The elements strip him away; a vague cluster of details remain on his face after the rain has eroded the obvious features, dousing the clothing he knows he won’t get more of. Chemicals condensed damped his forehead and leave hair clinging to his eyes.
The gutter pipe rumbles next to him, spitting soaked waste into the mud. Eddie rests his hands against the rough texture of the roof, and the friction of the shingles prevent him from plummeting to the yard. It will be too dark to see soon, and even the bulbs inside the facility will dim. But the neutral smoky blue of the thrashing sky is worth the anxious, blind scramble back down the latter and through the bathroom window he’ll be facing within the next hour.
His body is still enough to let other things in now, and the quieting world leaves Eddie dumbly aware of a humming that vibrates down his back and through his ribs, quaking his bones with barely-there friction as they jostle the structure of his skeleton. He turns his head.
Far to his right, near a wet bench, Chris Walker runs his hand over his face and across his scalp, throwing droplets of water off his skin. He stares into the clouds until a flicker of light appears at his mouth, a damp cigarette filling the empty space between his teeth.
Eddie watches as Chris expels a mouthful of smoke, then places the cigarette into his palm and crushes his fist against it.
His fingers curl slowly open, flaky bits of paper and ash and heated tobacco drifting away from his charred hand. But he breathes out in relief as if this has opened an entrance to his bloodstream.
Gently, Eddie slips two fingers past his gums and sends out a low whistle, cutting through the air with privatized sharpness. The echo dampens and falls quickly, leaving behind the cautious impression of a bird who called and fled. Chris is clever enough to hear the message wrapped secretly in the sound. He turns towards the figure on the roof, eyes depressed by a silken sheen that kindness clings reluctantly to.
The larger male raises his hand in a salute against his temple, then turns back to the heavens.
Eddie cocks his head skyward, trudging through an attempt to find what keeps Walker’s attention. There’s a thin carving within the synthesis of clouds where a glowing halo of soft blue pries its fingers apart, but there’s not enough sunlight above the horizon to illuminate its surface. Through the gap, a spray of water still falls. Chris risks the wetness of his eyes to keep looking up at it.
Affirmatively, he taps his pocket, kinesthetically measuring the weight hidden within the fabric, then grabs hold of the gutter’s edge and pushes himself off the side of the roof, body arched towards the ground. He tightens his muscles to condense the recoil, shockwave only traveling mid-thigh when he hits the pathway below. Chris doesn’t look at him until he’s close enough to touch.
With a grin pulling over his cheeks, Eddie cups his palms into his pants’ pockets and comes up with two fists of goods, extending like wrinkling claws. Chris’ awareness of him looks vague at best, his affect unmoved by the nearness of another person. His eyes pass over the handful of blue capsules in the left, then five stacks of chocolate squares in the other, their shape remolded from the heat of Eddie’s pocket.
“Please, don’t bleed me tonight, darling,” Eddie lilts, urging his fingers to stop curling over the painkillers in desperate ownership. His knuckles are still scraped from prying one out of the cheek of a patient he watched exit the room without swallowing. “Half will be enough for a guy like you to forget where he is. Any more and you’re mummified,” he tries to persuade.
He’s surprised when Chris scoops only the chocolate out of his palm and turns his back to Eddie, pulling the sweetness of a corner between his teeth and then hiding the rest of the slab away for later.
The breath escapes harshly from Eddie’s nose, and the drugs are stowed back into their place before he can even tell his hand to do it. He wishes he had another cigarette to offer.
Eddie lingers unsurely, fidgeting as his body quivers with raw energy.
“My time is 9am,” he releases, “Third round in the first bracket. You’ll be there?” The sensation in his body has continued to thrive, the vibrations working to shake his organs about. He feels like puking and steadying his hands on Chris’ rigid frame all at once.
Chris huffs unsteadily, the roughness of smoke fighting through a torn esophagus, but propounded softly into the air. “I’ll let my case manager know to take me.”
With a nod, Eddie turns around, eyes peering through the rain towards the brick awning he needs to climb in order to reach the bathroom’s outer wall. With every step away from Chris, the humming in his body slowly declines, leaving an emptiness between anatomical filler. He isn’t relieved by the extra space; he finds himself gasping at the thrusting loss.
Desperately, he turns back. Chris is facing him.
As Chris steps forward, the rain seems to shudder and bounce around them, repelled by a magnetic dome slowly merging to encompass their two bodies. Something nano-sized and ridged with puzzle-edges that swarm into one another synchronize between them, and all at once he knows, the Walrider is here. If Eddie were to reach out his palm and place it against Chris’ cheek, he has no doubt that an oily blackness would rise up and engulf them both.
And they are both still soaking.
“Let me- I have more to give you in return.” Eddie keeps his eyes on Chris, looking for any sign of fleeing. He turns towards the asylum, then back at the older. “I’m grateful.”
Chris eases. “You’ve done the same for me.”
When the younger turns back towards the asylum, he doesn’t know if Chris will climb up the jagged brickwork behind him, or duck to follow him through the window, or turn and disappear as soon as he cuts through the darkened hallway. But even without the resonation of footprints behind him to suggest Chris’ presence, the tugging that’s threaded through Eddie’s chest tells him that the other is immediately nearby.
Drugs are the currency of this hospital, but Chris won’t take his- so after five minutes of traveling down the hallway perpendicular to the bathroom, Eddie shoves aside a tipped filing cabinet and leads them inside a blocked-off living room, his last chance for supplying a payment that will unburden his guilt-saturated chest. He holds the door open just long enough that it won’t slam by the time Chris reaches it.
He takes a moment to let the room fill him in, trying to steady his wet and shivering core. “This is where I go,” he explains when he hears Chris step inside. “It’s where I hide. I want to give it to you.”
On the red flooring, decaled with elaborate tassels and ornamental flakes in gold design, Eddie finds a new rate of breathing that aligns with the frantic tremors in his chest. He watches the empty fireplace, its stained interior of charcoal rubbings.
“I can’t take this,” Chris speaks to his back, voice a bellow through the stripped walls. Eddie cannot help but fold up, sinking to his knees afront the fireplace grate. The rejection flares through the rumbling in his body and extends as far as the fine points of his fingernails. He thinks he might cry.
Meanwhile, Chris makes soft noises as he tramps across the carpet. He begins ripping torn fabric from the seat of a chair, then bundling up the pillowy cushions beneath. The sudden snap of the chair’s wooden legs strikes through Eddie, and before he’s recovered, Chris is already putting together a self-made fire. He runs a piece of wood quickly over his lower palm and a flame incites before them.
Eddie raises his head, blinking desperately at the image of Chris placing the inferno into the chimney bed.
“Chris? Do you feel it too?”
The question leaps from him, a wake of hunger steadily thumping behind.
The older looks down, the fire and focused graze of the male’s eye augmenting. Chris looks sad, and respectful of his role with sadness, and martyred, in the afterthought. As if he could breathe wrongly through his nose and extinguish the electricity of the entire building.
“Yes,” he answers. His knuckles brush his poorly chopped blondeness. “Every second. Towards everyone who’s ever asked me.” Chris has a business here. His mattress lifts with the payment he’s procured. From it, his face is molded into a hardness which Eddie thinks is going to crack if the energy continues to rattle the room like this, but somehow… it seems like he knows how to shut it out.
Chris’ eyes meet the fire, which is licking through the wood and growing larger. “But, Eddie,” he continues, shaking his head to deny some invisible concept that’s squatting between their bodies. “I have never been mutually connected through the Walrider like we were.”
Blinking against the smoky consistency of the fire, Eddie undoes his legs and rests himself comfortably on the hearth. He gives a loose smirk, teeth sharp enough to cut his own lips. The memory pours gentle fire into his own furnace. “Apologies,” he says, “If I were to have known what I was doing, I would have taken the full burden.”
“It was kind,” Chris insists.
Being in the Morphogenic Engine, with your mind attached to certain neurons as your mouth is pumped with chemicals, is like being pulled into a forced flashback. It means that the machine itself takes over your basic amygdalic functions so that breathing and movement aren’t your concern any longer; so you’re only responsible for watching your traumas play out again while you foster that horror within you. Patients think that the Walrider is responsible for this: that he tugs on those neurons to bate you.
But that’s wrong. Eddie feels its wrongness in the truest parts of himself.
The machine is there to allow those feelings to transpire until something so horrific is created that it can no longer remain a concept; it is a technological infestation of data that finds enough power to fuel its own autonomy by feeding on your emotions. That is what creates the Walrider.
And when there’s others in there with you, as Eddie learned all those years ago, you can watch their memories as though through a window. You exist on a plane with them, finding gaps in the Walrider’s power- and if you try hard enough, you can jump into theirs. You can alleviate them of their suffering, absorb their consciousness and put their minds dark until it’s over.
Chris will take a pound of suffering for a handful of chocolate.
“It was mercy,” Eddie offers back coolly, tilting his head up at Chris. “You were a thrashing kid when they first admitted you. You didn’t know what the engine meant. I was in there, and at first, I felt you struggling too hard against him. Suddenly I looked to my left, and… I saw you.”
Eddie traces a finger over the brick floor. “The Walrider probably would have broken your mind if you had continued to resist it. I’ve seen him leave patients drooling vegetables, and those guys never leave the machine again.” He hums thoughtfully. “I only meant to take over yours. Not get you into mine. Not trade. I hadn’t known it was even possible to get into another head; I’d only started exploring.”
An ironic smile falls over Chris like a shadow. “It was fair. And anyways, it was easier being in your mind than reliving what’s in mine.”
Eddie’s mouth turns down thinking about Chris witnessing Eddie’s childhood trauma, the accidental violation he exhibited to a stranger. “They want you to be the next Billy,” Eddie muses instead.
With the firelight now strong enough to match his fervor, Chris settles onto the floor, letting his arms rest over his thighs. “I will,” he tells. “I’ll eventually take the Walrider into me. I’ll end up permanently in the engine.” He doesn’t look sad about this, but Eddie feels it there, fathoms deep.
Chris clears his throat to change directions. “Anyways. I guess what you feel when you’re next to me is his magnetic field pushing through me, reaching for you. When we switched positions, you got in me. Maybe it’s the only space left that isn’t his property.” A forceful shudder exits through him. “I have to manually block every pore, every second, or he will take my body.” He sighs angrily. “But- I’m going to rot here anyhow. I’d rather do it in an orb where I can take somebody’s suffering away.”
“You fucking martyr. Why you?” slips from Eddie’s tongue, colder than he wants, even as he considers that Chris will be agonizing through his own memories tomorrow.
Chris flashes Eddie a well-formed grin. “Who else do you know could be capable?”
For a second, Eddie finds himself absently smiling in time with the other, but shakes it off. “Jesus. I feel your smugness in my facial muscles.” He rubs his jaw with an injured sigh.
“I feel your relief at getting outside of your own body for a second,” Chris returns, taunting with a low tone of insecurity. “Sorry. I do this. I tend to overpower whatever’s around me. Can’t always keep it deep enough. Sometimes it feels like I’m running out of breath.”
Eddie self-consciously slides a hand down his waist, pulling out two of his pain killers. “Please,” he gestures, dropping them into Chris’ hand without making contact. “I’m an idiot to think I’m the one who needs them more.”
From the side of his eye, Chris gives Eddie a closed look of gratitude. He cups his palm and tips them cluttering into his mouth.
They sit quiet, stoic in their positions of monitoring the fire. Eddie has just begun to feel accustomed to the consistent resonance of the closeness when Chris parts his mouth and changes the energy’s tone.
“I can’t always remember which memory is mine. They all float around. Feels like my history is being rewritten all the time,” he thinks aloud.
Eddie is careful not to move. If he tilts back just enough, with his eyes half-closed and his exterior warmed by flames, the vibrations strike his chest in a frighteningly pleasurable way. He lets it be. “I would personally prefer that. I mean.” He exhales. “In place of what my history is.”
“Eddie.” Chris looks like his flesh is smoking; like the water in his body has been sloshed towards the surface and now is steaming off him. He is beautiful like this. “Your history fucked me up.”
Without realizing it’s coming, Eddie feels himself begin to laugh. Me too, he thinks to himself as he leans over and the energy starts to hit him a wrong way again; he can’t do anything about that now. He is so comforted by the fact that he’s split his memories down the middle and given half of them away to a safer body that his eyes wet and he thinks that they will never be dry again. He is weeping with the horrible sensation that he’s been saved.
Rattling brutally, his lungs heave until Chris finally draws him in, pulling Eddie into his chest. Large arms cover the length of his body, and here, he feels small enough to finally mean something. “I know you pretty damn well,” Chris rumbles. “I feel what you feel- the humiliation. Sometimes I’ll wake up, and have no idea where you even are in the building, but I suddenly start to feel you moving around. Something moving inside you. I know it’s you; it has the same hair as you, the same color skin.” Eddie feels Chris’ chest swell against him. “I try to keep it suppressed, Eddie, it feels like I’m exploiting something private. But I want you to know. Because you feel alone so often.”
Suddenly, Eddie shifts and realizes that he’s okay. The cord pulled tight through his insides stretches out, and he feels all of his pieces come together around it.
His cheeks are warm as he pulls back from Chris’ hold. “I remember the fear that you felt in your memories. I remember the dread and the adrenaline, but fuck, was it good to be in that body you have. You were so strong. Your body knew what to do- how to get you away. I envy you.”
“I was trained,” Chris blinks, the memory of impending artillery washing over him. It is steadily replaced by the feeling of being the child in Eddie’s past. “You were just a boy,” he remembers, “and between feeling terrified and quiet, I felt fury and disgust, both yours and mine…” He stops, because he knows he’s about to capitulate into rage. “Your body is stronger inside than mine is on the out,” he resolves. Chris reaches for Eddie’s hand, bringing it to his. His body is swimming with the delicate awareness of entering the first stages of a forced shut down. He is so vulnerable now. The thrumming of Eddie’s company is hard to shut out.
Chris reaches into his pocket and pulls out the mass of chocolate Eddie gave him, letting his tongue run absently over its surface before pulling it to dissolve in his cheek. His stomach rumbles tiredly.
With fingers uncurling inside the blonde’s fist, Eddie asks for some. Chris is happy to share. He has no way of telling which of their tongues accounts for the taste he is getting. Between the two of them, Eddie’s back to the fire and Chris’ front half-facing the grate, their two bodies make a wholly warmed entity. Chris lets himself lean into the middle of it.
When Eddie opens his mouth again, Chris has to remind himself that it’s not his own voice speaking.
“Where is he?” he asks.
Before answering, Chris closes his eyes to feel around his chest. He leaves the epicenter of where they connect to return to the sharp edges of his being, where the Walrider taps cold messages in code against him. But the black, swirling shade cannot follow him back to Gluskin. He goes alone.
“He’s far away,” Chris promises. A coiled cork of fear strikes him suddenly in the gut, from Eddie’s body to his. “What?” he asks gently. “What’s scaring you?”
Chris’ hand holds Eddie’s fingertips tight as the male looks into the fire. “I’m terrified that one day the energy might go out.” He takes a breath deeply, feeling the scarring of Chris’ torn esophagus as the air gets down. “One day I won’t feel the vibrations in the air. Then I’ll know you’re gone.”
Eddie’s tears are wet on his heated cheeks as he lets his palm fall over the younger’s knee, running his worried hand up the male’s leg and back down again. He has nothing to say for comfort. He realizes he’s crying, too, and scrunches his face up to fight back against it. The worst of it is Eddie’s grief, mingling with the commitment to his fate. He’s always been ready. He can feel that Eddie will never be.
“I need to tell you something,” he whispers thickly.
The dark boy’s eyes flicker through the watery dread, glistening sharp against the gold of the fire. “It gets so awful,” Chris undertones, holding his voice so low that the Walrider would have to strain against his sternum from the inside to hear, “And I never thought that I’d actually ever know you.”
There’s a rolling beneath Eddie’s skin that deepens his struggle for breath.
“I sometimes get so lost,” he continues, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know what’s in my head, and I can’t do anything except try to get myself into blackness at night, but then… you come, like a beacon, and I think I know everything about you, Eddie, I think there’s not a single thing that didn’t transfer to me because I know how soft you are and what you’re hungry for and how horrible your seventh birthday was and...” He stops to suck in air, shying his eyes upward. “I go into there, and it’s the most beautiful and quiet place, and Eddie, I love you, I love you stronger than anything.”
Eddie is too scared to move. In the next blink, he will be flooding out of himself, and everything he’s tried to veneer in snark and self-disgust will fold up and become real. He feels as if a curse is lifting from him, and this is the first time he’s seen Chris through the eyes. He loves him too. He’s known Chris since the moment they swapped in the engine.
He reaches forward desperately and cups Chris by the jaws, and the moment their lips meet, the horrible tremors of energy cease altogether and give way to peace. The quiet comes absolute, born of the intersection in the Walrider. Chris is all sweet and saliva as Eddie runs his hands along his neckline, Chris responding with kind touches up and down his legs. He feels as though he is fitting perfectly into his real body for the first time.
Chris lifts him from the hearth and sets him on his lap, where he fits into this new body, touching his knuckles to the bones that scoop to make Chris’ jaw. He feels the male’s tongue push against his lips; yields to let him in.
When the older finally gets too drowsy to do any more than peck at his chin, Eddie rests on the other’s chest and feels the stillness between them. The barrier has been crossed and broken; his body doesn’t shake or vibrate, it just settles. Even the fire to his left has blown down to the pit of the grating.
Eddie pulls himself back, catching Chris’ wilting body against his collar where the male’s tired head comes to rest. He snores lightly, drooping slowly, but Eddie’s there to keep him soft.
He looks towards the boarded windows, trying to think about how he can get Chris away from here, out of the Walrider’s power. It will continue to crush down on him, slipping metal sheets of darkness about his body until he’s mangled inside, broken by the weight of the trauma in the patients he’s collecting.
Eddie knows no amount of begging will encourage Chris to stop. So he does what he can.
He closes his eyes, grabs the strings of the Walrider that connect him to Chris’ mind, and works on conjuring the happiest images he knows.