"Okay, wait, what?"
"You heard me, Kev," Javier answered defensively, as though he had expected Kevin to act like he'd merely offered his opinion on the latest summer blockbuster and not at all like he'd said—what he just had.
Despite the dense ruckus of the Old Haunt's patrons, Javier was right, Kevin didn't think he'd misheard, exactly. It was just difficult for him to make any sense of it otherwise...
"Look," Kevin said, still trying to process, though between his partner's tone and the way certain parts of the statement had parsed through his subconscious, he was already a little annoyed, "I know you don't really like her, but you could have just said 'no'. You don't have to make up some ridiculous, exaggerated comment like that."
"I'm not exaggerating," Javier said, taking a drink of his beer. Though the gesture seemed exaggeratedly casual, like he very much wanted Kevin to forget he'd said anything.
"Seriously, what kind of insane ass thing is that to say?"
"You asked," Javier replied, a note of irritation in his voice as well, which where did he even get off...?
"I asked," Kevin allowed, voice raising slightly, "but I expected an answer that made some kind of sense."
"I gave you an honest answer," Javier defended quietly, his expression guarded and unaccountably hurt.
"How is that—"
"You asked me if I wanted to be the best man at your wedding," Javier cut in fiercely, recapping with a strained frustration ringing in his voice that Kevin really didn't understand, "I told you that, no, I don't think it's a good idea. You were the one who insisted I explain why. And if you can't accept the answer, that's not my problem."
When the tirade ended, Kevin was left at a loss for words. And he was still grasping fruitlessly for a response when his partner threw his cash down on the counter for his drinks and walked away, leaving Kevin painfully confused. He wasn't sure how long he stood there before Castle finally approached, sidling up with an expectant smile.
"So, how'd it go?"
"I don't even know," Kevin answered honestly, dazed. "He said no."
"He said no?" For his part, Castle seemed almost as baffled as Kevin was. "Did he say why?"
Kevin hesitated, running the conversation over again in his head. When the memory failed to resolve itself into anything more sane, he reluctantly repeated what Javier had just told him, still completely unbelieving that his partner had said it.
"He said...because he's an alien, and if he shows up at the wedding, he'll be forced to eat my fiance."
It took a little planning, but the next morning, Kevin was able to corner his partner in the break room during a lull that would provide them a moment alone.
"Okay, were you high last night? Because seriously―"
Javier let out a sigh, but didn't look up from filling his mug.
"Are we going to have this conversation again?" Javier asked, tiredly. "I said no, Kevin. Let it go."
"I can not let it go, bro," Kevin said, incredulously. "You say something insane like that to me, how the hell am I supposed to let that go?"
Javier just shook his head dismissively and pushed past him—like Kevin was the one who was acting insane. Following after, Kevin fully intended to continue the argument, but Gates called out across the bullpen.
It was a hot case and a hard one, and for a while Kevin completely forgot about Javier's messed up joke.
Two days later, they were both left haunted by the ghosts of greed and a grieving mother and a kid that would never get the chance to grow up. Neither of them felt like being alone, and it wasn't the sort of thing Kevin was comfortable bringing home to Jenny. By unspoken agreement they met at Javier's that night, Kevin bringing the liquor while his partner ordered a pizza they both knew neither of them would touch.
Buzzed early on an empty stomach, Kevin was desperate to find something to distract them both. Their weird exchange earlier in the week came almost immediately to mind. At the time, the conversation had been almost too surreal to process, but on reflection he found it bothered him more than it probably should have. Besides the fact that his best friend had refused to be involved in the biggest day of his life, Javier wasn't the kind of person to make up off the wall shit like that.
"I give up," he said finally, butting in on the heavy silence with a puzzled frown. "Is the alien thing something you and Castle came up with together? Because..."
Javier glanced over at him from his loose sprawl on his couch. Initially wary, he seemed to consider the question a while before giving a faint snort.
"Dude, if I wanted to punk you, I'd just do it," he finally said. "I wouldn't get Castle involved. That shit's not cool."
Kevin frowned at his partner's evasive response, which wasn't even remotely the kind of answer he had been looking for.
"What's not cool is this...I don't even know what it is," Kevin said, throwing his partner a hurt glare. "Explain this to me one more time."
Javier sat still for a moment, looking into his glass silently before he seemed to come to a decision. He took a full swallow, emptying it before he turned sort of sideways on the couch so he could look Kevin in the eye. Even then, several moments slid past silently before he managed to speak.
"I'm an alien," Javier said slowly, enunciating with a care Kevin thought was only half because of the alcohol, "as in not from this planet. If I come to your wedding, I..."
He hesitated, appearing to consider his words very carefully.
"If I did, I don't think I could stop myself from fighting Jenny over you," he continued more steadily, dropping into a 'just facts' voice that only made the confession that much more surreal. "And I wouldn't want to kill her, but I might not be able to help myself—and trust me, neither of us want to see that happen."
And just like the other night in the bar, his partner was straight faced and almost painfully serious. At a loss for a response to that kind of insanity—and, okay, perhaps the alcohol was a factor—Kevin finally just decided to play along.
"Alright, I'll humor you," he said, sitting forward to refill his glass, "but you're very human looking for an alien."
A very faint smile ticked at one corner of Javier's mouth. Letting out a soft breath that was almost a snort he shook his head.
"I am now," he said quietly, and held out his own glass expectantly.
Kevin poured with a faint sigh.
"Fine, I'll bite," Kevin said after they both drank. "What do you really look like? Are we talking grays, Klingon, Avatar?"
Javier frowned into his drink.
"This is what I really look like," he answered moments later, a little sadly. "Originally, though?"
Javier's eyes went a little distant as he appeared to think about it.
"Try a little more... John Carpenter," he finally said.
Kevin blinked, unable to hold in a short giggle.
"The Thing, They Live, or Starman?"
Javier choked around his next swallow. It seemed to surprise even him when it turned into a laugh.
"Okay, seriously bro, who even thinks of Starman?"
Kevin gave his arm a shove, some of his irritation returning.
"Seriously, dude, who even has this conversation?" Kevin said, mind still distantly boggled. "You're the one trying to tell me you're some kind of alien shapeshifter."
"I'm not a shapeshifter," Javier argued, seeming suddenly defensive—and just a little bit unsettled by the idea.
"Then what?" Kevin asked stubbornly, perhaps misjudging the depths of his partner's discomfort. "If—supposedly, because this is totally insane—you are some kind of non-human thing that can somehow look human, what is that if not shapeshifting?"
Javier paused, eyes closing briefly as though concentrating on his answer
"I'm...just a configuration of cells," Javier answered awkwardly, distantly after a short moment. "One that can be rearranged to match another configuration of cells."
A few seconds ticked past and Kevin's mouth hung open in dull surprise. Honestly, he had never imagined Javier could be this creative—while drunk—not when the man always ribbed him for his own overactive imagination.
"Again," Kevin prodded lightly, once the moment had past, "how is that not shapeshifting?"
"It's not shapeshifting because it changes more than just my shape," Javier answered, shortly and with an odd certainty, "it changes how I function."
He seemed a little off balance and paused, considering.
"When I configure myself after a human, I have a brain that's like a human's," he explained slowly, like it was something he knew but had never been forced to put into words. "I think like a human. In almost every way that counts I am human. I'm Javier Esposito.
"Until I'm not," he finished faintly, sadly, and with a frown.
Somewhere in his explanation, the odd humor from before had slipped out of Javier's tone entirely. Those last words sounded almost maudlin. If he hadn't been drunk, even with a conversation as bizarre and ridiculous as theirs, Kevin thought he might have let it go.
"Until you're not," Kevin repeated blankly. "Right. Or until you decide you want to eat my fiance. Which, again, huh?"
Javier looked at him quizzically, seeming even a little startled. More than confusion at the question, it was almost as though he had forgotten Kevin was there.
"You've met Jenny like...a dozen times," Kevin clarified helpfully.
"None of those times were your wedding," Javier answered, a little self-conscious in his delivery.
"How is that—"
"Right now, you're just Kevin Ryan," Javier interrupted, his attention turning strangely intense. "Right now, you belong to yourself. After the wedding, you'll belong to her. But when you get up in front of the altar—"
He paused, his expression crossing with a fierce confusion.
"The priest is going to ask for anyone's objections, and..." Javier trailed off, shaking his head. "It would be my last chance. And...I don't think I'd be able to stop myself from trying to claim you."
Kevin stared at him blankly. After a moment, Javier's shoulders shifted uncomfortably, and he leaned forward for the bottle. Javier filled his glass, a blank beat passing before he drank.
"Claim me," Kevin said, slowly, trying out the words his mind was failing to really grasp. "Claim me as what?"
Because in the middle of this insane conversation, Javier really couldn't be saying what he was saying, could he?
"As mine," Javier answered hoarsely.
"I know we're not..." Javier trailed off with a tilt of his head, letting the gesture say all sorts of things that he apparently couldn't, "but that would be the right time to make my move, if we were, don't you think?"
"Did I have an aneurism or something?" Kevin finally said, their talk having hit a critical mass of crazy his sodden brain couldn't handle. "This conversation is just freaking impossible."
Javier's head dropped slightly. He tipped the bottle to his glass again, only to find it empty. With a weak sigh, he dropped it onto the table in front of him.
"Look, Kev," he said wearily, "don't worry about it. Go have your wedding. The world's not going to end if I'm not there."
But there was something in Javier's tone that almost made it sound like, for him, it just might.
And suddenly, it had turned into the kind of serious conversation that two people should absolutely not have while drunk. Though, paradoxically, a part of him felt like more drinking had to happen to even begin to deal with it. Another part wondered if the best course of action might not be to just go home. In the end, though, it was a separate part of himself that won out. The part he couldn't be a detective without, that had to pick, and keep picking until the threads pulled easily in his hands.
The idea that this whole thing might be Javier's way of clothing a homosexual attraction in some kind of bizarre dissociation was weirder than average for even that night's conversation. Only, now that he was certain Javier wasn't trying to mess with his head, it was the only answer that made actual sense. Kevin could barely wrap his head around it, but he had to try and understand.
"When you say yours, you mean, like, what?" Kevin asked, finally taking what care he still could with his words. "Like...like your mate or something?"
"There isn't really a word," Javier answered reluctantly, unsure of Kevin's definition. "I guess it'd work. I mean...don't get me wrong, sex is a lot of fun—and I can't say I haven't thought about it. It's just..."
"It's not enough," Javier said finally, overturning his uncertainty to look Kevin in the eye again. "Not intimate enough."
"If I claimed you, what would happen between us would be closer than sex. Close on a cellular level. We'd be inside each other. Connected..." Javier seemed to struggle for the words he needed, shaking his head as he continued with a note of defeat. "Connected in a way it would be impossible for you to even imagine. And we'd belong to each other in a way no ring could ever make real."
Beneath the weight of drink, the whole thing seemed impossibly surreal. Dreamlike. There was a strange, guarded passion and sorrow buried deep beneath the words, deep within his partner's eyes. A bitter sense of loneliness—isolation—with a sharp, hopeless edge. While it was difficult to comprehend where any of it was coming from, just seeing that desperate pain hurt Kevin deeply. He didn't know if there was anything he could do to answer his partner's need for connection—not in the way he wanted—but at that moment the prospect of being connected to someone the way Javier described seemed impossibly attractive. Which was the only explanation Kevin could think of to answer the question of why he said what he did.
"I'd like that."
Javier looked at him, then, and while none of it quite felt real, the expression in his partner's eyes—intense, unnameable, yet somehow oddly hopeful—still produced a shiver.
The next morning Kevin woke up in predictable condition, barely remembering the previous night’s events.
He recalled the conversation, vaguely, but the memory was soft around the edges. Normally, he would never drink to the point of blacking out, but yesterday's case was just the sort of event that occasionally pushed him to make an exception. The agony in his head and the tight, queasy pressure in his stomach made the lack of restraint difficult to forgive himself for, but once those symptoms had passed he was certain that would too.
Levering himself up from Javier's couch it took Kevin a full two minutes to locate his jacket—feeling stupid when he realized he'd been laying on it. Fishing out his phone with a snort, his short-lived amusement quickly fled. There were more than a dozen missed calls, and nearly twice that many unanswered texts—almost all of which were from Jenny. At first that seemed excessive, he knew he'd told Jenny where he was going that night. It wasn't until he started paying attention to the time-stamp that the issue struck him.
The last call had come around 3 pm. Now, it was nearly five o'clock. Kevin had lost almost the entire day.
The realization pulled a mumbled swear out of him, and he was casting around for the rest of his things before he even thought about it. Once he was certain he wasn't about to leave anything crucial behind Kevin intended to say his goodbyes to Javier, but as he entered the hallway he heard the sound of the shower running in the bathroom. That was when he remembered sickly that there were some serious things he and his partner still had to discuss sober. Weighing his options, not really happy with any of them, Kevin finally left a note on the kitchen table and let himself out.
The situation with Jenny was almost as predictable as the hangover. When he called her on the cab ride home, the fight pretty much started as soon as she picked up the phone, simmering patiently to continue when he got there. It was one thing to spend the night drinking with his partner, but it was violently another to spend an entire day at his place passed out drunk.
Kevin had no reasonable argument against that opinion. Still, maybe it was the headache, or the nausea, or the confusion that still clung cobweb-like to the back of his mind, but he simply did not feel up to being yelled at. He found himself becoming unusually upset at her. About the fifth time he bit off a comment that would have been downright hurtful he finally asked her to go, frustratedly insisting that they'd talk about it tomorrow when he got home from work.
After the door had closed behind her, Kevin stood dumbly for almost a full minute. He was exhausted and miserable, and despite having slept most of the day, at that moment he wanted nothing more than to fall into bed. But he was starving, and his normally crisp clothes reeked sickly of sweat and so he threw something in the microwave while he mustered the strength necessary to suffer through a shower.
The sight of himself in the bathroom mirror was almost startling. He was hollow-eyed, and paler than usual. He flat-out looked like crap. He felt like crap, though, and didn't think much of it. It was only when he stripped off his shirt that he found the mark—a tiny puncture on the left side of his stomach. Bloodless, pink and raw-looking, the skin around it was slightly warm, rosy and tender like a rash. The sight of it left him faintly alarmed. Prodding his memory lifted nothing that might explain it, however, and in the end there was nothing he could do but dress it carefully before finally crawling into bed.
The following morning, Kevin didn't feel much better. Still strangely exhausted despite the surplus hours, he had allowed himself to sleep in as long as he could afford. He woke up hungry, though the nausea that pinched his stomach made even the thought of food unpleasant. He was still pale—almost shocky—and while the headache no longer pounded so aggressively, a band of hot pressure had made itself at home inside his skull and showed no hint of wanting to leave any time soon.
When he finally arrived at work, Kate made it clear that she was unhappy with both of them for ditching their share of the paperwork the day before. To make matters worse, Javier seemed to be avoiding him—well, talking to him, anyway. Working hard to make up for the day they had missed, it was impossible for his partner to escape him completely. Which, Kevin found himself explaining to Castle that very day, meant nothing, because Javier was capable of applying the cold shoulder to radical and impressive extremes.
That normally didn't bother Kevin much—at least not in any way he was entitled to complain about—because normally when that tactic was employed he'd actually done something wrong. Kevin wasn't about to say he was surprised that things were...awkward in the face of where the other night's conversation had gone, he simply didn't understand how it had lead to this. Javier had confessed to having feelings for him—at least Kevin was pretty sure that he had. Kevin wasn't angry about that, but if anyone was going to be, shouldn't it have been him?
It was hours before Kevin was finally able to talk to him away from the others. Javier clearly saw his questions coming and tried to evade the conversation but Kevin grabbed his arm, stopping him in his tracks.
"Look, bro," Kevin began cautiously, for though Javier's expression was closed off, he was still aware of an odd skittishness that might have been amusing under very different circumstances. "I know and you know that we have some...things we need to talk about, and I know we both also know this isn't the best place to do it, but...I don't remember much about the other night, so if I did something to piss you off, please, you have to throw me a bone here."
That seemed to soften Javier's expression just a little, and the hurt concern that shown through reminded Kevin how rough he still looked. It wasn't his most proud moment anyway, so he was willing to use that if it was needed. His partner let out a slow breath.
"Okay, Kev," Javier said softly, "Okay... What do you remember?"
"I remember you explained...the alien thing," Kevin started. In his head, "the alien thing" was what he'd labeled Javier's jealousy. Because he remembered that much, even if the rest of the conversation still didn't make any sense. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him that Kevin realized had been in his head since he'd woke the day before, but that he'd unconsciously been avoiding.
"Wait, Javi, we didn't..." Kevin's stomach was tight with guilt before he could even voice the question. Steeling himself he inhaled, pushing forward. "Did we...did we sleep together?"
Kevin didn't think he had seen anyone's mood shift so fast in his life. Concern melted away into a smoldering anger so intense it nearly made him flinch.
"No, Kev," Javier ground out, beginning to pull away, "we didn't."
And Kevin had wanted to keep a hold on him, to keep his partner there until he could shape his world back into something that made sense—but he suddenly found himself snatching back his hand like he'd been burned. As his partner stalked off, Kevin was left shaken.
He would give Javier a wide berth for the rest of that day, telling himself it was because he and his partner both needed the time to cool down before either of them could talk about things rationally. It would take him the better part of half an hour to shake off the unaccountable dread the encounter had left behind. First, however, Kevin found himself wiping his hand on the fabric of his coat as if it could scrub away the memory of the odd sensation he'd felt—caused, undoubtedly, by the lingering effects of his hangover.
Because just for a moment, he'd though he felt the muscles squirm unnaturally beneath his partner's skin.
When things failed to improve the following day—physically, though that other situation wasn't looking particularly healthy either—Kevin finally had to admit that he was (probably) legitimately ill.
Exhaustion had chased him through restless sleep, interrupted by odd fits which woke him, breathless and disoriented. His color wasn't much better than it had been the day before and the bruised shadows around his eyes were tinged with an almost livid redness. His stomach was still raw, but though he forced himself to eat anyway he felt shaky and weak, as though he'd skipped his last three meals. At least the puncture on his stomach was a little less angry looking, though the surrounding skin still felt hot and irritated.
Stubbornly, he decided to try and hold out until the end of the week. They hadn't caught a new case yet, so it wasn't like he was putting anybody at risk. If he was still sick by then he could see a doctor if he had to, otherwise he wasn't about to buckle under for some stupid bug...
He couldn't afford to when the rest of his life was such a mess.
He had been at work for less than an hour before he realized he probably would have been better off not coming at all. When he wasn't too light-headed to think, the only thoughts he had were of how badly he seemed to be failing in the two most important relationships he had. Kevin was still cursing himself out for the miss-step he'd made with Javier. His only bitter comfort was the knowledge that he and Javier hadn't slept together, which meant he wouldn't be forced to make that confession to Jenny.
He was still uncertain whether the fact that he thought he could have was something he ought to admit as well...
Honestly, between the uncertain state of his mind and the worsening state of his body, it was amazing Kevin managed to make it half the day. It was a dizzy spell that finally signaled the end of his valiant efforts, and he counted himself lucky that he made it to the men's room before everything started to turn hazy and muted—
Though perhaps it hadn't been the best place either, because there was nobody there to help when he collapsed.
When Kevin came back to consciousness he was sitting on damp tile. His head was throbbing again, his stomach tight, and just about everything ached... And, as he finally fought his eyes open, he saw that Javier was kneeling in front of him, eyes filled with concern that verged quietly on panic. Delirious, Kevin tried to reassure his partner that he was fine, but his tongue, like the rest of him felt heavy and odd, so he watched mutely as Javier lifted a hand toward his face.
And something...fluttered just under the surface of his own skin as Javier's fingers made contact. It was a strange, startling sensation, sparking a squirming panic that threatened to topple the already feeble control he had over his nausea. Yet, as alarming as it was, Kevin found himself leaning into the touch as the overwhelming sickness seemed to lessen.
His partner's curse was barely audible, but Kevin was happy to hear even that much over the rushing sound that had been drowning out everything else. Though he was much less pleased when Javier pulled his hand away and that ill feeling quickly reasserted itself. The next thing he knew, Javier had pulled him to his knees and he was heaving painfully over the toilet.
The next hour passed in something of a blur. Kevin vaguely remembered Javier saying something to Beckett—some excuse for taking him home—but he couldn't recall the ride that followed.
Things got a bit clearer once he was sitting on the edge of the bed so that Javier could remove his shirt. He realized dully and distantly that it was Javier's bedroom and not his own, but the detail failed to hold any significance in the present moment. Javier finished stripping his clothing and got him under the sheets, quickly removing his own and sliding in beside him. Though the arms that closed around him held him close, however, Javier was very quiet, his muscles tense. Even through the fog of his own discomfort, Kevin found it worrying.
They lay that way for several moments as the shaking and nausea began to recede, and Kevin was finally able to focus past the pain and confusion. Able to react to what was happening and to himself and where he was, naked and clinging tightly to his partner.
"I'm sorry, Kev," Javier was whispering, over and over again, voice tight and afraid, "I'm so sorry..."
It took more effort than he could ever remember needing for Kevin to claw his thoughts together enough to wonder what he was apologizing for.
"Javi?" His voice was a weak, dry croak that he barely even heard, though from the way his partner froze at the words Javier must have at least been aware of the attempt. "What...what's going on?"
Kevin felt Javier's hands stir, fingertips hovering indecisively against his skin as though caught between the urge to comfort and a reluctance to touch. Too weak to turn his head and look, Kevin couldn't meet his eye, but as close as they were he was acutely aware of Javier's every breath and the attitude of his body, and he could feel as well as hear the tension that wound its way into his partner's voice when he finally spoke.
"I shouldn't have done it," Javier said, his voice oddly soft and sad. "I don't know what I was thinking... You agreed, but I knew you didn't really believe me. You were drunk—we both were drunk, and I didn't know what the hell I was doing. God... Afterwards I just hoped it wouldn't take..."
"Hoped what wouldn't take?" Finding some presence in his own voice and thoughts, Kevin pushed his way past the clinging confusion. "Javier...what's happening to me?"
Javier's hands did brush lightly against his arms, then, and he heard his partner take a shaking breath before he answered.
"I think... I think I'm killing you," Javier said. He sounded scared, numb. "I gave you a part of me and...I think it's eating you from the inside. I never meant for that to happen, Kevin, please believe that. I swear to God I never thought it would hurt you like this."
And Kevin desperately wanted to argue that what his partner was saying was crazy. Yet it was obvious that something was going horribly wrong inside him. He didn't know what it was, but he could feel it. And while he couldn't understand how, being close to Javier like he was seemed to help. That didn't even begin to make sense, unless...
Suddenly, he was terrified of more than just the pain in his body. As insane as his partner's claims had been, Kevin realized he was finally starting to believe them.
Kevin was in and out of consciousness for a while after that. Fever still burned hot in his blood, and it grew difficult for him to judge how much time was passing. Whenever he closed his eyes, once he opened them again any number of minutes or hours might have slipped past. However long it was, though, and however deep his sleep, he always knew when Javier left his side.
Mercifully, that wasn't often.
The agony Kevin felt whenever they lost contact was almost overwhelming. It had graduated from nausea and pain in his joints to a deep, paralyzing ache that seemed to drill right into his bones. Each time Javier returned the pain began to recede. Despite the distant awareness that Javier was somehow responsible for that pain, Kevin never could stop himself from burrowing gratefully against his partner's side. More and more often, when he did, Kevin would feel a strange twitch or shudder beneath his flesh—sometimes deep inside himself, sometimes right below the surface. He had tried not to think about it, but his delirium conjured the image of some angry, ravenous thing that had slipped inside of him. A vicious, gnawing something that was trying to hollow him out from the inside, and fell quiet only when Javier was there.
In his fevered sleep he sometimes had nightmares about it.
"Talk to me. Please," Kevin begged him once upon waking, "Tell me about this. Tell me about...what you are."
Because he still didn't understand, and if he was afraid of what he might learn by asking, he feared the empty silence threatening to drag him back into the darkness of sleep even more.
He felt Javier tense beside him. Kevin managed to lift his head enough to look up at him. If Javier noticed he didn't acknowledge it, eyes locked on some point on the far side of the room. It might have been the fog clinging to his thoughts, but Kevin couldn't remember the last time Javier had looked him in the eye. His partner's eyes were pained and a little distant. Distant the way they had been the night that— Kevin still wasn't sure what had happened, but he thought Javier's face was written with the same vague uncertainty. Like he was trying to translate a thought he'd never before had to express.
"I don't know what I am," Javier told him finally, "not for sure. I mean, the alien thing...it's just a guess. The one that makes the most sense, if you can believe it. But...I remember a time before who and what I am now. I remember a sky, and stars, and air, and soil that aren't like anything on Earth..."
"Maybe that was some other planet," he said quietly, eyebrows knitting together in something that was almost confusion, "but it could just as easily be another dimension, or the distant past, or the distant future..."
"It doesn't matter," Javier said eventually, shaking his head. "I don't know where it is. I don't know how I got here. So it all adds up to the same thing."
He paused, wetting his lips.
"I don't have a name for that place or for what I used to be," he continued slowly. "They don't have anything you'd call a language. They're...kind of like animals, really. The most complex configuration might be as smart as a two-year-old—maybe—but for the most part they act on instinct. And they live in...hives, I guess. Colonies. Like ants or termites almost, only..."
Javier shook his head again, eyes widening a little as they stared off into nothing.
"Like a hive only...more. Because a hive of insects is made up of individuals working like a single animal, but the hive I came from was more like a single animal split into pieces..."
Sometimes when Kevin was out he suffered strange dreams. He dreamed about a sky that was the wrong shade, sliding into a cool, dark blue-green, and a tiny white sun that flickered vainly to keep it lit. He dreamed of hot, humid air with an acidic flavor and nights filled with far too many stars. Of fields of rusty, spiraling growths, flecked with colors beyond the edge of purple that shouldn't actually exist to his eye. On the edge of his sleep, sometimes he heard the insect-like buzzing of distant creatures he could not name, though he could picture them clearly and knew even what they would taste like. He dreamed of tunnels that closed around him—warm, snug, and breathing—and hungry, hooked things that slithered past him in the darkness. He could feel the grasp of their questing limbs at times. Smelling, tasting. Connecting. Recognition sparking through nerve-like channels that words could only hope to translate as "part-of-Me".
Kevin woke up once with his head on Javier's shoulder. For once the other man was sleeping. Thoughts still dull with fever, he brushed a hand over Javier's chest. Where their skins touched Kevin could feel little pinpricks of sensation, like the returning awareness of a sleeping limb. He shouldn't have understood what it was, but he thought he did. It was Javier's cells inside his body, connecting with Javier. Communicating. That communication wasn't clear. Not yet. He was still too human—still too much Kevin Ryan—for real understanding to be possible. The thought made Kevin shudder.
He wondered how long that would still be true.
"There's something inside you..." Kevin said to Javier one morning.
Or night. Day. It was impossible for Kevin to even guess anymore. He was still delirious, and he didn't know what he was saying—hell, what he was thinking—half the time. He hadn't even realized he was awake until he had spoken, catching his partner's attention. He wasn't sure what he was trying to say, only knew that there was something important...
"I've been seeing it, I think," he continued, struggling for clarity. "In parts. Like it's inside me too. It's something... Dark. And sharp. And hungry. It scares me."
Kevin fought against the confusion clinging film-like to his thoughts, trying to recover the point he was trying to make. Because he was sure...
He'd had another dream.
This dream had felt different from the other dreams before it. The imagery had been more disconnected, fragmented, and carried a frightening sense of urgency and panic where the others had seemed almost timeless.
A desert somewhere. The cold blue hours before dawn. Terror, hunger, pain—all mixed together and confusing. Gunfire. The taste of blood. A long, lonely trek through cold and heat, sands baked hard by a punishing sun burning and freezing his abraded feet. A light being shone in his eyes. A face. A human face. In the dream he reached out with tanned fingers to touch it. They asked him questions—worried, suspicious—wanting to know what had happened to him. Their words were familiar and understood, yet at the same time strange, as if he'd never heard them before. And they called him by a name he recognized as his own, though at the same time he knew it really wasn't...
"Javier..." Kevin managed to shift his head where it rested against his partner's shoulder, just enough that he could see Javier's face. And he didn't quite understand what the dream had meant, but he knew it was important. "The real Javier..."
And when he felt Javier's breath catch Kevin had no doubt in his mind that man had existed, once. Javier released that breath slowly, his eyes sliding shut as his head dipped in a faint nod, and though his partner seemed resigned—like he'd been waiting for the question all along—several seconds ticked by before Kevin could bring himself to finally ask.
"Did...did you kill him?"
"Yes," Javier answered, very quietly. His voice was nearly lifeless, almost a whisper. "But you have to understand, Kev, when I did... When I did it, I didn't even understand what murder was."
Though he could see the pain that admission clearly held for Javier, Kevin also felt some of the rigidness leave him. And it might have dawned on him earlier had he been lucid, but it was only then that Kevin realized with an uneasy shock that he was likely the only one Javier had ever tried to tell his story. Another long silence passed before Javier spoke.
"I wasn't alone, at first," Javier began, hesitantly. "There were...more. Others from the hive that got cut off from the rest—lost, I guess—though I'm not sure how."
He paused, seeming to debate with himself.
"What it was—what I was—had no concept of time," Javier finally said, "no concept of itself as an individual. The memories it carried belonged to the hive, and they're too shapeless and stretch back too far for me to know which of them, if any, were actually mine. But what I do know is that, nine years ago, it and the others with it wound up here, somewhere out in the Syrian Desert."
"They were—you could almost say confused at being separated from the hive," Javier said, "though it would be going too far to say they were afraid. They didn't possess enough sense of themselves to feel afraid, or even to try and find their way back. And there weren't enough of them—or any of them the right kind—to form a new hive of their own. They were just...
"It's like when an insect loses a leg," Javier said grimly. "That leg twitches for a long time before it accepts that it's dead. The instinctive need to keep serving their function was all that was left..."
And Kevin couldn't say exactly when his eyes slid shut, but as Javier spoke he could almost see it in his mind's eye... Almost, for in his imaginings—and Kevin could pretend that was all they were—the harsh glare of the sun is overwhelming, blinding and oppressive. But the displaced abominations are there, a presence more than image, an unknown and unknowable number of them, all huddled together in a crack in the earth seeking shelter from the blistering rays. Only at night do they squirm forth into the chill darkness. And the small ones scavenge the rocks for insects and vegetation, while each night the larger ones range out in search of larger prey...
"The hive as a whole is a predator as well as a scavenger," Javier continued, perhaps unaware of how Kevin's thoughts had begun to drift— Perhaps. "Its parts can take many forms, and each of those shapes serve its survival a bit differently..."
And Javier's pause was brief, but focused as he was on his partner's voice the strain was impossible for Kevin to miss.
"And one of the creatures that found its way here was a hunter."
Opening his eyes once again, the expression Kevin saw on his partner's face was one he had no clue how to read, seeming painfully split between agonized, haunted, and outright numb.
"Usually it picked off an isolated target and consumed it before returning to the hive," Javier said, his voice dull, "but if the prey was unfamiliar, it could also try to absorb its memories. Find out where more of them could be found, and what kind of defense to expect when striking at its nest, so it could share that information with the rest of the hive.
"If the prey was very dangerous, the hunter could use the creature it had consumed as a template," Javier said, eyes sliding shut as pain finally overtook the lifelessness in his voice, "mimic the form of its prey and infiltrate its nest or herd to pick off others one by one...
"And, nine years ago..." his partner concluded, "nine years ago, Javier Esposito wound up separated from his unit, and—"
There was such horror and grief in Javier's voice that it nearly broke.
"And his tour ended when the hunter found him."
Kevin couldn't have said why, even to himself, but his arms tightened their grip on his partner—perhaps reassuring himself of the solid reality of the man beside him. Even as the fact remained that, if Javier's story were true, his partner was neither real, nor really a man at all.
"You know," Javier said finally, after a long stretch of painful silence, "there's a story I heard while I was over there..."
The shift was subtle, but all the same obvious enough that Kevin could all but feel it. A shift in posture, a shift in voice. It was a shift in the space his partner occupied mentally and finally—finally—Javier's eyes turned to meet his.
"They have stories over there about monsters like me," Javier said to him, and the smile that ticked at the corner of his mouth might have been the most humorless, pained thing Kevin had ever seen, "things called ghuls that could take human form and preyed on humans by luring them away to their deaths. So maybe... I don't know. Maybe I'm not the first. Maybe what I am now isn't something new or unique, but something very, very old."
"I've never known whether I should feel comforted by the idea or not..."
Javier paused, wetting his lips on one false start, nodding his head silently to punctuate another before he finally managed to find his voice again.
"The first thing that I—that I remember," Javier said, voice picking up a sort of false strength, injected perhaps so that he could try to feel it himself, "is coming around in a shallow ravine...maybe a dry riverbed, I'm not really sure. I look down at myself and... And its the most confusing thing. Because part of me doesn't know what it's looking at, and another is trying to figure out why that is, why it feels strange, what's changed when it seems like nothing has. And that second part, the part that recognized itself—the part that even had a self to recognize—also recognized that it was naked, that it was filthy and covered in blood, but it almost didn't recognize—"
Javier's voice cracked a little but he repaired it with a thick swallow. He shut his eyes, shaking his head, but from the confused twist of his expression it clearly didn't dismiss whatever images his memory was conjuring.
"I almost didn't recognize the scattered bones and bloody meat in front of me for what they were."
The breath that followed shook heavily, drawn deep and held for several seconds before it was released with a shudder. Slowly, Javier opened his eyes.
"I didn't get it all sorted out right there and then," he said, shaking his head, "I didn't really have the time. Naked and unarmed in the middle of the desert... I couldn't survive like that. I couldn't survive alone. I had to... I had to make a choice. And, for the first time, it really was a choice, because instinct was screaming at me to return to my hivemates, but the thinking part of me knew there was another place I could go.
"And I don't usually like to think about what might have happened if I'd done differently," Javier said, a distant fear in his voice, "if I'd gone back into the desert where the others were denned up in the rocks. Because... Because I could shed this form at any time, if I chose, and I think I would have if I'd gone back. But if I had, I would have lost that part of me—the part that thinks, the part that's me. And theoretically I could get it back—reset the template and become Javier again—but in my natural form I wouldn't even have a mind capable of wanting to."
He shook his head, dismissing the thought.
"It's best that I didn't," Javier said—almost managing to sound certain of it, "I'm just... I'm too different from what I used to be. I don't even know if I could have connected with them in the way I would have needed to, and if they couldn't recognize me as one of their own, I'd have been attacked as an intruder."
"Still...it bothers me that I left them out there to die," Javier said, voice edged harshly with regret, "that thought bothers me almost as much as the fact that I left the real Javier to rot unmourned and unburied out in that desert."
Javier continued rapidly, pushing past the bizarre grief that threatened to carry him down.
"I was half dead by the time I made it back to civilization," he said, "and when I came around again, they were already talking about sending me home. I...I didn't want to be taken from the others, but...I was trapped in the role I was playing. There was no sane reason for Javier to stay, and I couldn't risk telling anyone what had happened—what I really was. People would have thought I was crazy. And God even knows how much worse if they believed me...
"So they shipped me home, and I just had to try and make my way..." Javier said after a moment, "even if it was never meant to be mine. And maybe I have no right, but..."
A slow breath punctuated another pause as Javier seemed to weigh his next words with a hesitant, cautious care.
"I can't say I don't feel guilt for what I did," Javier continued finally, his voice still soft, yet very certain, "but it would be pointless to obsess over it. Blaming myself for that death would be pointless. A shark that kills a man doesn't do it to be cruel, it does it because it's a shark. What I was was no better or worse. I've made a sort of peace with that. And a part of that peace has been accepting there is no way to fix the damage I've done, but that what I can do is try to fill the hole the real Javier left behind. To do right by him, and by the people he cared about—people I've hurt, even if they'll never know it."
"And... And no one ever has?" Kevin asked muzzily. "Known? In nine years?"
Though his voice was faint and his words confused, he still surprised them both a little by speaking. It was hard to tell, but it felt like the longest he had managed to keep his focus for a very long time. Javier's eyes searched his closely and, hesitantly, he lifted his hand to touch Kevin's cheek. Those eyes, as always anymore, were difficult to read. Kevin saw pain and worry in them... Though it warred with something that seemed treacherously hopeful.
Then there was a slight shift in his expression, and with a very self-aware blink, Javier pulled his hand away.
"You should rest, Kev," Javier said, very softly, though his voice was rough.
And Kevin wanted to say a hundred frustrated words about how he had done enough resting to last the rest of his life, but he couldn't find the energy for it.
"I'll rest," he said, closing his eyes, his voice a whisper across the bare skin of Javier's chest, "just...please...keep talking."
Kevin felt his partner draw an uncertain breath, hesitating, but after a moment the tension in his body eased. Javier even rested a hand on Kevin's shoulder.
"It's... It's never been easy," Javier finally said, gently stroking Kevin's arm with an almost absent rhythm, "the confusion or the guilt or the fear...but also just the...the loneliness of it."
Javier let out a weak snort, and Kevin felt him shake his head.
"That's such a stupid word for it," Javier said, "but it feels like it could kill me sometimes. The thing I was was never meant to exist on its own, and after my discharge even the human part of me was left with a need to belong to something. Maybe not the same—God, nowhere near the same—but still strong enough that it hurt. I mean, my family still means everything to me, and they were more than happy to have me back. But when I'm around them there's no escaping the fact that every breath I take is a lie convincing them a person they loved is still alive.
"I needed something more," Javier concluded wearily, "something that belonged to me, for whatever that was worth. So I joined the NYPD and it was...it was almost what I needed."
Kevin's awareness of his partner's words had begun to drift, falling apart into sleep or something like it. So he couldn't quite understand why his throat suddenly felt so tight. Or why, though still safely skin to skin with his partner, he was beginning to feel a cold, heavy feeling in his gut.
"But I never knew just what I needed, not for a long time..." And though it was faint, Javier's voice had begun to tremble, filled with an audible ache that felt so close to tears Kevin's own eyes stung. "Not until I met you, Kev. The way we clicked, just like that, the way we've always worked so well together, almost like we were in sync... Like we were living in the same skin. It was the closest thing I've ever felt to the hive. It felt... It felt like you were the only one that could make me complete again. And I've had partners—I've had lovers—but neither one has ever made me feel that. Only you.
"And I'd been thinking for a long time whether it might be possible to take that connection even further, but then..."
And somehow, as it drew out, the emptiness of Javier's silence managed to feel sharp and almost anguished, even through the weariness that was sapping Kevin's attention. He tried desperately to hold on to it, just for a few more moments. Because he felt a painful certainty that what Javier was saying was somehow very important. But it was a losing battle, and finally Kevin's exhaustion won out, only a few final words managing to follow him as he slipped back into a blessedly empty sleep.
"Then you met Jenny."
Javier didn't think he had ever felt such sharp terror as when he found Kevin collapsed on the men's room floor. He barely remembered his drunken fumbling only days before, though he was painfully well acquainted with the desires that had driven them. And he had been hoping—painfully, desperately hoping—that in the end nothing would come of it. That his misguided, hazily remembered actions had been just that—a vain and foolish attempt at...
Hell, even at the time he hadn't quite known what he was going for.
And he had spent that whole day after and the morning that followed obsessing over the possible consequences. But then, at work that day, Kevin had asked him—
His partner's concerns had seemed so impossibly shallow compared to the hell of fear and guilt that Javier had been putting himself through. Kevin hadn't looked well, but he had apparently been well enough to agonize about their imagined affair—and God, Javier hadn't even wanted to touch that. Not that he'd had the luxury, because in the wake of all his worry the question had left him feeling so foolish and angry that he had been forced to walk away.
But as that day and the one that followed it passed, he had watched with guilty eyes as his partner's condition began to deteriorate. Kevin had been so quiet that morning, like he wasn't even there, and when he disappeared from the bullpen for almost twenty minutes Javier had known right away that something was wrong.
And when he finally found his partner Javier had more than enough confirmation of that...though it had confirmed a few other things as well.
While struggling to help Kevin sit up, Javier had reached out to touch his partner's face. The skin had felt clammy, covered in a sheen of sick sweat, but just the light brush of his fingertips had been enough to feel it. To feel—
Oh Christ...what had he done?
He had been lucky enough to escape the initial ambush, though the wound it had torn into the meat of his thigh certainly hadn't made it easy. He had managed to get away from it, for a time. Clearly it had followed. It was slow, ungainly as it picked its way along the sand and rocks, but it had locked on to his scent like he was the only thing in the world. Dogged and apparently untiring, it had kept mindlessly after him all night. Now he was utterly exhausted, and completely out of room to run. Now he was trapped, and that thing was catching up with him...
There were no options left for him but to draw his sidearm and wait.
It had managed to disarm his assault rifle after his first burst of fire with a single quick lash of one of its limbs— A tail? An arm? He couldn't even begin to guess. It had been full dark when it appeared, cutting him off during his patrol, its black flesh nearly invisible against the darkness. Now, though, as it drew nearer, the faint blue light of dawn made it easier to see...
And he still didn't know what the hell he was looking at.
The flailing monstrosity was almost the size of a German Shepherd. Limbs too numerous for him to make any sense of assisted its progress as it slithered its way across the ground, each one lined with a double row of cruel-looking hooks. It was dark and fleshy and textured with irregular bumps—a few of them gleamed wetly, and might have been eyes. And though the wounds weren't bleeding—if the thing even bled—on its flank he could just make out the ragged dimples his bullets had left. Apart from those features it was almost shapeless—an acidic-smelling mass of undulating wrongness, advancing on him like something that had escaped out of a nightmare.
Steeling himself, Javier raised his gun—though given just how little his rifle had managed to phase the thing, it was nothing more than a hopeless show of bravado.
"Come on... Come on you motherf—"
Javier barely managed to get Kevin's legs under him long enough to get him out of the station. By the time they got home Kevin's pulse was racing wildly, but at the same time so weak he almost couldn't find it. Javier didn't know what to do. Kevin's entire body was trembling, and though his clothes were soaked with sweat his skin felt like ice. He figured at the very least he could get him out of those clothes, get him cleaned up.
It wasn't easy undressing his partner without touching his skin. In fact, it turned out to be impossible. And every touch was a reminder of the damage he'd done. It was weak, just the barest whisper of awareness, but after so many years of deafness it felt like a scream. It was so tempting to let his touches linger, to open himself up to that connection, to sink into it. He wanted to resist, and yet—
And yet Kevin's shaking had become a little less violent, and his heartbeat had slowed just a little. It was more steady, less frantic, and stronger than it had been only moments before.
Impossible, he thought to himself. Because no way could it possibly be that easy.
He had been pretending to be a lot more out of it than he really was—though it would have been a lie bordering on the grotesque to say he had any sort of grip on himself.
He had no idea what he was supposed to do now. He didn't know who he was—he wasn't even sure what he was—and he sure as hell didn't know what he should do about it. He was torn between a feeling of duty—his team deserved the truth, Javier's family deserved the truth, and at the very least he should warn someone about the danger—and a conflicting feeling that didn't feel much different...
An instinct warning him not to lead a predator back to his hive.
He didn't know what to do, so for now he would do nothing. Just until he could get things straight inside his own head, at least. But the longer he played up his physical and mental trauma to the doctors, the more they talked about sending him home. He needed to figure it out soon, before he ran out of time...
Sleep never came easily any more, his mind was too confused and too troubled, but he often pretended to sleep anyway. At least the doctors would have one less thing to worry about.
And it was likely because of that habit that the two men that argued at his bedside thought he wouldn't hear them.
"—saw him when he came in, McGarrett," the first man said, his words hushed and rapid. "He was covered in blood, but there weren't any wounds. Cuts and scrapes, sure, but nothing to cause bleeding like that."
"Maybe it wasn't his blood," McGarrett said, his low, almost gravely voice speaking reasonably, "he doesn't remember what happened to him out there."
"We know what happened to him, man," the first argued harshly, voice raising enough that he recognized it as Walsh. "Those things that attacked us when we went looking for him? Those things weren't natural. And I know you've heard the same stories I have about those hills."
"Fairy tales," McGarrett argued, followed by a sigh. "Look, those things freaked me out, too, okay? But you're talking crazy. Do you really think one of those things could pretend like that? They were scary as hell, but they weren't that smart."
"Then why was he naked, McGarrett?" Walsh asked. "He didn't even have shoes on when he made it back to the village, for Christ's sake. Or his tags."
"Look, even say he is—which is nuts—but say he is. What would you want us do about it?"
Sleep did come the next night, though, and Javier woke up to the sound of a gunshot.
When he opened his eyes McGarrett stood in the doorway, his sidearm raised and eyes wide with an astonished horror—
And as he sat up he saw Walsh lying dead on the floor, gun in hand and a pool of his own blood spreading rapidly underneath him. Stunned, heart hammering, he could only stare. After a moment McGarrett pulled out of his daze, lowering his gun as he stepped toward the bed. His eyes and hands searched Javier closely.
"Javi, are you okay?"
And for the longest time Javier couldn't answer. Because the first thought that ran through his mind was a wrenching, panicked, guilty denial.
Not for me.
And the second thought—one that was more coherent, more reasoned but no less anguished—was that he couldn't confess now. He couldn't. He couldn't stand the thought of telling McGarrett that he'd just killed a member of his own team to protect the monster that had murdered another...
In the end, it hadn't been anywhere close to easy.
Proximity seemed to dull Kevin's pain, but only because it eased the stress on the thing that was slowly devouring him from the inside. There was nothing coherent coming from that connection—it was dead air, static—but whatever it was it was immature, still forming, and it couldn't function on its own. It had been struggling to make do, Javier could tell that much, trying to extract what it needed from Kevin's flesh, but those efforts had been killing his partner, and in the process it was hurting itself.
Javier could try to give it what it was looking for, the resources and attention it needed to survive. It would be risky, and not just risky for him—ultimately, he would be helping that thing to grow—but it might buy them some time. It might slow the destruction of his partner's body, and maybe he could figure something out.
Javier had been gone for less than two minutes getting water and food from the kitchen, but when he came back Kevin was already in pain.
His voice was a breathless whimper.
"I know, Kev," Javier said as slid back in beside him. Arranging their limbs together, he lifted his partner's head trying to get him to drink. "I'm sorry."
"I'm so sorry..."
Mrs. Esposito was crying. She was crying because her hijo had finally come home to her. She was crying because she was so overwhelmed with joy and relief that her son was safe and alive in her arms.
It was a lie.
Javier Esposito was dead, his remains abandoned in a desert miles away from New York City. He could picture it very clearly in his mind, what those bones probably look like having been left exposed to the mercy of sun and wind, sand, and scavenging vermin like the thing that had killed him. It was all he had been able to think about on the flight home. And he had known the thought would be in his mind when he was reunited with his family—with Javier's family.
And he had been right. He had been right, and yet...
And yet, as he held her shaking form in his arms, as his own tears fell from the pain of the secret harm he had done to her, there was still a part of him, savage and greedy, that was just as happy as she was that he was finally home.
"It's alright, Mama," he whispered as she kissed his cheek. "It's alright. I'm here."
"Easy, Kev. Easy. Shhh.
"It's okay, Kev. It's going to be okay..."
It wasn't a lie. He hoped.
"It'll all be over soon."
For better or worse, that was the truth either way.
Oh God, what had he done...?
Javier stared vacantly at droplets chasing across the blank tile as the water fell across his shoulders and back, the wall a solid presence supporting him as he tried to anchor the frantic confusion of his thoughts.
He wished he could rewind the night before—rewind the past few days, back before he had been stupid enough to say anything to Kevin. What the hell had he even been thinking?
The problem was that he hadn't been thinking. He hadn't exactly been himself—whatever that was—ever since he had watched Kevin propose to Jenny in the middle of the bullpen. Even now, the memory lifted a wave of something he didn't have a name for. There was jealousy in it, surely, but also a sense of proprietary outrage that Javier didn't think was remotely human.
One would think that after nine years he might have known himself, for lack of a better phrase. Gained some kind of understanding of the way he functioned, even if his exact definition was a mystery. If he had asked himself only four years ago, he would have thought he had that...
But then, only four years ago, he hadn't yet met Kevin.
There had always been this need in him, this hunger for something unobtainable that burned beneath the surface of his skin. It was a need he had never been able to fulfill, and he had thought he understood why. And he had long resigned himself to the fact that those empty places inside him weren't something that any human being could properly fill.
When Javier first partnered with Kevin it had scared him just a little how easily they had fit. How quickly the other man had become not just important to him, but necessary. There had been something about him, something Javier couldn't name, but it was far more than just easy camaraderie—though they had certainly had that in spades.
No, if Javier tried to take it apart, he would have to say that he felt drawn to Kevin as if on some impossibly biological level, the other man's presence teasing those empty parts of him, almost as if he might fit—
Or be made to fit.
The first time the notion had come into his head, it had terrified him, because it wasn't an urge he had ever felt before. It wasn't something he had ever even thought might be possible. But once it was there, that idea had become impossible for him to forget...
The fantasies he began to have about Kevin quickly became some of the most bizarre he had ever experienced—and with his subconscious as unnervingly divided as it was, that was saying a whole hell of a lot. Many of them had begun with a confession, Javier baring the truth of what he was for his partner to see. In most, he was kind enough to himself that Kevin didn't turn away. Not until he made the offer, anyway.
And, when he was feeling very generous, sometimes—just sometimes—Kevin said yes...
The night before had played out that script like a sad parody, but at the time he had been too drunk for that to matter. And Javier had thrown himself at Kevin's response recklessly, hopelessly eager to finally have what he had wanted for so long...
For Kevin to be a part of him.
But his desires had never managed to supply him with any concrete idea of what form that connection might take, or what came after. His fantasies failed to anticipate risk, or the danger of loss. Now, those risks and dangers were all he could think about, and the possibility that he might lose Kevin was the most terrifying thing Javier had ever had to face. Now, his imagination was occupied with conjuring horrors that would make a Hollywood writer weep with joy...
Beneath the warm spray of water, Javier shuddered.
He just had to hope that whatever he had done last night wouldn't take.
Something was happening, and Javier didn't understand it in the slightest. Something had changed, but couldn't put a finger on what it was. He lay still, trying to focus on the feeling, identify where it was coming from.
Finally, he narrowed in on his connection to the thing he had planted in his partner.
The communication there was weak, but for the first time it seemed like there was actual awareness behind it. Cautious, curious, it seemed to be testing the boundaries of itself, gently prodding at the connection as if trying to establish where it ended and Javier began. Carefully, guiltily, Javier opened himself up, closing the circuit so that his nerves meshed with his partner's—
Inviting it in.
And when its awareness touched his—lightly, briefly before it recoiled with confused terror—Javier sucked in a shocked gasp. And hope flooded him, hope he had all but given up on...
Because it had definitely felt like Kevin.
When Kevin woke up, he was alone.
He had been unconscious for the past four days. His fever was gone, having broken three days ago. The population of foreign cells in his body had increased dramatically over the week he had spent in Javier's bed. That aggressive invasion of his flesh had been what was making him sick, and while Javier had been able to lessen the damage, it had been impossible for his partner to undo what he had done or to halt its spread completely. But whatever it was that had come into being inside him seemed to have finally stabilized. For now at least, it seemed to be working with him rather than against him. And those alien tissues were learning to operate on their own, so his partner had begun spending less time watching over him, hoping for that development to continue. Though his body still ached like something was missing, those pieces no longer required Javier's presence to function.
Kevin hadn't needed to be told any of those things, he just knew them. Javier knew them because on some vague, instinctual level Javier had felt them happening, so now Kevin knew them too.
He knew a lot of things now.
He knew that the dreams he had been having before had been Javier's memories—of the strange place he had come from, of the hive, and of the first confusing moments of his humanity, or what passed for it. Those memories had been imparted to Kevin, encoded within the strange new pieces of him. Though the recollection was fragmented and disorganized, he remembered those things almost as if the memories were his own. He knew his partner's deep human dread of never knowing whether to think of himself as Javier Esposito, or merely the thing that had killed him. He knew the inhuman pain Javier had felt living an incomplete existence, separated from his hive— Cut off from the rest of himself.
It was so much more than the simple loneliness Kevin had first thought he had seen. That drive to connect was a physical need, every bit as vital as the need for hunger or for sex...
That intense hive-hunger which had driven Javier to try and make Kevin a part of himself was an unfathomably alien imperative, but the love—and the jealousy his partner felt for Jenny—were both very human. He knew the strength of Javier's feelings for him, now. It became difficult for him to separate one bond from the other, however, and he knew that the places where those two conflicting natures met were what had given his partner the most trouble. And—
Oh God, Kevin thought, realizing suddenly, Jenny.
Because he also knew that Javier had called in to the station to excuse their absence for the week, but that his partner hadn't bothered with a story for Jenny. Kevin dragged himself out of bed, a little surprised that he could stay on his feet after sleeping for so long. He would have been surprised at being able to move at all having gone so long without eating if it weren't for the awareness that, once things had progressed past a certain point, Javier had been able to do so for the both of them. He shuddered, shying away from that knowledge, and trying not to think about the incomprehensible exchange of chemicals and tissues and memory and God alone knew what else...
And he didn't need to search to find his clothes where Javier had put them. He threw them on hastily.
When he stumbled out into the living room, Javier was sitting there. He looked up from the hands clasped in front of him as Kevin entered, some emotion flashing in his eyes that was shuttered too quickly for Kevin to recognize. Having pieces of his partner's memories was nothing at all like telepathy, and he had no idea what Javier was thinking. They stared at each other for a long moment. Neither one of them spoke. And when Javier was the first to look away, Kevin left the apartment without a word.
He didn't know how he felt when Javier didn't try to stop him.
When he got home, Kevin took a long look at himself in the mirror. He looked long and hard, examining the image in front of him with a merciless scrutiny. He looked...better than he had when he was sick, but he didn't look any different. Not that he had expected to. He had known he wouldn't, because Javier had examined him as well, and found nothing amiss. No unexpected blemishes, no...defects. The mark on his stomach was completely gone, healed without a trace.
Apart from the alien memories and that strange hollowness inside him he didn't feel much different, either, though he felt a strange sense of deja vu as one of those memories surfaced. It was the recollection of Javier doing very nearly the same thing he was now. Hidden away in the cramped bathroom of some military hospital overseas, his partner had searched his own face—for mark or flaw, or anything else that might have answered the terrifying questions buzzing in his head. Begging the creature that looked back at him to tell him who it was. To tell him what it was.
And whether it deserved to live.
Kevin turned away from the image reflected in front of him, closing his eyes to shut out its questioning stare. He took a slow, shaking breath and struggled to clamp down hard on the panic that was threatening to escape his control—as a scream, or perhaps a sob—and take the rest of his sanity with it. Fear and confusion strangled his thoughts. It was all too chaotic to even begin to make sense of. In the end, he found it easier not to try. He let habit steer him. He ate because he thought he should, methodically and barely tasting anything over the metallic flavor of dread on his tongue.
And he spared a few hours trying to think of anything he might tell Jenny to explain his disappearance.
Finally, he simply decided to tell her the truth—though a criminally incomplete one. He told her that he had gotten sick at work. He told her that he had been completely out of it, and that Javier had taken care of him and just forgotten to tell her. And he let her yell at him over it, agreeing with everything she said about how thoughtless and irresponsible it had been, because he simply hadn't possessed the strength to argue.
It felt wrong.
Kevin thought he should tell her what had happened to him. That she deserved to know the full truth. But there was no way for him to give it to her without sounding like he was crazy. That thought was almost impossible for him to frame for anyone else when he still had trouble comprehending it himself. How could Kevin possibly tell the woman he loved that he might not be human anymore?
How could he tell her that he might not even be him?
Kevin didn't even attempt to sleep that night, and though the hours had passed excruciatingly slowly, when morning came he had no idea what to do with himself. His panic had reached a sort of bizarre terminal velocity sometime during the night, spilling into something else he didn't really have a name for. Still frantic, still fearful, but strangely quiet. Like the effort it took not to give in to the hysteria his situation begged left him very little energy in reserve. In a way, it was almost as if he had traveled so far past terror that he had met calm going the opposite direction, and the collision had left him wrapped in a state that fell painfully short of numb, but at least lent him the composure that might—conceivably—let him make it through the rest of the day.
The question, then, became what he should do with it.
He was present enough in his thoughts to admit that returning to work was probably the last thing he should have been contemplating—if for no other reason than because Javier might be there if he did. But right now, Kevin felt he needed something normal. He needed it desperately. He needed a reminder of the life he had lead—of the sane world he had once inhabited before any of this happened—even if that life and that world were an illusion he could never again possess.
And of course, there was always the possibility that his partner might show up at his home—that Javier might come for while he was alone—and that would have been so much worse. Kevin felt just a tiny bit ridiculous to feel so afraid of that. After all, whatever else Javier had done to him, his partner had also let him leave.
Though the thought whispered cruelly that, in a way, Javier already had what he wanted.
When Kevin finally made his decision, though, it wasn't fear that drove him, not directly. Just the idea of spending the rest of the day alone in his apartment made his skin crawl. The feeling left him unsettled, because he wasn't precisely sure where it was coming from. He didn't know whether it was a simple, human desire to find security in the presence of others, or if the need were something more esoteric and complicated. And maybe that itself was the real problem...
At that moment, Kevin thought he was more afraid of himself than he could ever be of Javier.
In spite of his partner's bizarre awareness of the changes which had occurred inside of him, neither Javier nor Kevin really understood exactly what had been done to him. Neither of them knew how deep those changes went, or what they might mean. And Kevin really didn't know how long he might be able to stand being alone with himself—alone with a body he wasn't sure he knew or understood any more, and whose thoughts, instincts and reactions he feared he might not be able to trust.
Javier was at work when Kevin came in, but his partner seemed content to keep his distance.
Of course, it didn't escape Kevin's notice that both Kate and Castle seemed to have adopted Javier's caution. With Kate the lack of apparent care wouldn't have stood out, she was often subtle in showing her concern. Castle, on the other hand, was inherently nosy, and the writer's apparent lack of curiosity about his long absence was impossibly more disruptive of Kevin's calm than questions could have ever been. Kevin didn't know whether Javier had told them something to inspire that caution, or if they were simply taking their cues from his partner's distance. Either way, it was just one more thing that felt painfully off-rhythm.
One more thing that chafed subtly against Kevin's efforts to pretend things were still—or could ever again be—normal.
Kevin's awareness of that painful disconnect never left him. It surrounded him in the tense atmosphere of the bullpen, in the careful looks others were giving both him and his partner. Javier's story for Kevin's disappearance had been an inflamed stomach ulcer, with additional complications that had required someone there to keep a close eye on his health. Kevin could imagine the fact that Jenny had heard it second hand through Beckett had cast well-deserved suspicion on that story. He had no idea what conclusions Jenny might have drawn—though he was likely to find out sooner or later. Kate would wait, he knew, for him to talk about it when he was ready. She would wait patiently, though not forever, whereas Castle had almost certainly invented some excruciatingly detailed and bizarre story to satisfy his own internal curiosity.
Though whatever the writer might have come up with, it couldn't possibly have been stranger than the truth.
But Javier had clearly failed to hide that he was hiding something, and a temptation like that was something Castle could hardly resist. Knowing Castle, he likely assumed Javier's secrets were meant to disguise some scandalous affair—or possibly a nervous breakdown. The more Kevin thought about it, the writer's present silence spoke volumes as to which it might be.
Of course, his own behavior was painfully supportive of that latter theory.
His partner had hardly spoken a word to Kevin that wasn't directly related to their case—not even when he reached out to hand him a file and watched Kevin flinch. Castle and Beckett had both seen it as well. And the incident was surely on both of their minds later when Kevin returned to his desk wearing two pairs of latex gloves snagged from one of the evidence kits. He was terrified of coming into contact with Javier's skin, afraid of what might happen if that connection sparked between them once again...
Kevin spent most of the day shrunken in on himself, dreading a touch that never came.
"It doesn't have to change anything," Javier finally said, breaking the cautious silence that had built up between them.
His partner's words were quiet, his voice hesitant as if he had been afraid to even speak. Regardless, the sound drew his attention almost violently. He had been too busy looking at the board, trying vainly to focus on their case. He hadn't notice at first when Kate and Castle slipped away—
He hadn't realized they were alone.
When he turned, Javier was still sitting at his desk—still several feet safely away from where Kevin stood. In fact, his partner wasn't even looking at him, and there was something focused in the way Javier's eyes had locked on the surface of the desk in front of him, a tension as if he were desperately trying not to. As if Javier thought that if he approached or even looked Kevin's way he might run.
If he actually was thinking that, it would have been hard to call it inaccurate.
It took Kevin a few moments to decide out how to respond. Or whether he even should respond, because responding meant they would really be talking about this, and Kevin wasn't entirely sure he could handle that. Though as he turned his partner's statement—offer?—over in his head, he was unable to hold back the laugh that bubbled out of him, pained and more than a little hysterical, because the words themselves were ridiculous.
"Too late," Kevin said, a harried edge hanging on his voice that hardly sounded sane.
Javier let out a sigh, head turning slightly away.
"I mean, this is where it stops," Javier clarified wearily.
Javier paused, his features set with an expression that was almost determined.
"I'd take it back if I could," Javier said, voice aching with familiar regret that Kevin could taste as if it were his own.
There were so many things his partner wished he could take back. Kevin wasn't even close to the worst, he was just the most recent—though he was also the only victim Javier had ever been given the chance to face.
"If you want—" Javier hesitated on the words, wetting his lips. "If you want, I can ask Gates for a transfer. If I'm at another precinct, there's a chance you won't even have to run into me again."
Kevin didn't register his objection until it was already spoken, just barely managing to cut himself off before...he wasn't even sure what else he had been going to say. It occurred to him to wonder, just for a brief moment, if it had even been him saying it. But in spite of the fact that every time he had seen his partner today had left him fighting the mad urge to scream, the thought of removing Javier from his life struck him as somewhat...excessive. And his reflexive, panicked rejection of the idea was certainly suspect, but Kevin was at a loss for how he should deal with that.
Confused well beyond the dimensions of the word, Kevin shook his head.
"I just learned that my partner is a shoggoth or something," Kevin said, very slowly, his voice almost flat despite his words. "Just...give me some time to adjust. Okay?"
And where his earlier interjection hadn't managed to break his partner's resolve in not making eye contact, those last words—or perhaps something concerning in Kevin's voice—finally did. His expression was vaguely surprised, though mostly concerned and wary. Incredibly wary. Seeing that directed his way after all that had happened struck Kevin as monstrously comical. He snorted a short laugh.
"Jesus..." Kevin breathed, shaking his head again as he ran those words back over in his head. "When I read Lovecraft in high school who the hell knew I was arming myself with a vocabulary I'd need one day."
And he was well aware that his babbling was making very little sense, but as the words came free in a frantic rush, they seemed to clear out some of the poisonous tension with them.
"I mean, 'unutterable star-spawned horror' isn't a phrase I thought I'd ever apply in my life, let alone to a friend."
"Are we still friends, Kev?" Javier asked, suddenly interrupting.
And Kevin felt a brief flash of irritation that those were the words Javier had chosen to respond to, but his tone held a faint note of alarmed surprise that made the intense importance of that question impossible to miss. Kevin was silent for a moment, giving the question the attention he felt it deserved. It was out of respect that he answered it honestly.
"I don't know."
It was more than just an answer to the question he had been asked. It was an admission—to himself—that he really didn't know anything anymore. He didn't know what they were now to each other. He barely understood what they were separately. He didn't know exactly what he had become, or what happened next. He didn't know how he could possibly accept the truth of Javier's past—
And yet, at the same time, Kevin couldn't imagine life with out him.
As he tried to dissect that contradiction in his head, he expected to find something foreign—some subtle but definite sign of what had been done to him—but that wasn't what he found at all. Putting his own thoughts on trial, Kevin forced himself to face the fact that the man he had known for more than four years was a lie. The reality was impossibly horrifying, and the pretense behind it downright obscene—
Yet at the same time, Javier wasn't any different than he had been the day they had met. Real or not—human or not—he was still the same Javier Esposito that Kevin had been partnered with years ago. Still the same man who had become his best friend. The only thing that had changed in their scenario was Kevin's perception of his partner based on what he knew.
And what he now knew and had to make his own peace with was the fact that the real Javier Esposito had been a stranger that Kevin had never been—and never would be—given a chance to meet.
Oddly, that realization tickled a memory, one which, mercifully, belonged entirely to him.
When Kevin was a child his mother had told him a story, a sort of family fairytale about a man who had believed he was a changeling. The man had been utterly convinced he was only a copy of the real man, and had refused to be told otherwise. In the end, the man's wife had dealt with his delusions simply by asking him three questions. She asked if he remembered how they had met, how they had married, and if he still loved her. When his answer to all of those questions was "yes", she had told him that it was no different to her than if nothing had changed, and that she could pretend, if he would.
Kevin decided he wouldn't tell Javier that story. It was his, and he intended to keep it close for as long as he could. But it had given him something else to think about.
"I don't know," Kevin said again, running a hand over his face, "but until I do, maybe...maybe I'm willing to pretend."
Especially if it could let him regain some semblance of normalcy, he couldn't help thinking to himself. He might have to if he wanted to hold on to his sanity.
"I can't promise anything," Kevin admitted, "but I can try. I will try, and... I don't know. Maybe we'll figure it out?"
Javier looked him over very carefully as he absorbed the answer, finally giving a faint nod.
"Okay," Javier said, accepting a little breathlessly. "It's less than I'd like, I wont' lie, but..."
Javier gave a faint snort, shaking his head.
"It's a hell of a lot more than I'd hoped for."
Then Beckett and Castle had returned, and that was the last they had spoke about it that day. It was just as well, because Kevin wasn't sure he was ready for more. He didn't think he could have brought himself to ask the questions he had—to address just how much he had changed.
It was something he was still, slowly, figuring out on his own.
Kevin went home with Jenny that night. He begged and pleaded and apologized and threw himself upon her mercy. They made up. They made love. Jenny told him that she loved him. But the words and even the act itself felt almost empty to him. It was one thing to be told or shown that someone loved him, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to forget how, with Javier, he had felt it. And there were still those alien pieces inside him, ticking away just slightly out of phase with the rest, leaving him feeling like a clockwork with one gear missing...
A painfully hollow feeling that was beginning to feel less and less like an ache and more like a hunger.
And though he fell asleep beside his fiance, Kevin couldn't ignore the vague, shapeless feeling of defeat, like he had lost a battle he had never really been given the chance to fight. Intentional or not, and in spite of his partner's sincere regret, it felt like Javier would have exactly what he wanted...
It was only a matter of time.