James surprises him in the kitchen; he hasn’t been up at all since the hospital had released him, but there he was now, with his glasses on, head shaved and bandaged from the procedures, blanket around his shoulders. Bare feet on kitchen tile. Glasses on, but eyes bleary. Draven looks from the pot of spaghetti he was working on and smiles at him.
“Yeah?” He responds. “You’re up. How do you fe-”
“Draven.” James voice is sleepy and serious, like he’s trying to push through a haze. “Did I write this?”
He’s holding a thick book bound in a hard tan cover. Draven recognizes it from where it sat on one of the bookshelves in his boyfriend’s living room; there’s no markings on the outside save for a couple words stenciled into the lower spine in blocky, ruthless white lettering:
“Yeah,” He responds, stirring the pasta absentmindedly. “It’s your Master’s thesis.”
James blinks, holding the blankets around his shoulders with a sense of strange removal from reality. Master’s thesis. Master’s thesis. He definitely remembered writing it- not what it was about, mind you, but writing it, presenting it, crying over it- but not what it was about.
But that wasn’t the most alarming thing about the numerous books he saw around him in his home.
“Do you remember writing it?” says Draven. His boyfriend hasn’t said anything wrong, but the words already hit him in the gut enough to bring tears to his eyes. Master’s thesis. That proved it, then.
“Draven,” says James, choking back tears. “I think I forgot how to read.”
“What?” His boyfriend looks at him with alarm. “Wait. James, just give me a second.” Draven throws the switch on the stove top to low, and James reflects on what’s transpired since he awoke: turned on his phone at his bedside. Couldn’t read the notifications. Looked at the book Draven was reading on his side of the bed: couldn’t comprehend the title. Staggered into the living room with alarm and looked at the main bookshelf. No understanding. Picked the book he recognized the most because he felt like it was closer to him than the rest, like it was part of himself at some point in his life, like it was something he created. Carried it into the kitchen.
Held it numbly and strangely in his hands as his now very concerned partner turned back towards him.
“Can I see it?”
Draven lays the book flat on the kitchen counter, and James stands next to him, feeling something numb and shuddering in his chest. His boyfriend opens the cover, then flips past the title page (with large characters he can’t understand) and the table of contents (James swallows hard to keep tears back now; he can only tell it’s the table of contents because of the layout of the words themselves) and lands on the first page, page 1, which is actually page 10 because James Talloran had written nearly 400 pages of original research content for his dissertation and this had constituted a considerable amount of chapters. Page 1. Okay. Page 1. Page 1. He tries to slow his breathing, and Draven holds the book open with one hand and touches James’ back with the other.
“Hey, it’s okay. Just calm down, okay? The doctors said something like this might happen,” Says Draven. “It’ll come back with a little work, okay? Let’s just start with the first bit and work from there.”
James swallows and nods and Draven is rubbing his back now, talking softer, being gentle but James is not to be handled gently right now Draven this is serious Draven I can’t read I can’t read this, please, Draven-
He points at the title. It’s one word. It’s not even a title as much as it’s a section designation. James has read this word hundreds and thousands of times in his life effortlessly.
“Let’s just start small, okay?” Says Draven, still rubbing his back, watching hot tears run down his partner’s face. “Hey, it’s okay. Just this one.”
James stares at it blankly. He scans it, then looks at the characters, their individual shapes on the page. He’s supposed to read it from left to right. He rakes through his brain frantically, then feels stupid, so fucking stupid, and Draven must know that he just doesn’t know what it says because he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes.
He’s looking away now.
He’s looking anywhere but the stupid fucking book. He’s looking at the floor, then rubbing his eyes again, then avoiding Draven’s gaze, too. He wants to run away. He wants to hide, or fall asleep. Whatever it was he went through, nothing could have been worth this.
“James. Hey.” Draven’s voice is soft, coaxing. “Hey.”
“I don’t know what that says.”
“I know. It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay.”
“James. Look at me.”
He doesn’t want to look. He feels stupid, so endlessly fucking stupid, but he looks. He looks up at Draven and feels like a child and of course Draven is so fucking forgiving, the prick, who the fuck does he think he is being so calm and so nice and so hot at a time like this, who even does that, like seriously, he probably thinks James is stupid and not worth his time anymore, like really, honestly, who the fuck does he think he is, anyway -
Draven covers up all but the first letter of the word with his finger. James is shaking with rage and frustration and grief and loss. Draven rubs his back and James wants to shrug him off but doesn’t because he wants that touch more than anything else in the world. Draven tells him to look at the book again.
“What’s that letter?” He says.
“A,” chokes out James.
“Okay, see? That’s right. You got it right.” Draven moves his finger over one letter. “What about that one?”
“Hey, look at that, two in a row.”
“Draven, this is so fucking stupid, I swear to god! ” James explodes, but it loses effect because he’s sobbing and his voice is cracking hard on ‘god’ and he even sounds like a child, and he dramatically throws the blanket on the floor for emphasis but again it really doesn’t have much of an effect so to make up for it he turns and tries to storm out and Draven follows him a few steps and grabs his hand with a soft hey, hey, hey, babe, and somehow that completely subdues him, brings him back, reduces him to angry tears in front of the stupid book again, brings him back to the third letter with Draven holding him tighter now.
“S.” He’s crying harder. Draven holds him close and tries to coax him to try the next one and he can’t, he just fucking can’t do this-
“Babe,” Says Draven. “Hey, listen. Hey.” James shakes his head no.
“T.” Says Draven. “R. A. C. T.”
“A-B-S-T-R-A-C-T,” Spells Draven. “Do you know what that spells?”
It hits him.
The meaning hits him all at once and he feels a surge of relief and comprehension, of understanding, of some small memory fragment of what that spelt and what it meant, how he chose to write it last when he had all of his data together, how he was afraid the section would be too long, all the little bits and pieces of those 8 letters that he most definitely recognized. James whips his head out of Draven’s chest and looks at the completed word and reads it once, twice, three times.
“Abstract.” Whispers James in a sort of disbelief. “It’s my paper’s stupid fucking abstract.”
Draven holds him tightly. James slows his breathing and finds his tears slowing with it.
“That’s right.” Says Draven softly. “It’s all still there, James. You need a little practice, but it’s not like you’re gonna have to learn how to read all over again from scratch.”
“Oh my god,” he whispers. “Oh my god. I’m so sorry, I was just-”
“-Scared. I know.” Draven smiles and kisses him where he can feel it, the place where they hadn’t stuck wires and patches in the procedure, the shaved top of his partner’s head. “It’s okay. You know, when I first saw you after they finished in the hospital, I came in to take you home once they told me about everything and how to take care of you and stuff and you recognized me, but you couldn’t remember my name.”
James laughs nervously. “Seriously? I don’t remember that.”
“Yeah. You were having a hard time understanding me when I spoke to you, too.” Draven says. “That really scared me.”
His voice is light, but James can hear the residual fear in his words.
“And then there was the whole, ‘you being half dead in the hospital’ thing.” He continues. “And before that, there was the whole, ‘you being missing for three months’ thing.”
He’s serious that time - very serious. James’ heart drops in his chest in response. He didn’t remember any of that; all of that had been wiped with the amnestic procedure that had him laid up at home with Draven looking after him in the first place.
But Draven remembered. And he had been scared. And he had waited, and then put up with his shit some more when he got back, and then was taking care of him now as he reeled from the procedure that wiped the memory of those past four months away.
“Look.” Says Draven before James can say anything in response. “I just don’t want to lose you again, okay? Like, fuck, James, I’m supposed to be the one who goes missing for three months on the job. Researchers don’t just do that, you know?”
“Hey babe?” Says James. “I would really love to have this deep conversation about our relationship and what it means now and all that, and how this affected both of us, and how we plan on dealing with any and all associated traumas coming from this portion of our relationship. I think it’s super important to address at some point. And I’m sorry that I hurt you, and we need to talk about how to get you feeling better, too, since you seem really shaken up by all this and I can totally understand why. But your pasta’s boiling over.”
Draven’s eyes widen, and he lets go of James Talloran- previously the center of everything that happened to him, but not as much anymore- to address the loudly rattling pot on the stove.