He’s bent at the waist, and at first, Kondraki thinks he’s in pain from the way his arms are wrapped around him. His head is laying flat on the mattress, blond-grey hair shaggy and unkempt, and he’s facing away from him and the lamp he’s turned on out of concern. The interaction they have in the moment that follows is quick and silent. Clef is not crying, but his breathing is coming in labored huffs. He reaches out to touch him, and he flinches away. Do not touch me. I need to not be touched.
Kondraki is filled with mounting anxiety, and five minutes pass like that, in the rainy April night in his apartment. Clef is a wound spring, a thread pulled tight; he sees it in his tendons, through his back, his spine, gritted jaw line, the slight angle of his chin towards his stomach. At one point, Ben thinks he’s in a nightmare- maybe that he never woke up in the first place- then sees his adam’s apple bob in a harsh swallow, shifting of his legs an inch, bangs plastered to his forehead. He isn’t asleep, but he isn’t here, either.
It was these kinds of fits that scared Ben the most- the ones that woke his partner up and not himself, the ones that came on without a yell or signs of distress, the ones that simply curled Alto up and held him in a long, silent trance. The first five minutes pass, and then ten more. He doesn’t know how long he’s been this way. It might have been hours by now.
Kondraki doesn’t touch him, but gets out of bed and turns the lamp on on Clef’s side of the bed, and hopes that it’ll shake him out of it; when he does this, he sees very clearly that his eyes are half open, unblinking, out of focus. He wants to take him on each shoulder and shake him out of it, but he knows from experience it’ll just make it worse.
“Alto,” He says, loudly. “Hey.”
A shudder twitches through his partner’s rigid form.
“You’re okay,” He says. “Come on back, you’re alright.”
There’s no response. His chest rises and falls twice in quick succession; he blinks.
“I’m gonna get you some water,” says Ben, mostly out of a feeling of needing to do something to help than anything else, “I’ll be right back.”
The kitchen is cold when Ben steps into it, ugly 70s wood-paneling and backsplash, yellowing refrigerator, scratched linoleum. This isn’t the first time he’s been at a loss at what to do with Alto’s episodes; his own PTSD flashbacks were of the kicky-screamy subset, the kind that were never pretty but could at least be subdued. He had been open with Clef about what had caused them- a fragmented managiary of breaches and incidents throughout the years. He was scared of the dark, terrified of the noise of metal on metal, petrified by the smell of burning flesh, so he did the usual: saw a shrink and prayed to god. Took sleeping pills when he was having a bad week. Always offered to sleep on the couch when the symptoms worsened (Alto, who was insistent that a comfortable sleeping arrangement might help prevent them in the first place, generally refused and was occasionally swiped at or kicked in the middle of the night as a result). He came into work exhausted and hypervigilant the next day. So was life.
But Clef’s was a very different sort of beast.
Kondraki had never been told up front what exact event caused it. He had derived knowledge of a few specific triggers from watching his partner’s behavior and studying it when it changed; he was terrified of lakes in particular, floods and flash flooding. Water leaking in the old apartment during a storm seemed to frighten him to the point where he would refuse to sleep alongside Ben at all, electing to stay at work or retreat to the windowless storage space in the back of the apartment.
“I can but caulk on it, you know,” He’d said once, upon waking up one nighttime thunderstorm to his partner splayed out on the floor of the back room with his laptop, “It’s the cracks in the windowsill that make you nervous, right? That shouldn’t be hard to seal up.”
“Heh, you said ‘cock’,” Clef responded without looking up from his computer, but in the light from the hallway Ben could see that his face was pale.
“Come back to bed. I’ll fix it in the morning,” He said.
“You’re gonna fix it?” said Clef. “You’re gonna fix it with your cock?”
“What the fuck is it with you and water?”
Clef had looked up from his email briefly and smiled.
“Old shit,” He said, which was code between the two of them for ‘I don’t want to talk about it’.
“It’s not even a lot of water,” Kondraki reasoned. “Like, did you see it? I put down a towel, but it’s not even pooling on the floor or anything.”
Clef shrugged and started in typing another response. “Damp. Makes my arthritis hurt.”
“You don’t have arthritis.”
“Yes I do.”
“In my ass.”
“So you have it everywhere?”
Clef laughed at that, but it sounded strained, like it was covering up a sort of underlying anxiety. Kondraki smiled, too.
“Here, at least let me get you a blanket.” He’d said. And he’d wish he’d said more. Asked more. Proded more, tried to understand or even grasp the magnitude of what he was so afraid of.
But as he stands in the kitchen now, dumbly, thinking about how water wouldn’t help at all- he feels something change about the apartment. He feels it like a dog notices a storm vaguely in the distance, with little comprehension apart from dawning incumbent fear. It feels irrational, like his own trauma-related fears, but as if it isn’t own at all. Like he is passively in danger.
He thinks of Alto.
When Clef starts becoming aware of himself again, he doesn’t understand what Ben is saying to him through the buzzing static in his ears. He’s looking at him, has his hands on his shoulders, touching him, comforting him, talking to him; but doesn’t hear anything but noise. The room feels claustrophobic. There’s pressure on his chest from the impending shift in the room’s reality that he has no doubt that he’s causing. It feels like nails on a chalkboard, a pale rumbling in his head that makes it hard to see with his two normal, functioning eyes.
“I need some air,” he says, and his voice buzzes unpleasantly in the hume field in a way that Ben can’t sense. Blood is seeping through his shirt. Ben feels alarmed- he can’t see Ben right now, but he can feel roughly where he’s at in the room like ripples in a pond, along with his fear- and for a moment Clef can’t tell if he actually said the words or if he just thought them loud enough that they appeared. The buzzing in the room around them is thick and masking. He tries again.
“I need some air,” he says, and this time he actually hears that he said it instead of thinking it, or feeling it. He sounds incredibly calm to Ben, who remains completely oblivious to the sensory-destroying hume fluctuations happening around them.
“It’s cold out,” Ben replies stupidly, because he just doesn’t know quite what to say, or what’s happening, or why his partner is rail-tight where he lies on the mattress. Alto doesn’t look like he hears him. This is bad, he thinks. This is really, really bad.
Alto shifts. Blood is staining the sheets under him and Ben goes to say something, his mouth hanging open, but he’s already standing, incredibly steadily for his state. Before he can stop him Alto is leaning heavily on the doorframe to their bedroom. He can see him trembling in the shadows.
“You’re bleeding,” he says, “Oh my god, Alto, what happened? ”
“I need some air,” Replies Alto from the summit, the crossroads, somewhere very far away in another country in a different time. “Oh-” he starts, and then stops.
“The hallway,” says Alto.
“What about the hallway?” he asks, standing from the bed, and then he senses that he shouldn’t get any closer and pauses one foot, two feet, three feet behind his partner, and watches.
There’s a moment here that Ben will think about for a long time. Alto’s chest is heaving in a way where in any other circumstances, he would think he was having a heart attack. He’s gripping the doorframe so tightly his knuckles are white. Kondraki watches his silhouette and wishes he could run forward and grab him, somehow bring him back down from wherever he is, but something in the house is changing so drastically that suddenly Ben can sense it for the first time. It makes him uneasy. He’s almost scared.
“Stay here,” he wheezes, and he really wheezes, like he’s having trouble breathing. Ben wonders if he should call an ambulance. Ben wonders if the ambulance would be able to make it past whatever was out there, in their home, if it was an entity or something else. He realizes with a seizing heave of horror that he’s left his service pistol at work. He wonders if he could operate Clef’s rifle, an old GOC model with more than a few quirks to it, or if that would even do anything, and then he turns his attention to his cell phone on the nightstand-
Clef slips around the corner. Stumbles into the hall. Wanders out of sight.
Ben is alone.
He will openly admit that he’s had very little experience with Type Greens. Most of what he’s come face to face with has been on paper. He’s seen numbers and graphs with Kant counter readings complete with annotations in Times New Roman font. He’s cleared tests involving devices that he couldn’t even begin to understand, ones involving electrodes and little bundles of wire. Director Kondraki knows exactly as much as is practical for him to know, and most of that has never involved the practical aspects beyond what would happen if a young Type Green thought of this or that, if they went here or there or could picture one thing or another. He has been told that many do not live keep their sanity beyond the age of twenty. He has been told that the broad rate of this type of humanoid (that's what he always had called them was humanoids, why did he always call them that?) of becoming ticking time bombs towards explosive rage is nearly 95-99% on average.
So the encounter that happens this night, this very strange night in particular, roughly six weeks after Clef stops dragging his feet and agrees to move in, it dawns on him very suddenly that what he is feeling now, alone in the bedroom, is indeed a physical reality shift that he has only been trained to respond to in an on-site context. It dawns on him that this was a phenomena that he’d only ever seen during very deep containment breaches and on grainy VHS tapes in beige rooms at 10am. It occurs to him that what Clef had whispered- the hallway- might actually mean, holy shit, there is something wrong with the hallway, and that it is not normal and is not safe, and finally it occurs to him that this might be clef, that he might have been dragging his feet for a reason.
He does not like that option. It coils in his stomach like something he’s known in the back of his mind for a long time, and refused to see completely. Not Clef. Not his old second-in-command, one of his closest friends, someone who played with his son when he was younger. Clef couldn’t be dangerous. It sits like a bitter taste at the back of his tongue, bits and pieces of information he’d long seen past, an old GOC file here, a medical note there. Something something violence, something something green. Betrayal stings in his diaphragm. Anxiety muddles his mind.
But when he finds the courage to walk out into the hallway several minutes later- finding nothing but a strange expanse of disintegrated reality pressed into the vague shape of the hallway of his apartment- he finds that he is very, very afraid.
The hallway extends past the bounds of the apartment when he looks. It fades into black as far as he can see to his left, where Draven’s room was supposed to exist, and when he squints to find the door of the back room he can’t spot it through the dark.
It occurs to Kondraki in a single, horrifying moment as he stands in the bleak fluorescent light of the bathroom that he’s only ever seen the bruises on Clef when he’s dressed, or semi dressed. They go across his chest, down his ribcage. They crisscross and go from small to bigger, and then bigger, and Ben isn’t quite sure how to react when he gets to the deep, yellow bruises around his pelvis. He isn’t quite sure how to react when it slowly dawns on him exactly what was wrong, or exactly what happened. He isn’t quite sure how to react to it at all. Ben just stands with his hand on the doorframe of the bathroom, staring, and Clef stares back with eyes that are bright and cold and clear, and here is the hume malfunction, a certain point fluctuation, a deletion in a line of code, and somehow that part was less shocking to him then the part about the bruises, and suddenly, there is a change.
The room’s reality tunes like a fine, delicate instrument, and he sees it before his eyes. It’s a cold, clear, beautiful strain of power, like frost blooming on a window pane, immaculately controlled. He feels like he’s seeing it for the very first time, and it makes him feel vulnerable and afraid and stupidly transfixed all at once; Clef grips the tub until his knuckles are the same shade as the porcelain, and the floor shifts forward, one tile over the next; the fuzziness in reality he wasn’t aware of shift into focus, little lines and perfect detail so the dust is replaced in the corner behind the toilet, the stone between the tiles is porous, the wood on the windowsill is streaked with fine organic texture. He feels it all around the house. The carpet regains the thousands of tread fiber loops and oh god, he’s repairing things. That’s what he’s doing. He’s repairing everything, one at a time. Ben has never seen a Type Green repair things before. He’s never seen it like this.
The power rushes back in the hallway behind him, and the knocking on the closet door in their bedroom stops, the hallway rushes back from the darkness to a concrete position behind him, the world accordions into place and then it’s him, and Clef, and the only thing that isn’t right again is Alto. The only thing that isn’t fixed is him.
“Oh, my god,” Ben exhales, “You’re amazing. You’re just…” He’s lost for words. “…Brilliant, Jesus, you must be…Oh, my god, Alto, you’re- that was you. You’re beautiful.”
Suddenly, Alto’s grip on the side of the tub loosens. He falls backward, heavily, like a string holding him up has been severed, and all at once the power dissipated into thin air.
It panics him, suddenly, and he has questions. Why did he take off his clothes? Why the bathroom, when he said he needed to get some air? It’s confusing, but it also seems like Alto in a way; in a more terrifying way, he supposed. Erratic and chaotic, somehow. Maybe he wasn’t entirely sure where he was, or what he was doing. He seemed extremely discombobulated, and reality had become discombobulated in turn.
“I asked you to stay in the bedroom,” Alto croaks when he comes around, skin pale and clammy, spitting red water into the tub.
“I know you did,” says Kondraki. “I was worried.”
“Don’t call containment,” He says.
“I won’t,” says Kondraki. “Are you okay?”
His sides heave, and for another few seconds Ben is afraid he might faint again. He chokes and coughs up more water instead. It’s mixed with bile. He wonders how much longer this will last, because it looks fucking painful.
“What?” asks Alto thickly.
“I asked if you were okay.” he says. “Jesus Christ , you’re a mess. Does this happen to you? Like, regularly?”
Alto swallows a couple times, leaning his head on the back of the tub so his hair is pressed in strange angels on the porcelan. His pale skin is elaborately bruised, and it makes it even more jarring to Ben when he smiles bearlily in the bathroom light with his eyes ringed red and tired and old.
“Bold of you to assume I’m not always a mess,” he rasps.
Reality is still again. Ben kisses him.
There is a morning where he wakes and finds him ramrod-tight again, curled in on himself slightly, pale. He wants so badly to touch him, to shake his shoulder until he wakes like Alto periodically did for his own nightmares, but he resists. Touch, water, trying to talk to him- these were just not sources of comfort for his partner. They never were.
Alto doesn’t need help, he thinks, because Alto has never needed help in this respect the entire time he’s known him. His own presence in all of this was a side note, a person just so happening to be in the same room as a force of nature, and he would be lying if he said he didn’t wish there was anything he could do- but Clef would have told him, given him permission to call the shots in these ordeals, and for him that would mean surrendering his semblance of comfort- control.
“You don’t have to do this on your own, you know,” says Ben one night when his partner is sitting on the edge of their bed after bringing the world back into focus and bleeding through his shirt in the process, “I’m here if you need me to do something.”
Alto laughs, a soft, tired kind of laugh that’s far different than the one he hears him emit during the day.
“Ben, I appreciate it,” he says, “but I’ve been doing this alone for a very, very long time.”
“I know,” he responds, “and I know you’re perfectly capable of handling it yourself. But you don’t have to do it alone forever.”
Alto shakes his head in the newly-reconstructed early morning dark. Kondraki tries to imagine him as a god in this state- sweat slicking his shirt against his skin, manboobs, bedhead- and he can’t help but see him as anyone but Alto, the close friend he’s known for almost thirty years.
“You can talk to me, too,” He says then. “I know you fucking hate the Foundation psychologists, and talking to people like that in general. But if you ever want to talk about those marks-”
Alto tenses. He reels back.
“-or whatever, you know. Whatever you feel comfortable doing. I know I’ve vented a ton of shit to you more times than I can count, so like, not to be gay or anything, but I’m here for you. I hope you know that.”
“Konny,” says the god sitting at the edge of the bed they share, “Konny, Konny, Konny. You think too much.”
In another setting the old pet name would have come across as condescending in tone, but here there’s nothing but affection, an odd sort of reassurance. Ben doesn’t buy it entirely- he rarely takes things intended for comfort at face value- but he’s tired, and the bed is warm, and it’s snowing outside. And Alto is there. And Alto is fine, like he always was.
“Mmm,” hums Ben, eyes closed. They both know that he doesn’t think too much. Alto waits until he’s asleep, then goes to the living room to read.
There is a string of nights in mid January where it seems as if Alto can’t sleep at all. He goes straight from unsettled rest to falling into a nervous sort of pacing from one end of the apartment to the other in his boxers like he’s a caged animal, like the smallness of the space disturbs him. A nervous energy he recognizes as the same kind he saw in the bathroom that night settles over the space they share, and Ben lays awake for hours, waiting to feel that strange lurch back and forth like a ship on the sea. But it never comes. And eventually, Alto stops pacing and goes to work early.
On Thursday night Ben pokes his head into the hallway several hours into his anxious barefooted spiral, and calls to him:
“Al? You alright?”
He stops in the hallway, but doesnt turn around. Kondraki can see the illumination from the streetlights outside coming through the blinds to rest on his form- shoulders hunched, shirt stuck to his frame, hair slicked with sweat, and it occurs to him, ah, he’s not here all the way.
“Clef,” he says, louder, “Come to bed.”
It’s almost a growl. For a second, Ben second-guesses himself in asking. The nervous energy turns into something different, like sliding left on a color wheel- a change in hue. Alto licks his lips. He’s picking at a thread on his waistband and doesn’t seem to be conscious of it. Kondraki reaches with one hand to the bedroom light and flicks it on, spilling it into the hallway, and sees with muted alarm that there’s blood seeping through the back of his shirt, blood in his hair, blood on his arms and legs, so much it can’t entirely be his own, and just as the image registers the bedroom light flickers off abruptly, without his touch. It makes him jump.
“Don’t look at me,” Clef says, and it’s a strange, whining half-sob that he’s never heard from him before. His hands leave the string and wring together in the dark, a nervous motion he hasn’t seen him perform in years. The energy shifts another hue, faster this time. As Ben’s eyes adjust to the dark he realizes that the blinds have been pulled shut in the same instant it took for the bedroom lights to turn off.
“I’m not looking at you,” Ben tries to keep his voice steady, but he’s terrified. “I just think you should try laying down for a while.”
Alto’s hands continue to wring in the dark. He can hear his breathing from several feet away, shallow and fatigued. Ben inhales. Grounds himself. This was still his partner, not a monster, not an anomaly, not something locked in a cage.
“Alto,” he says, and it comes out much less frightened then he was expecting it to, filled with normalcy, the same tone he would use when talking with him at work or over dinner, “I don’t know where the hell you think you are, but you’re not there anymore.”
Clef does not move, but the energy changes again, like he’s been startled from a deep trance. There’s movement in the edge of Ben’s vision that he realizes is a reconstruction site he hadn’t noticed before, a single block of darkness in the living room, and he wonders blearily if Alto was going about rebuilding anything else in the house he’d displaced in his nightmare state of panic. Whatever it was, it was considerably less dramatic than the night in the bathroom. Ben waits for a moment. He sees his shoulders adjust slightly in the dark. His hands stop wringing. It happens slowly. But he calms.
“Can I turn on the light?” asks Ben, keeping his voice low as if he’s afraid of disrupting an important process he cannot perceive.
“Wait.” Alto responds in a whisper, sounding much more like himself, somewhat more placated, if not winded. He takes a few more deep breaths. Drops his head to look at the floor.
“Okay,” he says, “Now you can.”
Ben flicks on the light, and sees him covered in sweat, not blood. He looks entirely normal, but now he has one hand on the wall, steadying himself, still trying to catch his breath. The energy in the room is warming somehow, back up the color wheel, going from a harsh cold plane to the apartment Kondraki has lived in for two decades.
Ben wants to reach out to him. He wants to touch him. He wants to comfort him, to do something , and he stops himself. Gives him space. Alto doesn’t move to correct him.
“You okay?” Ben asks from the bedroom doorway, when he thinks his partner seems to be recovered enough to talk to him. He means to sound comforting, but it comes out slightly nervous, like he’s ready to get the car keys to drive him to the hospital, and it occurs to him that maybe he was, after seeing the blood. It was one thing to bleed slightly like he had been doing. It was another thing altogether to be bathed in it.
Alto smiles wearily as he turns around to face the bedroom.
“Oof! ” he quips, voice cracking, “Sundowning!”
Ben laughs harder then he should at that. Clef seems to ease slightly at the change in mood. He’s shaking- Kondraki can see it better when he sits down in bed, can feel it more potently when they turn out the light- but he’s alright, or at least bullshitting being alright enough that he’s recovering.
“Can I touch you?”
He sees Alto hesitate, and Ben has a moment of understanding: he is not fine. Things are not okay. He is not calm, and he is not fully convinced that he’s here, in their bed, and not fully convinced he’s safe enough to sleep. The question hangs in the air, in the dark. There is a barrier of reality between them. He is not smiling anymore.
Alto shakes his head no.
One Wednesday morning in early February, Ben awakes and rolls over lethargically to find Clef’s side of the bed cold and empty, like the cloudy grey world outside. His instinct is that he’s gone to take a piss, and so he allows himself to close his eyes again and drift for a while, looking for the dip of the mattress, a rustle of clothing, an indicator of his not being alone, and only when it doesn’t come does he find himself checking his phone for an ultimately nonexistent text- got called into work early, see you tonight, etc. There’s no message and no sound in the apartment. Only then does he find himself looking.
Ben expects to find him on the couch, first and foremost, or sprawled in an armchair, in a sleeping bag in the back room. He blearily wanders into the kitchen and stands in his boxers like his grown ass partner would be visible if he stood there like a dumbass for a few seconds (he does not materialize). There aren’t many places to check in the apartment. A thought crosses his mind that maybe he went to the gas station down the street for some cigarettes, as he did from time to time, although his Polish remained atrocious enough that he always received the wrong brand and a strange look from the cashier. Ben gets a sinking feeling in his stomach and checks the bathroom hesitantly, and is washed with more relief then he intended when he sees that there’s no Clef vomiting bloody water swallowed in a long-distant flood.
The fire escape door is propped open with the brick they use. Ben finally finds him leaning on the black metal railing with a half-empty carton of cigarettes in the pocket of his jeans.
“How bad was it?”
Clef’s cigarette is burning down to his knuckles, the ash glowing softly in the grey Poland dawn.
“Bad,” says Clef gruffly. He looks horribly tired, and his eyes have the red edged quality that he gets during these periodic attacks that he’s been slowly learning about over the past few months they’ve been living together. Ben leans his forearms easily on the fire escape railing next to him. It’s wet with dew. Alto doesn’t meet his gaze.
He nods, messy blond-grey hair, a bruise on his neck just about the same color just visible under his shirt collar. Ben wants to ask, Did you destroy the world and put it back together again under your fingertips? He wants to ask, How far did you fall before you caught yourself? He wants to ask, How bad was it, exactly? How close were you to not coming back, to reaching that invisible line where the task forces have to come in and kill you?
But he asks if he wants breakfast instead. And by the time they go to work, he’s miraculously pulled himself together again, and against all odds Kondraki watches him slam the car door and immediately strut over to a group of trainees in full hideous floral attire with his cocky bitch attitude and hot pink sandals and he can hear his high, sweeping tenor from where he’s standing, gooooood-morning-vietnam-drop-and-give-me-a-blowjob-I-mean-twenty, because apparently nothing’s changed and there hasn’t been a point in the past 12 hours where he’s been on the fire escape of their apartment chain smoking the fear away. He’s breathtakingly confident, irritatingly eccentric, comically powerful. Nuclear codes in a My Little Pony lunchbox. Bombs in a plastic lawn flamingo. Kant counter and richter scale, Ben is terrified for him.