like that? I thought you were going to be....I don’t know, kicking ass in Minecraft or whatever. I was going to ask you about this video game adaptation the producers won’t shut up about. And you’re...a skeleton with eyes and you’re hacking up your lungs and you haven’t eaten or slept or showered in days and--”
“Dave,” you say again, and whatever it is that’s clenching itself tight in your chest makes it hard to speak. “Dave.”
He ignores you. “So I did the only thing I could think of to do, and I got you cleaned up and in bed and I had my shit sent round from the hotel and I waited for you to wake up because there were some things I wanted to say. But I can’t do this, Sollux. I can’t fucking do this if you’re going to pull this disingenuous bullshit and pretend you don’t know just how sick you are.”
The room blurs through a rising film of tears. “I’m sorry--”
“Don’t be sorry, Christ, just...be honest. Do you want my help or have you given up.”
“More than anything,” you say, and reach for his hand. “M-more than anything, fucking help, if you’re here I have a reason not to give up, do you even know how much I love you, I never stopped loving you, not once, not ever...”
His fingers twine with yours, and then you fling yourself at him and he is holding you again, holding you properly. You press your face into the perfect angle of his neck and shoulder and cling, and you can feel his unsteady breathing, his rapid heartbeat, through every place your bodies touch. His hand cups your head, his fingers slipping between the tufts of your hair, and you feel as well as hear it when he says “I got you, it’s okay, I got you.”
“I g-got you,” you correct, muffled in his shoulder, and he lets out a startled little giggle that sounds like he’s a kid again. “Don’t go away, Dave. Don’t go away again.”
After a while he nudges you and you move to let him climb in under the covers, and curl up again with your head parked on his chest and his heart soothing you to sleep; and you feel lighter than air, as if the circle of his arms is the only thing stopping you from floating away like a Sollux-shaped balloon, into air that is suddenly easy to breathe.
This time when you wake it’s to the sound of him on the phone. He has a very memorable voice, not just because of the accent or the deadpan delivery; it’s a tenor, evenly modulated, smooth and perfectly supported. If voices had colors you think this one would be amber, a warm sort of golden-amber like honey with light through it.
Some of the effect is ruined by what he’s actually saying, of course. “--I know what Stayne said, and what I want you to tell him is that he can get in the growing and impressively well-behaved line of people waiting to suck my balls. Shit is an example of humanity’s inherent capacity to wait with patience. No, even if he jacks up the price, I am not flying back to fucking Malibu for at least two more days. He can find some asshole to wear the shirt and shades and dub me in afterward if he has that pointy of a stick up his nethers about it.”
You roll over lazily, rubbing at your face: you feel wrung out, triturated, used, but no longer breathlessly weighed down by the responsibility of existing. God, this is a comfortable bed compared to the couch. You should maybe sleep in it more often.
He’s sitting on the end of the bed and twists round to look at you when you move, and there’s a quick flicker of a smile just for you on his face before he has to return his attention to whoever he’s talking to. “I said. It’s personal. Do I not get to have an actual existence outside the studio? Cause I’m pretty sure that wasn’t in the contract, I read those things before I sign them. I swear to God I will go talk to the damn investors, I’ll even wear a tie, but before I do that I have something else to take care of.”
Dave switches the phone to his other shoulder and reaches out to rest his hand on the little mountain-range of your feet under the covers, giving your toes a squeeze. “Shelly, Shelly, hey, listen to me, babycakes, sugartits, my dearest filthy assistant, you just tell them what I said and direct them to my phone or to hell, whichever you feel like, and if they give you a hard time I will take care of it when I get back to the west coast. You got my word on it.”
You smile sleepily up at him and wriggle your toes under his fingers, and while his expression doesn’t change his voice has warmed when he tells the mysterious Shelly to stay cool and ends the call. “--Hey, babe. How are you feeling?”
“Mmmm,” you say, and then your stupid cough decides comic timing is in its repertoire. God damn it.
Dave puts away his phone and comes around to rub your back while you hack and wheeze, and fuck but that feels nice. He lets you droop against his shoulder when you’re done. “--that great, huh? Listen, you are in no shape to travel right now, but...”
You look up at him, and he kisses your forehead, a light brush of cool lips. “But?”
“Let me take you away from all this,” he says, with an expansive gesture, and it’s so Dave that you have to burrow closer against him to remind yourself that this is real and you are not dreaming: it’s genuine and ironic and genuine layered on one another like a ridiculous lasagna of intent, and you know like nobody else in the world probably knows that he means every syllable. “Come with me to the Casbah and we shall make beautiful musics together.”
You hesitate only a fraction of a moment: what, leave your lousy job and your messy apartment and your howling fucking loneliness at the drop of a hat and go away with the man you have been stupid for all your adult life?
“Ooh, Mithter Thtrider,” you say, muffled in his shoulder. With anyone else you would have to ask “do you mean it” or “are you serious” or really?” but this is Dave, and you know he will take you away from all this and over to all that.
“Good, that’s settled then.” Dave nuzzles the top of your head. “Fuck, I missed you, you know that? All the time I missed you. Tried to tell myself I didn’t, but I suck at that.”
You wind your fingers in his shirt and press against him as if you’re trying to burrow all the way inside. You can’t talk about this, not yet, but you think he knows--he has to know--how much he’s been missed himself. He strokes your hair, your back, rubbing little circles over the knobbles of your spine with his fingertips, and you think of those fingertips deftly spinning records and sliding switches, typing almost as fast as you do--and of them doing other things as well, things you haven’t thought about in so long it comes as a surprise when they return to your consciousness.
“I gotta talk to these investor guys, but I pushed that back a couple of days,” he’s saying. “Here’s what’s gonna happen: you are going to rest and do stuff like eating food and taking meds and similar responsible shit, and then when you’re in better shape we’ll go home.”
At “home” you make a soft little helpless noise, and Dave pulls back enough to look you in the eyes, concerned. You swallow hard. “It’s okay. I just. I kind of. Spent a long time wanting to hear that is all.”
He hisses and hugs you tight enough to make you cough, and then you’re both laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Because it is absurd, everything about this is absurd and also kind of wonderful.
When he’s gone to order food, or magically make it out of nothing in your unstocked kitchen or whatever, you curl up around the pillows again and think. (For once this doesn’t hurt.)
You’re fucked in the head; that has never not been a thing that was true, you’ve been fucked in the head all your life to varying extents. You have been on medication for it from time to time and this has tended to even out your cycles and make life less unbearable; you haven’t seen anyone in ages to discuss medication and you haven’t wanted to. You don’t want to now, really. The pills took the edges off the downswings but they also took away that magnificent heady sensation of being alive your brain would give you in return for all the shittiness. You think, fucked-up or not, that dichotomy is part of who you are--and, distantly, somewhere, you’re aware that this is not a helpful thought.
It is amazing how much the world seems different, now that Dave has come back. The intervening bad years are like a shitty dream hanging in the back of your head, nearby but not immediate, forgettable with effort. You think that perhaps it’s possible that this could work. That when he takes you home with him
you’ll be allowed to stay, and you can wake up next to him and you can watch him working and not have to worry that he’ll get tired of you again and go away.
Which leads you to the other aspect. It is such an indescribable gift to have him back at all, for any reason, that you are squirming away from addressing this part, you’re not ready to say the words out loud, in case they do backfire and this does stop and you do ruin it; but you...do not want him to think he has to be with you to stop you falling apart.
You will fall apart without him, that’s not really in question, but he doesn’t need to know that and you don’t, you really don’t want to guilt him into something he doesn’t actually want for himself. This is new: back when he’d first left you you would have been glad to tie him tight to you with ropes of guilt and responsibility, you would have taken any chance, any path, any opportunity to have him back, whatever the cost. Now, older and quieter, you know that it would eat at you unbearably to know that he was staying so you didn’t self-destruct. You want to be wanted, not...preserved and maintained against entropy, like the emotional equivalent of a small British sports car.
Dave comes back, whistling, carrying a tray with bagels and coffee. You try to think where the hell he could have got them, and then what the hell restaurant delivers bagels at--according to your alarm clock--eleven a.m., and then you decide that Dave’s personal magic extends to the miraculous procurement of food without needing further explanation. Sitting up, you wriggle over to give him room on the bed beside you, and he drops a kiss on the top of your head.
(You need a haircut, jesus, the stuff’s all over the place, long enough to get into your eyes.)
Another interesting thing you’ve discovered is that you actually want food. For the past several weeks you’ve sort of eaten things when you remember to, now and then, not hungry at all; now you can’t seem to get enough and you practically inhale your bagel. He’s watching you with his mouth quirked slightly up at one corner: on anyone else it would be practically expressionless but for him it’s a broad smile.
“...what?” you ask, licking cream cheese off your fingers.
“Nothing,” he says. “Just you. Looking at you.”
You can feel the tips of your ears go hot pink, and he chuckles, and hands over the remaining half of his breakfast. “Eat up, it’ll do you good. If I’m going to steal you away from the greedy clutches of the east coast I guess we better let your boss know, huh?”
Oh. Right, yeah, that’s a thing you should do. You nod, chewing. “She’s pretty cool. I mean...the job is boring as all hell but she’s been okay to work for.”
“I’ll make some calls,” he says, settling back with an arm around you. “See if I know anyone around here who could step in on a temporary basis while she finds a new programmer, because fuck if I am going to wait around for two weeks’ worth of notice.”
You have to chuckle a bit. The ordinary world is something that happens to other people, it seems, not Dave Strider. “Tell me about moviemaking?”
“Aaah, you don’t want to hear about moviemaking, it’s long periods of frustration interspersed with brief moments of intense activity and/or hookers and blow.”
“No, I do, I want to hear about it.” You lean against him. “Cause it’s what you do. I want to understand what you do.”
Dave is quiet for a moment or two, his arm tighter around you. When he speaks his voice is ever so slightly unsteady at first, before smoothing out into its standard amber drawl. “--Well. If you’re gonna put it like that. --The hookers and blow are kinda compulsory, you understand, you arrive in Hollywood and they’re like ‘here is your complimentary vial of cocaine and young woman made up of at least 70% postconsumer recycled products off whom to snort it, welcome to the city of angels sir.’”
You snicker helplessly, and he rescues your coffee cup from tilting dangerously over the covers, and settles you against his side for story time.
Whatever you’ve come down with isn’t through with you yet: your temperature rises all afternoon and you’re fretful and irritable and your chest and throat are sore with ineffective coughing. Despite your protests, Dave puts on his non-iconic regular person sunglasses and goes out to the corner store to buy you medicine, and then bullies you into taking it, and then brings you tissues when the Mucinex starts to work.
By nightfall you are exhausted, but your breathing isn’t bubbling and crackling any more and he says you’re down to 99.5 and pronounces himself satisfied; you think he means it, the tiny worried line between his eyebrows is fading. It is such a strange feeling having anyone worry over you at all, let alone Dave Strider, that you don’t really know what to think. You’re used to being sick, you catch cold all the time, but you are not used to being taken care of; the sheer novelty is enough to make you do as you’re told and lie biddably in bed and drink the tea he brings you.
It occurs to you to wonder, warming your hands round the cup, if he’s ever like this with anybody else, if anyone even knows he’s capable of it. This Dave--this competent, effective, sensible Dave with his kind hands and his magical ability to provide sustenance--you want, rather desperately you want to have this Dave all to yourself. You think this as you drink tea and grudgingly accept a nyquil capsule; you think it as you curl up and press yourself against his side, wanting his warmth, his solidity, his realness; you think it as you fade into vague greenish dreams.
In the morning your temperature’s gone down, and he lets you get up and shuffle round the apartment picking up things you actually want to keep and putting them in boxes. Now that you’ve been eating actual food on a regular basis you find that wandering around isn’t the exhausting prospect it’s been for ages, and despite the lingering cough you’re actually feeling something close to excited, possibly even the edges of energetic. You look at your inbox before you shut down your computers to pack them, and realize you don’t actually have to worry about any of these dipshit questions from the other programmers ever again, and your heart leaps up with great and undeniable fucking joy.
(You had made the call to your landlord saying you’re breaking the lease while still curled up in bed with Dave, which had felt kind of sinful and magnificent at the same time.)
The things in your life that you want to hang on to are...surprisingly few, when you come to think about it; your computers, of course, all your computers and computer parts; your DVD and game collection; the little stone statue of a cat AA had sent you from her dig two years ago that was actually supposed to be in a museum of Egyptian antiquities; some clothes; your books. It makes a somewhat pitiful stack of boxes in the middle of the floor. The furniture you really couldn’t give a shit about, and he says blithely that it’s fine to leave that shit behind, if there’s any issue with the landlord he’ll handle it.
(The sheer nonchalance with which he tosses off this piece of information is kind of hot.)
Dave straps the boxes up with squawking packing-tape and scribbles something on the top with a Sharpie you realize he probably carries around to sign autographs. “Ta-da. For once, you don’t got to worry about UPS dropkicking your shit, or airline weight limit fees, this stuff is going with us.”
“...wait,” you say. “I thought we were going to fly to California.”
“We are, but fuck a bunch of commercial passenger aviation. Unless, wait, damn, Sollux, did you have your heart set on spending six hours in the company of a shitload of your fellow human beings, some of whom will of statistical necessity be screaming babies, while strapped into a seat apparently designed by vandals?” He reaches for his phone. “Lemme cancel the Gulfstream.”
You can’t help laughing. “Fuck you, Strider. Of course you have your own private jet, what was I even thinking?” Jesus Christ, you’re actually thinking, a private fucking jet.
“Dunno, babe, but if you’re going to fly with a Strider you are going to do it in style, that’s really all there is to say on the matter.”
It is super hard not to bounce up and down on the god damn bed in Dave’s private jet. You feel kind of like Cinderella, and kind of like you’re totally going to wake up any minute now and all this will be properly relegated to the realms of the unreal, where it belongs. The fact that Dave can cause magical things to happen by throwing money at them is...well, overwhelming, and difficult to comprehend in its enormity.
So you just fling yourself on the bed instead and you do let yourself bounce a little bit, grinning like an idiot and hugging yourself. Dave comes back from chatting with the pilot and has to laugh when he sees you.
“It’s insane,” you say, truthfully. “All of this is batshit insane, Dave, I cannot even believe this, come here.”
He flops on the bed beside you and you wrap your arms around him tight and hug, aware that for all his eldritch economic powers he is still just a person, with all these ribs and muscles and wonderful angles and planes you want very much to get to know again. He makes a startled little oof noise when you squeeze him tight, and then he’s holding you, far more gently, as if you’ll break.
You don’t want to break.
Dave slips his fingers into the messy tufts of your hair, and you lean up toward him, simple piteous yearning need rather than thought driving you, and he closes the distance and lets you claim his mouth with yours. Lips are soft, you realize, you remember that now, you had forgotten; lips are soft and warm and have odd magic of their own.
At first it’s you in charge, which is supremely strange and very lovely, and then once you grow a little bolder and explore the California-perfect edges of his teeth with your tongue he gasps a little into the kiss and then he turns hungry.
It’s...probably for the best that the pilot asks you to please take your seats for takeoff when she does, because you are gasping rather badly, your chest still sore, and while you want nothing more than to cling to Dave Strider and kiss him until your ears ring, he is looking concerned. “You okay, Sollux?”
You nod, swallowing, and find your voice. “Y-yeah. Very okay.” You have not been kissed in a very long time, let alone anything more than being kissed. He cups one long hand to your cheek, looking at you sternly through the shades, and then nods, apparently satisfied.
...the seats on Dave’s private jet are stupidly comfortable and have those massage-y things in them that knead your back rhythmically, holy fuck, and then the plane is gathering speed. You watch out the window as the runway blurs and the engines whine on an ascending note. All at once Logan falls away from beneath you, the complex knots of roads and streets and old-new-ancient buildings of Boston rapidly dwindling to toy-size, unreal. It feels as if you are leaving the last five years of your life behind, down there, as if they too are shrinking to nothing with the mirage of distance.
It’s briefly a little bumpy as you break through the cloud layers, still climbing, but you level off high above the world in an empty cloud-floored blue vault and you are so steady you might as well have been sitting on a beach listening to the roar of surf instead of engines. The pilot’s voice over the intercom says that you may now move around the cabin and that she hopes you enjoy your flight.
You enjoy your flight.
You enjoy the fact that on private jets you can have flight attendants or, if you prefer, nobody but you and the people flying the plane, and that Dave lets you have a bowl of Lucky Charms for lunch. He spends the flight mostly sprawled on the bed with you curled up beside him; you watch movies. There’s the gathering awareness of words that are going to need to be said at some point, but you are drowsy with the drone of the engines and the unaccustomed activity and you start to fall asleep somewhere over Nebraska and don’t even try to fight it.
When you land there is a limo waiting for you. It is....it can’t be pink, can it? With whitewall tires? You decide not to think about that too hard and just let Dave shepherd you to what looks a hell of a lot like Tony Stark’s cliffside palace minus all the computer shit and plus a truly stunning array of sound and film editing equipment. The rest of the day is a blur of time-zone confusion and phone calls and the dry air of the plane had done things to your chest and when Dave stops ameliorating the mess your existence has caused in his life and his schedule for long enough to tell you to go the hell to bed, you don’t disagree.
In the morning you wake up alone, and the disappointment is almost a physical pain. You curl up under the covers in a small knot and try to go back to sleep again, but it doesn’t work, and after a while you emerge and notice the note that’s been sitting on the table beside the bed all along.
(It is a very nice bed. It is like a waterbed only full of gel, so rather than sloshing seasickly around you are buoyed up on a sort of gently yielding surface. And the sheets smell of him.)
(You do not want to think about how many other people may have slept where you are lying now.)
The note is folded in half and perched like a little tent beside a sleek alarm clock. It reads
sorry about this babe
was hoping to at least spend the morning here but the studio called
can’t nobody do nothin’ right without me around its pathetic but i gotta go into work and try to fix some of this bullshit
hope to be back in the afternoon if not ill call
go explore the place
just dont reprogram all my stuff with fucking linux or some shit
see you soon
dave motherfuckin “fix-it” strider
You read it over several times and then fold it up and put it back on the table, sitting up. All at once, for absolutely no logical reason, you are desperately helplessly homesick for your abandoned lair on the other side of the country, for your familiar squalor and the reliable, unexciting rhythm of your empty life. Everything here is too bright and too new and worth far too much and then there’s you plopped in the middle of it like an embarrassing school arts project on a designer coffee table, and you’re tatty and inelegant and fairly comprehensively broken and wouldn’t it have been better if he’d left you where he’d found you after all--
No, you think, fuck that and fuck you, brain, and you haul yourself to your feet and pad over to the gigantic wall of windows overlooking the Pacific. It sparkles. It’s bright blue, almost purple-blue. You can see the sweep of a beach down the coast to your right, with pretty people frolicking about on it wearing garments that on anyone who wasn’t at least 70% postconsumer recycled plastic would have been deeply fucking regrettable.
You rest your forehead on the glass and close your eyes. In Boston it’s probably raining.
Dave’s computers are unsurprisingly pretty goddamn amazing, but you don’t fuck with them beyond a brief examination. His music stuff has always been beyond your comprehension, but the computers you are at least capable of appreciating. There’s a tiny theaterlet with six cushy seats and an expensive projector; there’s a kitchen with your standard millionaire-mansion granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. The fridge door is stacked with apple juice. He hasn’t changed.
You drift aimlessly round his enormous house, not really noticing that you stay away from the windows as much as you can. The sunlight in Malibu feels like it’s far too intrusive, much brighter, as if the sun itself is closer to the earth; it wants to see in, and you don’t think you’re supposed to really be seen here. Or at all, but particularly not here, in this house.
You try watching a movie--not in his baby theater but on the vast entertainment center in what you assume is his main living-room; you have seen hot tubs smaller than the television mounted on the wall. It takes you no time at all to work out how his system’s set up and you locate a thing of microwave popcorn in his pristine kitchen and you sit in the middle of his huge fucking couch and you can’t handle it; maybe Flight of the Navigator was a dumb choice of movie, you two used to watch it in college in the drift of clutter that was your dorm room and trying to watch it here in this enormous space makes you feel so small. So fucking small and so out of place.
Eventually you retreat to the bedroom and you take out your laptop and access his wireless network with a little tiny flicker of triumph--jeez, Dave, you need to be less predictable in your password choices--and that works, that’s better. Hunched over your little familiar screen looking into your little familiar online world, you can almost forget the awareness that you don’t belong here. You fall into the goddamn internet and it closes over your head without a ripple and that feels good, that feels incredibly good, so hearteningly normal.
You don’t come out of it until late in the afternoon, unaware of how much time has passed until you see where the shadows on the floor lie: the phone is ringing. DS, says the caller ID.
“Hey,” he says, distant through the connection. “Listen, Sollux, fuck, I am so sorry about this but it--”
“It’s fine,” you tell him. “Seriously. I’m cool. Do your stuff that you have to do, okay?”
“Are you sure? I could--”
“It’s fine.” You are not, you are not going to be an impediment in the work life of Dave fucking Strider. “Bring me back donuts or something, I am not gonna have a roast in the oven waiting for you.”
“Shit, and here I was hoping you’d be hoovering in pearls,” he says, and you can hear the edges of a smile in his voice. “Okay, donuts, check. See you tonight, babe.”
“See you,” you say, and put down the phone, and you don’t even realize it when you wrap your arms around yourself as if you’re freezing cold. If you were home you’d just burrow under blankets on your Ikea couch and settle in to slay a bunch of pixels in Warcraft or something but...you aren’t, and so you just look at the silent phone for a moment longer before going back to your laptop again and sinking back into distraction.
He isn’t home by what the clocks insist is 7 pm but which feels a hell of a lot more like 10, and somewhere in there your desire to stay up and wrap around him like an octopus the second he gets back has metamorphosed into a desire to be asleep before he does come home. It’s still surprising you how goddamn much effort it takes to do things like be awake and walk around, and you think you must have been sicker than you realized. It’s okay to crash early, right? That’s a thing that is acceptable when you’ve been ill.
You locate a forest of vodka bottles in his vast SubZero freezer and have a nightcap, and that makes things a bit nicer in your head; you take your buzz back to crawl under his covers and curl up in a small knot. You maybe should have had something to eat other than microwave popcorn, but eh, fuck it, you’ll do that tomorrow.
You’ll do everything tomorrow. Today was just...weird.
It’s probably still raining in Boston and the skylight in your empty apartment will be rattling softly with the impact of the raindrops, a familiar and comforting sound. In your abandoned bedroom the old radiators might be banging and hissing a little if it’s cold enough for the landlord to turn on the heat. Your fridge will be humming to itself.
You swallow hard and bury your face in alien pillows and try not to think of anything at all.
He’s there when you wake, also curled up around the pillows: he always slept like that, making himself small the way he never did while awake. The bed is warm and comfortable and you can feel the slow rhythm of him breathing.
You lie there for a long time, staring up at the ceiling. It’s a nice ceiling. It has elegant recessed lighting in it. It does not, however, have answers for any of the things you need answers to, and eventually you slip out of bed, careful not to wake him, and go out through the glass doors to the balcony overlooking the ocean and the now-empty strip of beach. It glows dully in the light of an autumn moon halfway up the sky.
He has a life here, an actual life, the kind that real people do--well, all right, the kind that fairytale people do. You love him desperately and you will probably never stop loving him until you’re all the way dead, but that doesn’t actually figure significantly in the question of whether he needs to have you around here being awkward and damaged and not knowing what to say to his rich friends, or knowing how to be at home in a house five times the size of any house you’ve ever lived in. You want to be with him but you don’t want to be with him if it means he’s constantly having to adjust his life to fit you into it--and you definitely don’t want to be with him if he’s doing it out of some dim custodial urge: keep Sollux from disintegrating.
You lean on the balcony rail and wish you knew where you’d put your cigarettes. It’s cold out here, but that’s okay, that doesn’t bother you. That you’ve completely lost control of your life bothers you, and you’re uncomfortably aware that you lost it a while back and didn’t even notice.
You’re not sure how long it’s been when the door slides whisper-soft open behind you and Dave’s there. “Hey,” he says. “You okay?”
You don’t turn away from the view, and you have to swallow hard. “Yeah. Jet lag, I guess. Sorry, did I wake you?”
“Nah.” He comes up beside you and puts an arm around your shoulders, and you can’t relax into it, you can’t; you feel yourself trembling with taut anxiety. “--Shit, man, what is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” you start to say, and then you lose patience even with yourself, and just sigh. “Why are you doing this?”
“Doing what?” Dave sounds honestly puzzled.
“Taking me in. I mean. How is this supposed to work? You don’t...have to keep an eye on me to make sure I’m not taking the toaster to the bath or, or mistaking vodka for a well-balanced diet. You shouldn’t feel like you have to be my keeper.”
“...the fuck are you talking about?”
“I don’t fit here, Dave. I need to know why you want me to be here even though I don’t fit.”
“Christ,” he says wearily, and takes you by the shoulders and turns you to face him. He’s not wearing the shades, and in the moonlight his eyes are a weird almost violet color, his hair tousled silver, his skin practically glows. You bite your lip at the terrible strangeness of the sight: he could be from another planet, he could be built entirely of gems and costly metals. “Captor, you complete idiot, I want you here because I want you here. Because I want you, and who gives a shit if you don’t ‘fit’ here, you don’t have to change to be with me or live in this house. It’s not on you to fucking conform.”
You look away, anywhere but at his eyes. “I’m just. Not seeing what you’re getting out of the deal.”
“What I’m--” He shakes you, like a recalcitrant child, and your head wobbles and you blink at him, and then he’s wrapped you up in his arms and is holding you almost painfully tight. “What I’m fucking getting out of the deal is you, you dipshit, I walked away from you once and spent five goddamn years regretting it and now that I’ve got you back I fucking want you, okay? I want to...wake up next to you and breathe morning breath all over you and see how long it takes you to realize you have eye boogers. I want to fight over the remote with you and have long stupid drawn-out arguments over operating systems until we both forget what the fuck we’re even talking about. I want to make music for you and have you there when I play it for the first time. I want to have exclusive rights to play with your hair and that one little freckle right here at the back of your neck and I want to fucking live with you, Sollux. Okay? That’s what I want.”
You wriggle a little until you can touch your face. “Do I have eye boogers?”
“Do I care?” Dave demands, and takes your head in his hands and kisses you until your head swims and your ears sing and the heavy strangeness of the day spent alone in someone else’s life seems to crack all over you and fall away like brittle concrete shards.
“Come to bed,” he says against your mouth, and you nod a little and he takes your hand and draws you back inside the warmth of the house. You’re both wearing pajama pants and nothing else and his hands are all over you, lovely slender strong-fingered hands warm against your chilled skin and he’s kissing you again, kissing you hungrily, as if he can make up for five years of absence all at once. His skin is so smooth against yours, almost hairless, and he tastes of Dave, steel and apples and electric-arc ozone.
You are out of practice but you have not forgotten his body, or the little delightful things it does when you nibble just here or dig your fingers in there, and you are both desperate and there’s no space or time for artistry. You realize dizzily in some part of your brain that’s still receiving a fraction of bloodflow that he’s repeating himself without words, he’s...telling you again what he’s already said, how he loves you and he wants you and he needs you despite whatever bullshit you might think to spew as a distraction--and then you say oh and all that remains of conscious objective thought is entirely gone in a slamming shock-front of pleasure, and you are nothing at all but nerve endings sparkling and glittering in overloaded joy.
Some little time later you’re lying tangled up with him tracing circles on his chest with a fingertip, enjoying the steady rhythm of his heart beneath your touch, when something occurs to you. You must have made some sort of noise, or tensed up, because his hand which has been drifting over your shoulders settles warmly on your nape. “Hmmm?” he says.
“Nothing. Just...thinking.” You prop your chin on his chest. “Nothing dire. Just a different interpretation of...stuff I’d always kind of thought meant something else.”
“Sollux, I am entirely too fucked-senseless to interpret that sentence right now,” he says, sleepily, and you have to grin. “Go to sleep.”
“I’m gonna, I’m gonna.” You nuzzle his chest and stop stabbing him with your chin, settling beside him more comfortably. “Love you.”
“Nnh. Good. Be fucking inconvenient otherwise.” He pats at you with the drunken uncoordinated grace of the nearly totally asleep, and you smother a giggle in his shoulder.
You had forgotten an important part of the structure of the mad girl’s love song. It starts out
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead
but immediately afterward
I lift my lids and all is born again.
You think, lying in Dave Strider’s arms, that after years of darkness you might be capable of opening your eyes again--with care, and practice, and time, but you think there is something left yet to be born, if you make the effort in good faith.