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I.

She's there when he wakes; when he pulls himself from the quicksand of unconsciousness, mouth sticky and dry and eyes gummed with sleep and tears. The ache in his gut is dulled by a familiar numbness, and his eyes fix first on the morphine drip at his bedside before they slide to her face—pale and sad and serene.

She's there, and his father is gone. He doesn't return for a long time.

*

"Elliot..."

His name: quiet, soft, but brimming with something hopeful. Full and round with excitement and curiosity and promise. Whispered in his ear as she takes his hand; slides it between her thighs. Her legs fall open as he moves his fingers, terrified and trembling. She's velvety soft and warm and he's so afraid he'll hurt her.

It's the summer after graduation and they're sitting on his bed playing video games. Or, they were until they weren't; until the slight pressure of her shoulder on his—her knee on his thigh—was all he could think about. And she must have been thinking about it too because she kissed him, pulled him close, opened his lips with her tongue. Her mouth is reassuring even though he's clumsy and unpractised.

They've kissed before, sure: in the summer, under the fairy lights that her mother always strung over the garden, giddy from the sweets they had stolen from the corner store—a quick peck, a shy smile, and that was all; one night in the zoo by the peacocks when they ran away to escape the world that was crumbling around them, their fingers intertwined, holding each other for dear life; at the funeral in the coat room, once, then twice, only months later—the first time tasted of saltwater and sharp grief; the second time dry and gritty as bone.

It would be okay if that was all—kissing on his bed, like they've done so many times before. But something is different today, and they both move with a sense of urgency that wasn't there before.

*

She smelled sweet then, he remembers—like fruit and flowers and clean laundry, and her hair fell in waves down her shoulders and tickled his face when she bent over him, legs wrapped around his hips, moving against him with a smile on her lips.

Now her hair is pulled back tightly, glinting like hard metal in the half light.

This isn't a hospital, he knows as much—the door is locked and the man that dresses his wound doesn't speak English.

He's shut away again and no one will tell him what's happening. His body is mending but his mind is dissolving—slowly but surely the careful wiring in his head is corroding into nothingness. He clings to the memories he knows are real—that aren’t fabrications or delusions—the certain reality of life before his brain went to shit.

Past, present; real, unreal.

He doesn't know what day it is and the clock is ticking too fast.

She smells different, like antiseptic soap and cold sweat, and when she leans down to embrace him he's overwhelmed by the stench of hot metal and rubber; a leaking battery.

He can't tell if it's a mask or a transmutation. Maybe both, maybe neither, and how could he judge her for it either way? They've both become unrecognizable in the interim.

"Elliot..."

His name, soft and sad and pleading. It feels like cold water down his spine, soaking him to the core.

"Please," he chokes out. He's not sure what he's asking for. He wants her to stay, but he can't meet her eyes. Wants her to touch him, but his skin is on fire. Wants to know, but—

"You have to agree," she says. her voice is distant and steely; her arms a vice around him. She turns her face into the crook of his neck, and when she says his name again it's soft and familiar. "Please, Elliot."

*

Time slows when he feels her hands on him. She tugs down his boxers with a nervous smile and they both laugh when he fumbles with her underwear. Eventually he gets it and she pushes him back onto the mattress and climbs on top of him.

"Wait," he says, and she stills. She reaches down and kisses him softly, moving herself against him.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, and cups his face with one hand. Her thumb brushes his lips and he takes it in his mouth.

“Nothing,” he lies, and she raises an eyebrow sceptically. “I’m not… I haven’t…” he starts to say, but she only sighs and smiles.

“I know you’re a virgin, Elliot,” she says.

“Oh.”

“Just… do what I tell you, ok?”

*

Her voice is a light in the dark, and he rests his forehead on her shoulder.

“I can’t,” he whispers.

His throat feels raw and his head is on fire, but the gentle darkness of her body soothes the pounding behind his eyes. The bed dips as she sits down next to him.

“I know.”

“Tell me what to do,” he begs, face buried in the crook of her neck. He can feel her pulse against his eyelids, steady and calm.

“We need you. We can’t do it without you.”

“I just want…” he says, but he doesn’t know how to finish the sentence.

“You have to agree,” she says again, more firmly, and cold panic grips his chest. She’s gone tense again, muscles rigid and unyielding. Her body, like her mind, is fixed in place—he can see it in the blank, peaceful calm behind her eyes; in the hard set of her jaw.

A part of him is glad she isn’t at war with herself any longer. A part of him is happy for her, the way you’re happy for an old high school friend who finally decided to let go of their dreams and accept their kids and their dog and their mortgage as their best shot at happiness. Or, if not happiness, perhaps at least a pleasant kind of numbness of being.

He wishes he could feel the same relief.

She pulls away, leaves with a whisper and a sigh and Elliot is alone—really alone. He can feel the raw hole of Mr. Robot's absence; a jagged, gaping wound. 

*

After, they lie on Elliot’s bed staring at the ceiling. His body feels light and buoyant, as if he could float up to the ceiling and out the window. The blinds sway gently in the summer breeze—the sun is just beginning to go down, and the light in his bedroom is golden. Outside, he can hear the distant drone of a lawnmower.

Angela’s lying next to him, curled into his ribs, head resting on his arm.

"I wish I could come with you," she murmurs against his chest. Elliot closes his eyes.

For a minute he really believes her—believes that maybe there's hope for them after all, and she'll visit him in the city and he'll find a good job that pays enough for him to rent a nice place in a nice part of town and take her out for dinner once in a while. And maybe she'll move in with him when she goes to college, and they'll buy all their furniture from Ikea and maybe even have a cat and potted plants and it will all be painfully, wonderfully normal.

He listens to her steady breath and the lawnmower and the birds, and tries to hold the image in his mind for as long as he can.

It was a nice dream.

 

II.

He doesn’t see her again for a long time after that.

Tyrell comes instead, with bowed shoulders and watery eyes. He strokes Elliot’s forehead and begs him to eat, to speak, to forgive him. He sings a lullaby in a language Elliot doesn’t understand.

Elliot watches the whole scene from across the room and for the first time it occurs to him what Tyrell’s softness really means. He turns away from Tyrell and his own limp body on the bed and wanders into nothingness.

At first, the pure silence is soothing. But the darkness is not oblivion like Mr. Robot promised.

It’s cold, and empty, and echoes of the outside world are all around him. Sometimes they shimmer like mirages in the distance, and he can only get so close before they flicker out of existence entirely. Sometimes he hears voices—quick and urgent or soft and soothing, beckoning him further into nothingness.

Mr. Robot must be here, somewhere, hiding in the liminal space of his mind. This is his home—he was born in this place, Elliot supposes—but the farther Elliot strays into the darkness the farther he feels from his presence.

*

He stumbles on the memories by accident. At first they’re nothing more than piecemeal fragments of thoughts, feelings, hurried whispers in a dimly lit room—

Blue eyes, rough skin, light fingers—

“Harder.”

(His voice, but not his word).

I need—

(His mind; not his thought).

The sensations overwhelm him but it’s the feeling that wakes him—the deep ache just behind his ribs, clawing at his chest, squeezing the breath from his lungs. He plunges back into the light and blue eyes are the first thing he sees.

The ache lingers, and when Tyrell presses his lips to Elliot’s mouth something stirs in his chest, like embers coaxed into life. The echo of a feeling not quite his own; the afterimage of something tender.

*

"Elliot..."

His name: quiet, soft, but laced with something sharp; it cuts like razor wire but it pulls a small sound from his throat that makes his stomach turn.

He can’t tell if he’s dreaming anymore or if he’s still lost in the winding corridors of his mind. Tyrell’s hand slides between his legs and he tenses, caught between fear and need, terrified and trembling. The sensation is real (it has to be real) and the intimacy feels familiar and foreign all at once. Each touch is déjà vu; each word a well-worn prayer.

(“What would you do?”

“Anything, anything. You know I will. I—”)

Tyrell’s mouth is firm and insistent, even though Elliot’s lips are unyielding. He presses them shut and tries to block out the memories.

It doesn’t work.

Tyrell’s tongue pushes past his teeth and we’ve done this before, Elliot thinks as the images come flooding back: popcorn; soft neon lights; the taste of blood and Tyrell’s mouth—

I need—

Tyrell trails kisses down the feverish skin of his stomach and Elliot lets himself melt into the touch. He can’t tell where his own thoughts end and begin but for now he decides he doesn’t care. It’s easier to simply let himself feel; to let himself drift; to let his mind fade to white as Tyrell unwraps his flesh and swallows him whole.

The ache in his chest pulses with heat and he cries out, echoing the jumbled thoughts swarming behind his eyes.

“I love you; I love you,” Tyrell mutters into his skin.

Elliot tastes the words in his mouth and feels them flutter past his lips, cool and dry. Somewhere in the darkness of his mind a tendril of feeling reaches out, like a vine curling hopefully toward the sun.

 

III.

 “Elliot…”

A name that doesn’t belong to him. It feels heavy on his shoulders, and he shrugs it off with irritation.

“Be quiet,” he mutters, and Tyrell obliges. They’re sitting on Elliot’s shitty mattress on the floor of his apartment and Tyrell’s lips are wrapped around his cock. He didn’t mean for them to linger so long here; there’s still so much to do and Elliot’s place gives him the fucking creeps. He keeps glancing at the door like he’s expecting the kid to walk in at any second and catch them in the act.

Tyrell moans deep in the back of his throat and Robot shivers. He leans back against the wall and forces himself not to look at the door again. Instead, he looks down at Tyrell, hair dishevelled, falling down around his face in limp strands.

His expression is pinched in concentration, and Robot thinks there’s something beautiful about him—the calm, certain fervour; the devotion; the palpable desire for greater purpose.

Robot twists his fingers in Tyrell’s hair, guiding him down, back up, down again. Even when Robot pushes too hard and Tyrell chokes and coughs he doesn’t pull away, taking the length of him until Robot can see tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. But they don’t fall then; not yet.

*

In the beginning the trickle of memories is small, like the first stream of water from a cracking dam. Then one stream becomes two, becomes three, and the carefully constructed floodgates crumble into dust. 

*

He presses the gun into Tyrell’s hands, and their fingers brush as the cold metal passes between them. He expects trembling, crying, some kind of hesitancy, but it isn’t there; Tyrell’s jaw is set and his grey eyes are calm. And yes, he is beautiful, Robot decides, and a giddy, smug feeling blooms in his chest. Elliot never saw the potential in Tyrell; he never cared to look.

Tyrell stares back, and it’s a strange sensation to be seen. So often Robot wears Elliot’s skin like a shield, relishing the ability to come and go as he pleases, always retreating back into the shadows. It’s for that reason that he can accomplish what Elliot can’t. Yet Tyrell’s gaze has power over him, and in return gives him a kind of power he hasn’t felt before.

“What do you need me to do?” Tyrell asks, voice even. Robot takes a drag of his cigarette and blows the smoke in his face.

“I need—”

Enough.

He already knows this part of the story.

*

Mr. Robot’s absence is as keen as his presence; a knife in Elliot’s ribs that twists deeper with every breath, reminding him ceaselessly that he is not whole.

Tyrell haunts his bedside like a spectre but Elliot can’t bear to look him in the eye; every time he does something new surfaces, adding to the tangled mess inside his chest, dark and alive, throbbing like some malignant growth that’s taken root deep inside his organs.

How many weeks has it been? How many months? What waits for him outside the locked door of his room? 

*

Buildings. Signs. The neon blur of the city.

Tyrell’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel. They haven’t spoken since they left the arcade, and Robot can feel nervous excitement rolling off of him in waves. They pull into a dark lot and he lets out a long breath.

Robot keeps looking out the window. Bile is rising in his throat and he doesn’t fucking trust himself to speak right now. He hears Tyrell open his mouth, then close it again.

“Well,” Tyrell finally says. Robot doesn’t answer. “Well,” he says again.

A police car races past, sirens blaring, and Tyrell shifts in his seat, momentarily tense.

“I—” Tyrell starts, but Robot reaches over and grabs him by the collar. He feels Tyrell brace as their lips come together—his confusion is satisfying but it doesn’t last long; his fingers quickly move to cradle Robot’s jaw, pulling him closer.

How is it that Tyrell’s mouth already feels familiar?

Tyrell’s eyes are bright when they break apart, and Robot is afraid to look away. Around them, the darkness waits patiently.

“Good luck,” Tyrell says. Robot doesn’t say anything back; just nods and turns away. The car dips as Tyrell steps out, and the door closes with a muffled thud.

Robot pulls the lever on his seat and leans back with a sigh. He’s not looking forward to going back under—to giving this up, whatever it is—but all the pieces are in place now and as long as Elliot doesn’t freak out and do something stupid, he’s pretty sure he can get the kid to play along.  

*

The wound in his flesh has all but healed, but the pain lingers. During the days he sits alone. Paces his room. Stares out the window and into the brick of the building next door. He maps the specks on the ceiling into constellations, and somehow it helps keep the darkness at bay.

Slowly, a plan begins to form in his mind. He doesn’t think about it too much at first; he keeps it in the periphery of his thoughts, afraid that looking at it straight on will leave him vulnerable.

Angela brings him a chess set; Tyrell hums lullabies under his breath. One day, Elliot hears them talking outside his door in hushed, gentle voices, and he wonders how often they speak to each other, and if they talk about him.

Hours, days, weeks crawl by.

“Please, Elliot,” Tyrell whispers in his ear.

“Please, Elliot,” Angela begs him with tear-filled eyes.

He’s not the person they need—he never was.

“You win,” he says at last to the empty room. “You hear me? You win.”

 

IV.

He reappears without warning one afternoon, when Elliot is playing chess. The sun is almost setting outside, plunging the sparsely-decorated room into deep, muted red. Elliot feels him before he sees him.

“I really am sorry, kiddo. You know that, right?”

Elliot doesn’t look up from his game.

“I know.” He sets his knight down with a soft click, and then Mr. Robot is in front of him, studying the board. He picks up a pawn and rolls it between his fingertips.

“I liked where we got to, you know? Working together. Before… before all this. It doesn’t have to be war.”

Elliot’s eyes flick up to his face. He looks solemn and serious; no hint of sarcasm or amusement in the delicate lines around his eyes. He looks… tired. For a second, Elliot actually buys the act.

“What do you really want?”

Mr. Robot’s expression darkens only for a moment—almost too briefly for Elliot to be sure he saw any change at all—but then the weary innocence is back, so carefully constructed that it makes the hairs on Elliot’s arm stand on end.

“To help you.”

Elliot thinks of Tyrell; he thinks of Mr. Robot’s hunger, the insatiable need to be seen. To simply be. He thinks of Tyrell’s lips—Angela’s lips—and the fear of returning to the darkness. Elliot knows what Mr. Robot wants, because he wants it too.

“I know,” Elliot says.

“Will you let me?”

There’s a hint of trepidation in his voice, as if there’s nothing he could ever want more but he can barely bring himself to hope. Elliot feels a sudden warmth as Mr. Robot comes to stand just behind him, resting a hand on his shoulder.

He reaches up and clasps Mr. Robot’s hand in his own. It’s an anchor, real and solid, tethering him to the present. Already he can feel the ragged wound in his mind beginning to mend, knitting itself back together. He stands and turns to face Mr. Robot.

“Yeah,” Elliot says, “I’m ready,” and he knows Mr. Robot believes him because he can feel his relief.

His heart aches but he pulls Mr. Robot into an embrace. He’s guilty as much as he’s sad, and angry, and triumphant.

“I’m proud of you, Elliot,” Mr. Robot whispers into his ear.

 

V.

The sunlight feels good on his skin. The air up here is fresh and cold, already tinged with the sharp edge of autumn. Elliot stands on the edge of the roof, the sky stretching out almost endlessly before him, a clear, cloudless blue. He imagines taking one more step: the drop, the weightlessness, the—

Not yet.

“Elliot, come look.”

He turns in spite of himself, and watches as Mr. Robot stoops low over the map Tyrell has spread out on the ground. A few other Dark Army lackeys look on approvingly, muttering to themselves and taking notes as Mr. Robot begins to dictate his plans. As he turns to gesture out over the city, he notices Elliot watching and falters as their eyes meet.

There’s still something about this coexistence that feels indecent, and neither of them quite know how to act. So Elliot turns back and looks out over the urban sprawl.

He can’t be sure how much time passes—minutes? hours?—but eventually he feels a presence at his side.

“I’m so happy, Elliot,” Angela says. She slips her hand into his, linking their fingers together. “I’m so glad.”

Despite everything, it’s comforting. He can almost imagine they’re still the same people that dreamt of escape all those years ago.

Elliot doesn’t need to look over his shoulder to know that the group of men around the map has gone. The sky has sunk from blue to vivid pink, and Angela’s face glows gold in the sunset, alight with life and hope.

“Can you believe it, Elliot?” Tyrell asks as he comes to stand on Elliot’s other side. His expression is peaceful. “Everything we’ve worked for… it’s really happening.”

Tyrell’s looks across him and smiles at Angela—smiles at them both—and Elliot can’t help thinking there’s no two people he would rather be with right now, poised on the precipice of the end of the world. Perhaps what he feels for them isn’t real—the idealized love of a memory, or the echo of love that doesn’t even belong to him—but why does anything need to be real to matter?

From here the buildings look like toys, and it’s easy to imagine they’re nothing more than hollow models. How much of it will be left, he wonders, when all this is over?

How much of it can he save?