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Matt was only good at three things in life. One: anything with science or math. He could build computers and solve problems and study all day if it was about numbers or chemicals or space. Two: being a good son. He didn’t get into fights, never made a bad grade even in the subjects he struggled in, and always did his chores without having to be asked. And three: making his little sister smile. He took it as his own personal mission in life to keep her happy.

And now he had failed at all three.

           

The room they were sitting in had periwinkle walls that looked more grey than blue, carpet that had probably once been grey or dark brown but was now a weathered beige, and a plant in the corner that had fifty or so years of dust weighing down its plastic leaves. His mother sat close to his side and his father was next to her, both of them sharing looks and making poor attempts at small talk with him. Sometimes his mother would just tell him that she loved him and then let the family lapse into silence again.

Matt didn’t even know where Katie was, who she was staying with right now while his parents sat with him in this sad excuse for a preliminary waiting room. He fiddled with the bandages on his forearm and tried to scratch at the stitches on his face until his mother had gently touched his arm in a too soft version of a reprimand, so now he was sitting with his hands clasped in his lap and waiting as the clock ticked down to his final judgement.

“Matthew Holt?” An orderly had pushed through the door, her scrubs covered in pastel kittens and was looking right at him. Right through him. Matt felt like he could use a disappearing act right now.

This had all been his idea, his final decision to make, or at least the doctor at the hospital had let him believe it was. It had probably been decided by his parents that he would be a patient here at this facility long before the decision had been placed in his lap two days ago. But he appreciated the sentiment of them letting him have one last moment of free will.

The orderly made small talk with his parents as she led the trio down sterile hallways and up a few staircases. She mentioned the most recent cold snap - if you could even call it that when the temperature barely got down to sixty overnight - and the fact that she liked his mom’s dress. Matt could feel his hands beginning to shake and he clenched his fists until what was left of his bitten off fingernails dug into the skin.

With a swipe of a keycard and a green light illuminating, the orderly announced that they had reached their destination. A large reception desk stood in front of him, and Matt started to grind his teeth because now all this was getting a little too real.

He was waiting for one of his parents to ask him if he was sure, if this was still okay, if he was scared or worried or wouldn’t he prefer to recover in his own bed with Bae Bae at the end keeping his feet warm? But they didn’t. His mom just set the backpack that she had hastily packed on the counter and smiled at him sadly when the orderly unzipped it to examine the contents.

“This is good,” she reassured him and herself, eyes watery. The typical explorative joy that always seemed to be on his father’s face was missing, all emotion seemingly wiped clean. “You can get better here.”

“This is what you can keep,” the orderly said, motioning to a pile that consisted of his underwear, pajama pants that had an elastic waist, two old pairs of jeans, and a few tee shirts. His ratty copy of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy collection sat on top, and Matt looked at his mother in shock. She had brought him a part of home, a part of the normalcy he had lost through all of this, for him to feel safe.

“Thank you,” he whispered, not even paying attention to the clothes and items his mother had so deftly packed that were rejected for their possibility of being a danger to him. As if he was creative enough to injure himself with a spiral notebook, but he was sure it was possible.

“And you’re going to have to either wear these,” the nurse placed a pair of socks with rubber grips on the bottom of them on the counter between them, “or give me your shoelaces.”

Matt chose the socks.

 

“What’re you in for?” The boy who leaned back over his chair asked Matt like they were in prison and not an asylum. He had close cropped black hair and impossibly colored eyes.

The room they had led Matt to after he had hugged his parents one final time was just like the rest of the hallways they had passed through, white with teal here and there as pops of color. Chairs had been pulled into what Matt assumed was meant to be lines, but were more akin to waves. Kids all sat around, only a few glancing away from the old animated movie that was on the screen to notice the newcomer and his glasses and bandages and face stitches.

This boy, who had a still healing scab across the bridge of his nose, seemed to be the only one interested in the fact that Matt was even there at all. Before responding, Matt dug deep into the trenches of his mind where he knew all his old confidence was held.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Matt lifted his arms up, the twin bandages stark white like the walls around them.

“The technology didn’t integrate like they planned?” The guy responded, head tilting to the side with mirth. Despite now, despite the day, despite the massive amount of different medications clouding his mind and his system, Matt felt the beginnings of a smile forming on his lips.

“No inspector gadget arms just yet, I’m afraid.” The other boy laughed, like he got that Matt was joking but not what he was joking about. His mouth began to part to start to respond when a new orderly, this one a tall man who was missing an eye, harshly shushed them from the back corner of the room.

“No fraternizing, Shiro!”

“You got it, Iverson,” Shiro, the black-haired boy, gave the man a mock salute and turned back towards the show. Matt never figured out what movie they were supposed to be watching, because he couldn’t stop staring at Shiro.

 

The bed was cold, small and too short and lacking the duvet Matt was used to cocooning himself in to hide from the world. To make it worse the room was quiet but sounds kept leaking through the large crack in the door. The orderlies kept a constant vigil, traipsing the hall every fifteen minutes with rubber soled shoes that squeaked on the bleached linoleum when they got too close to his door. Blessedly there weren’t a lot of patients admitted right now, so he had a room to himself. At least for the time being.

Matt knew he had been tossing and turning for hours, turning over and over and over and tangling the papery sheets around his legs. The stitches in his arms itched and pulled at the dry skin around them every time he shifted. The cut on his face stung when he pressed it into the pillow.

His body told him to cry. The medicines that had been pumped into his system from the short stint in the hospital were cycling out since he hadn’t gotten any sort of evening meds tonight. The ward had told him the doctor wanted to meet him and work with him before any sort of medication decisions were made. Any sort of balance they had reached while he was on hold was lost here, in this room alone.

He felt the creeping sensation of his anxiety tip toeing in, his chest constricting and muscles tensing and the feeling that every part of the world was crashing down onto his shoulders in one large thud. Every time he heard a new nurse strolling down the hall, Matt turned his face away from the crack of fluorescent light from the door so they couldn’t see the tears that were flowing down his cheeks.

He didn’t even know why he was crying, or what was the cause, except he was here. In a tiny room that rivaled a prison with bars over the one curtainless window and the bathroom that had no door. He knew his mom was in bed at home reading, his dad long asleep - if he could even sleep with what Matt had put him through in the last few days.

He knew Katie would be awake, her eyes droopy behind her glasses as she sat at her computer and pounded away at the keyboard with her newest string of code. Some nights he’d go and sit in her room, try and soak up her energy so he didn’t have to feel the weight of depression on his chest. She’d rattle on and on about her latest projects and what she was doing and he’d chime in here and there, if nothing but to remind himself that he had a voice.

He hadn’t seen her yet, his mother said she was too scared to talk to him. She had been at the hospital, they had told him she had been at least, but because of the myriad of drugs that had been pumped into his system he hadn’t known anyone was there, least of all himself.

The fact that Katie had been the one to find him on the ground was horrifying. Truthfully Matt hadn’t ever thought it out as to who would find him on the bathroom floor. Who would see his body, crumpled and fallen in a pool of blood. No one had told him about any of it, just that it was Katie who had called 911 and saved his life.

That was the worst part of it all, the hospitals and the huge scar on his face and the scratchy sheets - that he had done irreversible damage to his baby sister. He should have considered that before being a selfish prick and tried to end it all.

One day, when he could walk out of here, Matt would make his apology to her the grandest gesture of them all. That, at least, was a promise.

 

The entire idea that Shiro was Dory from Finding Nemo was ridiculous, to say the least. It was the first thing new people he met in the small adolescent ward compared him to when he revealed to them that he couldn’t remember anything prior to the car crash. He could remember what he had for breakfast and every actor who had played Spiderman and he could recite all the moons of Saturn in alphabetical order. He just couldn’t remember the way his mom sounded when she laughed, or how his dad would - according to Shiro’s friends - yell at baseball games on the television.

No, Shiro couldn’t remember any of that.

When he woke up in the hospital without an arm but with a cast on his leg and stitches across his nose, Shiro hadn’t even known what was supposed to be happening. There had been two strange guys in his room, curled up next to one another on a small couch, but Shiro had no clue why they were there.

When he had shifted around on the bed and let out a small groan both boys had sat up with gasps and crowded in on him. It had been overwhelming, being bombarded with love he didn’t think he was supposed to be getting. They must have confused rooms, gotten something wrong, some Freaky Friday something had happened.

But the doctor had said his name and when they had shown him his face in the bathroom mirror after taking out catheters and IVs, it had been the same one he had always had… right?

“Takashi,” the doctor had spoken to him in a low voice, trying to sooth away the panic Shiro felt bubbling up in his veins, “tell me what you remember of the night of the accident.” There was a question in the doctor’s voice too, like he was fishing for a piece of information that was critical and Shiro kept glancing over it as if it was hidden from his sight.

“I…” Shiro gulped and looked around the room, “What accident?”

“Shiro-” the black-haired boy had spoken in a voice that was weighed down. The doctor shared a knowing look with the two boys and the black haired one took point and stepped up to Shiro’s side. “You guys were coming back from the cape; a truck crossed the median… Shiro you’re the only one who came out alive.”

“But you’re right here.”

Black haired guy looked at him, then the doctor, “We weren’t with you… Shiro your parents and Ryou are… gone. The crash killed them.”

Through the general feeling in the room, he knew that this information should have been devastating, life changing, emotionally crushing, but Shiro felt none of those things. He just felt empty. When he closed his eyes in an attempt to process the information he saw nothing. No faces popped into his mind, no memories surfaced, it was just a sea of darkness.

The other boy who had been in the room, one with a deep tan and fawn colored hair had stepped up next to the bed then and placed a hand on Shiro’s shoulder. “Shiro, do you know who we even are?”

“No, I don’t.”

That had been four and a half weeks ago. He had graduated from a cast to a walking boot for his shattered ankle, and the stitches had been removed from the bridge of his nose leaving a nasty scar. He had spent two weeks under monitoring in the hospital, days filled with tests and scans and Keith and Lance (they had reintroduced themselves after the initial shock of Shiro’s memory loss had worn off) bringing photos and books and telling stories in attempts to jog something that would rattle loose the past seventeen years of memories.

Nothing worked, nothing came up in those weeks. No matter how many scrapbooks Lance made, or how many stories Keith wove, nothing ever sparked Shiro’s memories of them, of high school, of his parents, of the night that took it all away.

When the medical doctors had determined that his brain and all of his body was physically okay and that the problem was psychological he had been transferred to Altea for further help. They had one of the best psychologists in the area. He was supposed to be able to help.

So far, he hadn’t gotten anything out of Shiro’s traitorous brain either. Not like they had actually really been talking about that lately, though. He talked with Coran about the weather, about the pain his ankle sometimes had even though he had left the walking boot at the hospital, about what movie they had shown in the rec room the previous night. Coran had a method, but Shiro wasn’t entirely sure what it was yet.

Two weeks was a long time to be in a mental ward, even if it was the long-term wing. There was heavy turnover in the ward, people coming in and out or leaving or transferring. Getting better, getting worse, coming and going from solitary. Shiro hadn’t really paid much attention to the others in the wing, not even to his roommate for the two days he had had one.

At least not until Matt walked in. He had shaggy hair and was hunched over, both arms wrapped in gauze. He had kept his tawny eyes on the floor, but none of his physical features stuck out to Shiro like the stitches that cut down his left cheek. The black threads stood out sharp against the boy’s skin and Shiro immediately felt kinship to him. That and general curiosity were what spurred Shiro to lean over the back of his chair and interrupt the movie.

It is also what had made Shiro give up his seat next to the window in the cafeteria in lieu of taking a seat across from where Matt sat, black bags set under his eyes and spork tossing the horrific substitute for scrambled eggs around his tray.

“Hey,” Shiro said in greeting while sitting down, “I didn’t introduce myself, Shiro,” he pointed at his chest with his left fingers.

“Matt.”

“I also,” Shiro lowered his voice with a glance towards the orderlies sitting three tables over, “didn’t give you my reasons for being here.”

“It’s too early for me to make another obscure Disney reference,” Matt replied, missing his morning coffee more than anything. The lack of caffeine was beginning to get to him after days in the hospital.

“I was in a car crash and lost all my memories,” Shiro trudged on like nothing had happened.

“Like Finding Nemo,”Matt replied, eyes still on his plate of spongy eggs and their inability to be speared by his spork even though they seemed to be sporting some sort of strange crust.

“Literally like anything except that movie. I remember what’s happened to me since, not before.”

“That sentence isn’t grammatically correct.”

Shiro just shrugged in reply.

“Why are you telling me this?” Matt finally looked up and Shiro had to stop his eyes from immediately going to the stitches that were holding together two pieces of Matt’s cheek.

Shiro shrugged again, because he suddenly had lost every ability he had to form words, “I really shouldn’t be,” he finally croaked out. He could feel Iverson’s intense gaze boring into the back of his shirt, as excessive talking (which Shiro was really good at) was discouraged. It hindered the healing ability or some shit like that.

Shiro stuffed his mouth full of egg-like-substance and just watched as Matt shrugged back at him and the wince he was surely sporting.

 

Matt was jittery, which was interesting considering his lack of caffeine but he guessed intense anxiety could do that kind of thing to you. He was next in to see the doctor, sitting in a plastic chair in one of the many halls that wound their way through this part of the ward. He couldn’t hear anything from inside the office due to a white noise machine on the floor droning on and on and on. The lack of sleep from the night before had him susceptible to being lulled off by the gentle noise of the waves until the door burst open to a melodic laugh and Shiro was strolling out, still giggling under his breath.

How someone could find that much joy in a therapy appointment, Matt had no idea.

Then, there was a ginger haired man with an impressive mustache standing in front of his chair and the smell of a campfire was coming from inside the small room. The man was tall and holding two manila folders in his arms, one thick and full of documents, the other thin and empty.

“Matthew Holt, is it?” He asked in an odd accent, probably from around England but definitely not from inside of it.

“Uh, yeah,” Matt stood awkwardly and found his fingers already beginning to itch to wiggle under his newly refreshed bandages and start picking at the stitches he had had to get redone multiple times at the hospital for picking them a part. “But, Matt is okay.”

“Splendid,” the man beckoned into the room and Matt blindly went in, taking in the comfortable looking cloth couch and the incense burning on the desk. Bookcases lined the walls and were bursting with volumes and paperbacks alike. The window on the far wall showed off the gorgeous summer day outside the frigidly air-conditioned ward. Matt could almost feel the sunshine on his skin from the doorway. The only piece out of place was a burly man in the corner, resting in an armchair with a thick novel of his own. When the doctor noticed Matt’s eyes lingering on the figure he spoke up while closing the door, “That’s just Kolivan. He stays in here for the more… at risk cases. Just to keep us both safe!” The man looked up at the mention of his name and gave Matt a small wave of the hand. Matt waved back, immediately tugging on the sleeves of is sweatshirt to hide the gauze underneath.

“I am Dr. Coran Hieronymus Wimbleton Smythe, but most of my patients here just call me Coran. I’ve been practicing here at Altea for years now,” Coran looked down at the smaller folder and spread it out on his desk as he sat, pushing Shiro’s much larger none to the side, “I can read what’s in here all day,” Coran spoke in a voice that was upbeat and peppy, not exactly what Matt had been expecting when walking in the room, “but why don’t you tell me what happened? What led you to my office today, Matt?”

Matt was frozen.

How did he sum up years and years of inadequacy and self-hatred? How could he possibly put into words the storm that constantly threatened to tip his little lifeboat over? All of the pain, all of the pressure came flooding back over the sedatives he had been put on and he gulped. The past week of not feeling anything had been so nice. It had been a relief to have the idea of his mood swings gone but now they were back and fear was starting to take hold.

“I wish it had worked,” was what finally came blurting out in a revelation that even shocked Matt.

“What had worked?” Coran had fixed his violet eyes on Matt and apparently Matt had opened the can of worms Coran had wanted him to crack.

“I want to be dead.”

“Do you want this to be at your own hand?”

“Are you allowed to ask me that?”

“I’m allowed to ask you anything I wish as your main doctor, my boy.”

“Isn’t this a little heavy hitting for the first time I ever meet you?” Matt felt defensive anger bubbling in his veins, scared to even mention these sorts of things to anyone, let alone a man he had just met in an office that felt like its walls were slowly starting to creep in and swallow Matt whole.

“What else do you want to talk about?” Coran asked, stretching his long limbs out and fixing at Matt with a look that made Matt’s insides twist around one another. “If you’re uncomfortable, why don’t you tell me about your family.”

That, Matt could do.

He launched into a description of his parents and Pidge, and how smart and wonderful each of them was at what they did, their specialties and interests. How Pidge could build anything and how his father could analyze any and all data, how mom was one of the greatest botanists to ever live. He was proud to be who he was, at least he was proud to be related to such amazing people and he told Coran as much. The man just nodded and scribbled notes on the pad of paper in front of him.

“And,” Coran inserted as Matt was gearing up to begin another story about a science fair project Pidge had done in the third grade, “now I want you to tell me about yourself. Only,” Coran looked up from the pencil scratchings he was doing on the page then, “I want you to describe yourself like you just described your family.”

“I. uh,” Matt swallowed, caught off guard, “I’m Matthew Holt. I scored a 35.25 on my ACT, I skipped seventh grade, I love robotics and writing electronic code.”

“Hmm,” Coran tapped the end of his pencil on the pad of paper a few times, eraser thudding and filling the room with a steady beat. “Seeing as we are out of time,” Matt’s head whipped to the clock and realized that yes, he’d been in the room for forty-five minutes, “before tomorrow I want you to think about why you can only say two sentences about yourself, one of which is just your name. Can you do that for me?”

What other choice do I have? Matt thought, watching the pencil tap tap tap. Instead of saying this out loud, however, Matt just nodded and stood up, letting Kolivan usher him back into the hallway.

 

The day passed in a blur after his meeting with Coran. There were a few hours of crafts, quad time that Matt wasn’t cleared to participate in yet, and a dinner of chicken and veggies and chocolate milk.

A nurse changed the bandages on his arms during the dinnertime medicine handout, expertly dabbing on antibiotics over the stitches. It was the first time the actual injuries struck Matt. Two identical stripes would be scarred on his forearms forever, matching the accidental slice on his cheek perfectly. The nurse noticed him staring, though and just tutted at him, quick to cover up the stitches with gauze so they wouldn’t be openly weeping everywhere.

“All done, kiddo,” she said after the bandages were secured. Matt wandered back to the rec room where everyone was gathered, zoned out on whatever was on the television. A few patients were on the phones in the hallway, speaking in hushed tones to whoever had called in for them that day.

It would have been nice, in this moment, to hear his mom’s voice. He had never realized how badly he had taken that small thing for granted until now, and before he knew it tears were trickling out of the corners of his eyes. Matt scrubbed his face with the sleeves of his sweatshirt but it didn’t do any good for the red splotches he knew popped up on his skin when he cried. It felt pathetic, but where else better to cry than a mental ward? At least there was some form of sick humor in that. No one in the room paid him any attention, at least. He wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.

That night, Matt fell asleep reciting the numbers of pi as far as he could go. He probably got a few of them wrong, but Pidge wasn’t there to make sure that he was properly corrected.

 

“Shiro,” Coran greeted him as the boy sauntered into the office on the rainy Tuesday afternoon.

“Hey Coran,” Shiro plopped himself down into the couch, settling in and pulling one of the throw pillows onto his lap.

“Before we get started today,” Coran closed the file he had been writing in and looked up to meet Shiro’s eye, “the staff wanted me to remind you of our policies on befriending other patients.”

“Matt,” Shiro sighed, already knowing what was going to be said, “I know.”

“If you know, why are we having to remind you?”

“He just looked so sad, Coran,” Shiro explained, pulling his socked feet up underneath his legs and trying to curl tighter into himself.

“So did you, your first day here,” Coran reminded him, “but we all start off this journey of healing somewhere.”

“You sure we’ve even started mine?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

“Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, The Office had nine seasons, the Boston Red Sox won the last World Series and I have no idea what my mother’s middle name was.” Shiro ticked each item off on his fingers, finishing up and looking Coran straight in the eye. “Don’t you think that if I could have remembered something by now, I would have?”

 

Coran had been frustrated with his attitude today, that much he had told Shiro many times throughout the session, but the fact that Shiro’s brain refused to help him at all was beginning to reach the climax of frustration.

As the days ticked down off the clock, time was slowly running out. When he laid in his (the hospital’s) bed at night, Shiro strained and wished and hoped and tried to make something appear in his brain, something from the old life he was supposed to know about and love and remember with fondness. He tried to mourn his mother and father and brother. He tried to be happy when Keith and Lance visited him and spoke of the people at school and the football team’s games and the new movies coming out. He tried to smile and be the person everyone expected him to be, but it hurt. And was confusing. And angering.

How long would he be stuck in this place, forced to relive memories he couldn’t remember remembering?

A large chunk of Shiro wanted to take the old life everyone kept reminding him he didn’t know happened, seal it up in a tidy little envelope, and leave it at that. Everything that had happened to Shiro since the crash he could recall. He didn’t forget stupid things like his name or his age, he could memorize flashcards and dates and facts and he was super good at putting faces and names together.

So what if he couldn’t remember at this point? Shiro just wanted out.

He hadn’t noticed this sudden rush of anger had been bubbling out of his cool facade until the tip of the colored pencil he was using snapped off and Matt looked up at him like a startled rabbit from across the table.

The art director had given them some assignment that was a cover up for just getting the teens to color for an hour and Shiro hadn’t even thought about it when he got out of Coran’s therapy session and plopped himself down in a chair at the same table as Matt. The other boy had remained silent in his concentration on whatever he was working on but now was openly staring Shiro directly in the eye.

“You good?” Matt asked, pointedly looking between Shiro’s eyes and the yellow Crayola clenched in his hand.

“Yeah,” Shiro dropped the pencil in the same way he would have let go of something that had burned him, “I’m just not used to writing with this hand yet, is all,” he waved his right stub at the other boy for emphasis.

“Okay,” Matt said, and if Shiro had been alert enough to be paying attention, he would have heard the obvious tone of uncertainty in Matt’s voice.

 

“How did your little bout of homework go?” Coran asked in greeting as Matt walked in that afternoon, missing time outside once again in favor of plopping himself onto the doctor’s couch.

“Logically the only reason I would talk about my family and not myself in certain ways would be because I don’t view myself to be of the same caliber as them.” Matt rattled off his thoughts from the day before as if they were the answer to a particularly tricky math equation.

“Logically, yes, you are correct,” Matt took a moment to bask in the glory of a correct answer before he was squashed back underneath the thumb of Coran, “but logic rarely - if ever - plays an important part in our mental facets.”

“The brain is all logic, that’s the point of a brain,” Matt countered, trying to untwist the knot of words being presented to him.

“Is it though? If all thinking was logical, by your definition, why would common sense be so hard to come by?” Coran sat back in his chair, seemingly happy to have created such an eloquent description of what he was attempting to teach Matt.

“I came here so I could work on not killing myself, not to solve nonsensical riddles.”

“You came here because you are suffering from a chemical imbalance in your brain that has led you down a path of illogical thinking which in turn-“

Matt cut the doctor off then. “Put me here with a trio of larger scars to compliment the others all along my body,” he finished for Coran.

“Matt,” Coran steepled his hands and if Matt wasn’t currently living in this world he would have sworn he was in some brain-deadening after school special, “Why are you against the portion of your treatment so adamantly?”

“Because like you said, chemical imbalance,” Matt tapped the side of his skull in emphasis. “You give me meds, the balance is restored, I leave.”

“I’m afraid that’s not how our institution works,” Coran sat back, waiting for Matt to respond.

“So tell me how this works then.”

“You have to want to get better, Matt. I can’t release you in good conscience knowing that while you may feel better you aren’t thinking better.”

“I’ve been thinking this way all my life, I don’t think that thinking is the issue.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because when I cut or don’t eat or stay up for days it’s not because I’m thinking, it’s because I’m not thinking. My brain is just so quiet I have to do something to reboot it.”

“So you harm yourself in attempts to wake your body and brain back up after a period of dissociation?” Coran was looking at Matt with an air of victory now and Matt realized that he just had been therapized.

“Jesus fucking Christ, you’re good.”

Coran openly laughed at that, the sides of his mustache raising with the corners of his mouth, “My boy, that’s why they pay me the big bucks.”

 

“Uh oh,” Shiro said when the group that was allowed out in the courtyard came in and he saw Matt already sitting at one of the long tables in the day room absently doodling on a piece of lined paper.

“What?” One of the other patients asked, a little boy who was a hypersomniac asked, already rubbing his eyes even though he’d only really been awake for an hour or less. Matt looked up at Shiro’s voice, Shiro dropped himself in a chair next to Matt and gave him a lazy smile.

“I agree with the little guy, what?” Matt asked, and even though Shiro knew his diagnosis wasn’t one of excessive sleep, Matt’s voice was dripping in exhaustion.

“You have the face of someone who has decidedly been Coran’d.” Matt gave him a look and Shiro continued, “It’s when he finally gets in your head enough to somehow begin making sense. Usually happens around day two or three.”

“Yeah,” Mat drew out the end of the word before going back to his paper so the woman who was organizing boxes of crayons and sheets of construction paper in the corner didn’t catch on that he wasn’t even working on the small art project she had suggested he work on while waiting for the other patients.

“How do you feel?” Shiro not so subtly cast his gaze over Matt’s shoulder and saw that the paper in front of him was filled with numbers and symbols.

“Like my head is being drilled on from the inside out?”

“Probably new meds being a bitch,” Shiro whispered the last word quietly so the seven-year-old next to him wouldn’t hear. The adolescent ward and children’s wing were grouped together in everything except group therapy. Which Shiro realized, was today. Because somehow, he had already progressed another week in this place without really realizing time was passing him by.

“According to Coran,” Matt whispered back as the art therapist began instructing them on some form of inner speculation through color choices and was handing the little kids with grabby hands colored paper, “my brain’s being a little bitch too.” Shiro chuckled and accepted the piece of yellow paper handed to him and a basket of half broken crayons.

“Well then, why don’t we get some help through brainless activities, shall we?”

 

When the orderlies walked Matt and Shiro to the room where group therapy was, Matt just presumed that it was because the other patients were already there waiting for the two of them. When they were deposited into what looked like an old conference room with spinny chairs and a long table, the only other person in the room was a tall man with black hair and kind eyes.

“Hello boys,” he greeted, motioning for them to sit. Even though Matt craved the proximity of another human like he craved caffine right now, he chose to go to the other side of the table from Shiro instead of dropping himself into the chair next to him.

“Dr. Regris,” Shiro greeted with a little half wave as he twisted himself around in the chair.

The doctor extended a hand to Matt and introduced himself by simply repeating the name Shiro had just said. Matt nodded at him in greeting. “It’s uh, just us then?” Matt asked, looking at the seven other chairs in the room.

“Yes, since some patients were discharged last week, it’ll just be you two boys today. They like to separate you older kids from the younger ones for,” the man cleared his throat twice before continuing, “topical reasons.”

“What Regris wants to say is one time a guy cussed in front of two middle school boys and they took that as it being acceptable. It took two weeks for this kid to stop calling the lunch ladies bitches,” Shiro seemed to be trying to hide a giggle and Regris looked like he was about to pop a vein out of his forehead.

“It wasn’t my favorite day,” the therapist divulged, and Matt took a moment to wonder if group therapy meant that they all got to participate. His question was answered next when Regris spoke again, “So what are we talking about today?”

Shiro shrugged from across the table and met Matt’s gaze. “I have no suggestions.”

Silence stretched out in the room as the boys just stared at one another. Matt got to just stare at Shiro and he took the time to appreciate it. At least the one other person his age in this place was considerably okay looking.

“Matt?” The therapist pulled boy of the boys out of their staring contest and they turned to face him.

“I don’t either… I mean what do you, uh, normally talk about in group therapy?”

“We could talk about your thoughts on acclimating to the outside world upon your releases?”

“I just got here, I haven’t even thought about going home yet.”

Regris tapped his pen against the pad of paper in front of him and he thought again for a moment.

“The food here sucks,” Shiro offered and Matt silently sent a prayer of thanks for the spotlight to be off of him. Regris chuckled slightly and looked up at the boys.

“I’m sorry to say that that is not my department, boys,” he said, “but what kind of emotions does the bad food make you feel?”

Shiro flat out laughed at that, “Is unpalatable an emotion?”

Matt let Shiro lead the rest of the session, piping up when it seemed appropriate, but not really getting any further than that. He wished he could talk with just Shiro, without the blanket of therapy thrown over the top of the both of them.

 

“So,” Coran started when Shiro walked into his office the next morning without a greeting, “how’s the old noggin treating you today, Shiro?”

“Still can’t remember shit,” Shiro commented, collapsing into the couch.

“Shiro, as a rule-“

“We don’t cuss, I know,” Shiro waved his hand at the doctor, “Even though I can’t remember sh-stuff I do remember that today is visitation day and honestly, I don’t know how much longer I can keep up this charade.”

“What charade do you speak of?”

Shiro shot Coran a look of indignance, “The one where I remember why I care about these people who come see me every week.”

“You know,” Coran leaned forward and waited until Shiro was looking him dead in the eye to continue, “I understand it’s frustrating but I truly believe that one of your friends are the key to getting your brain to unlock itself from the trauma cocoon it’s built for you.”

“That was very poetic Coran, but honestly all I want to do today is sleep and watch a movie.”

“I’m upping your depression medicine again,” Coran scribbled a note on his pad and Shiro just gave him a thumbs up from the couch.

“We love the meds, doc.”

Coran sighed and made Shiro talk more about his feelings of wanting to lay in bed. Shiro humored him because being quiet typically got him in more trouble than it was worth. At least it filled the time until Lance and Keith got here and he could forget about the dread pooling in the pit of his stomach for one more hour.

 

Matt was terrified to see his parents. Looking in the mirror at himself, he realized that he looked almost worse than he had in the actual hospital. He had lost even more weight – a side effect of the new meds according to one of the nurses – and his skin was turning pasty from the lack of sunlight. The bags under his eyes were emphasized by the green fluorescent lighting and honestly, it was all just terrible. It made the stitches on his cheek poke out. Frankenstein’s monster, he was. Half of him wanted to refuse seeing his parents, but he knew that it would only make his mother worry for him more. So, he put on the bravest face he could while marching up the stairs to the cafeteria where friends and families were seated at individual tables. Shiro walked at his side the entire way there, stoic look unwavering on his face. It was a weird realization, that having Shiro walk with him made things seem a little more on axis.

When they pushed through the double doors to the cafeteria as a group, Matt immediately saw his mother and father and made a beeline for them. There was a content feeling bubbling in his stomach, like part of something was finally coming back to him. It felt good. He was allowed to hug both his parents and both held on like their lives depended on it all. His mother ran her hands down his arms and he winced at the sting of the stitches under his sleeves but played it off as well as he could.

“How are you?” His mother asked when they were all seated, her eyes searching his. She looked as exhausted as Matt felt.

“Tired,” he answered truthfully.

“Are you not sleeping?”

“I never have slept well, why start now?” It was a bad attempt at a joke and they all knew it.

“Matthew,” his father warned out of concern more than anger. Matt waved him off.

“I’m just trying to deal with all of this the only way I know how. Terrible humor.”

“That is all completely your father’s doing,” his mother sighed, looking fondly at her husband for a moment, “We miss you, Matty.”

“I miss you too, mom,” Matt felt tears beginning to prick at the back of his eyes and he rubbed at them furiously.

They caught him up on a few things, his dad’s experiments and that the plum trees in the backyard had begun to produce fruit ready to eat. It was all forced niceties that none of them wanted, but it was what they felt comfortable giving.

It was towards the end of their allotted twenty-minute visitation window when Matt finally blurted out, in the middle of one of his father’s sentences, “Why didn’t Katie come?” The look that crossed both of his parent’s faces was enough explanation. “Is she,” Matt had to gulp down a breath to keep himself upright in his chair, “God I fucked her up so bad, didn’t I?”

The silence that met him was enough. No one at their table spoke again until the orderly announced it was time for families to go and both of Matt’s parents left with just a “We love you Matt.”

He knew it would look bad, and it would get him intensive therapy later, but Matt refused to go to the nightly activities in the rec room after the visitation time and instead opted for burying his head under the threadbare blanket on his bed and crying.

 

Lance had brought him a scrapbook. He had slid it across the table when Shiro had sat down the previous day with a shy smile.

“I know,” he had begun, “that it may not be helpful, but maybe it will! And I just, I want you to have some of us in here with you.” Shiro nodded, running his fingers over the leather on the front of the book and swallowing down the dread that had risen like bile in his throat.

More moments he couldn’t recall that he was supposed to. Happiness with friends that had been ripped from him because of a drunk driver and a coma. Ripped off like his arm. Bloody and lying on the side of the road.

Shiro was pulled out of his delirious spiral by Keith’s voice, which even though he couldn’t remember specifics, made his chest warm and full and Coran had called that at least an improvement.

“I wrote out stories with the photos, maybe specifics will help jog ideas?”

“I hope so,” Shiro sighed and met both of their eyes in turn, “Thank you, I don’t know how to thank you properly yet, but thank you.”

“You working on getting better,” Keith unlaced his fingers from Lance’s grip and instead reached across and took Shiro’s hand in his, “that’s thanks enough.”

“You’re too good for me,” Shiro whispered, closing his eyes to the onslaught of guilt that was threatening to crash into him.

“If you knew how I outed you to the entire school three years ago on accident, you wouldn’t say that,” Keith countered, smile wide on his face.

“Or if you saw all the videographic evidence I have on my phone of you singing Whitney Huston drunk off your ass in a speedo last Halloween,” Lance added, waggling his eyebrows as Keith cracked up.

“You were Michael Phelps,” Keith supplied through giggles, as had become normal for them. It had taken a few weeks for them to find this rhythm at visits, for Lance and Keith to understand that Shiro wouldn’t recall any of their inside jokes or stories. If they brought something up Shiro hadn’t heard before, they would quickly explain it in as much detail as possible. Shiro wanted it to help so badly, but you couldn’t force memories. No matter how hard he was trying to.

Now Shiro was sitting on his bed, his room and the hallway quiet as everyone was in the rec room watching yet another animated film. Somehow the hospital was lacking in Disney but found a bunch of weird nineties movies that never made sense. The scrapbook was open to the first page and there they were; Keith, Lance, and Shiro, arms around one another on a beach. Shiro was tan and his hair was sun-bleached and he had two arms and no nose scar. Lance wasn’t looking at the camera and Keith’s head is thrown back in a moment of pure joy.

7/2/2018 You decided that it was sacrilege that we had gone an entire summer without seeing the water, so you showed up at my house at 6am one day, told us to put swim trunks on, and drove three hours to the beach. We only ate ice cream, Lance claims he petted seventeen different dogs, and we all had sunburns. It was the best day of any summer I can ever remember.

Keith’s handwriting was sloppy but legible, and Shiro kept looking at the picture and the date. Two weeks. The picture had been taken two weeks before the crash. Everything in it was so normal, so mundane. Three friends spontaneously jumping in a car and going to the beach because they could, they were young.

Shiro flipped the page.

This photo is of two tiny boys, both in NASA shirts and standing proudly in front of a science fair presentation. It was unmistakably Shiro and Keith, both black haired and missing front teeth.

3/19/2010 The day I learned that you’re smarter than me and have better handwriting. You’re the reason we passed third grade science, dude. Thanks for that.

The following page is a picture of just Keith and Lance. Lance is looking to the right, eyes wide and mouth open, finger pointing at something out of frame. Keith isn’t following Lance’s finger, though, instead his eyes are locked on Lance’s face and the look in Keith’s eyes could only be described as infatuation. As pure love.

1/27/2018 For the longest time I couldn’t put a finger on why Lance pissed me off so much sometimes. I was always angry but couldn’t turn away, and didn’t know why. You showed this picture to me and made me realize that I was in love with my best friend. It’s because of you that I’m happy now.

Shiro was glad at least one of them was happy.

He flipped and flipped and flipped pages, each and every one full of things he should remember, pictures that should make him laugh and fill with warmth, but instead tears come to his eyes and he can only get halfway through the book before he has to shut it so the ink doesn’t get ruined with his sobs.

 

The news that they got to stay up an hour and a half later on Fridays was probably the highlight of Matt’s life. Ninety more minutes he didn’t have to pretend to be at least trying to sleep were ninety more minutes he’d take gladly.

There had been protests from the younger kids who were in the same hallway and shared the same common room as them, but the nurses had hustled the kids off and into their respective beds.

“So,” Shiro began, stretching back in his chair, “what would you like to do with this extra time?”

“We get extra time, can talk freely,” Matt ticked off his list on his fingers, “and we get to pick our activity?” Matt’s tone was incredulous and his voice cracked in excitement for a moment. He couldn’t remember one time in the past weeks of being in hospitals where a decision was his and his alone to make.

“Hell fuckin’ yeah we do,” Shiro said, after a quick glance to make sure the orderlies hadn’t heard him.

“Well,” Matt sat back in his chair as well and smiled, “what are my options?”

“We could play a board game, but you have to sweet-talk Linda at the nurse’s station for one with all of the pieces, or we could watch a movie that is – and I know this may be shocking – not animated.”

“You mean real, live, people on the screen?”

“And possibly a PG-13 rating, as well,” Shiro raised his eyebrows, “You in?” Matt nodded his head and the two shuffled around so that their chairs were facing the screen of the television. Marie, one of the nurses, came when Shiro motioned for her as she walked by and she flicked the set on and handed Shiro the remote.

“If you tell anyone I let you do this,” she pointed at both of them, “the privilege will be revoked.” She left them to their browsing.

“What kind of movies do you like, Matty?”

“I’ll watch anything,” Matt said, trying futilely to tuck his legs up onto the shitty plastic folding chair.

“Even…” Shiro flicked through the limited options that were downloaded to some Amazon playlist, “the live action Scooby Doo?”

“Especially the live action Scooby Doo, are you telling me you don’t like it?”

“A CGI Great Dane? Who can kind of talk? No thanks.”

“Oh, well now that’s my one and only vote,” Matt reached over and yanked the remote from Shiro’s grip and clicked the play button.

“Hey!”

“Hey yourself, newbie gets first pick,” Matt stuck out his tongue at Shiro and the other boy laughed.

“Fine,” Shiro said, letting Matt keep the remote on his lap, “but next week we’re so watching Star Wars.”

“You say that as if you think I would be opposed to watching Star Wars.”

“I knew I liked you for a reason.” Matt just smiled and watched the movie.

It didn’t occur to him until he was tugging at the blankets of his bed later that night that being so carefree with his emotions around Shiro should have felt weirder than it did.

 

The next week when it came time for Shiro and Matt’s extra Friday night time, Marie wasn’t in. That meant no remote privileges and thus, Shiro and Matt were given three choices for what to watch, and they only thing not meant for ages three to seven was a nature documentary about lions.

“Even The Lion King would have been preferable to the options we were given,” Matt lamented.

Lion Kingwould be my top choice, honestly,” Shiro replied, eyes still fixed on the screen, “but I’m very invested in Koda making it back to his pride, so I will keep watching this.”

Matt laughed and watched for a few moments longer with Shiro until the camera panned back from the lion cub and began to shoot a huge swath of the savannah in a sweeping motion.

“They had to have used a drone for that,” he mused, fingers itching for a cell phone he knew wasn’t there so he could look up who filmed the show.

“What?” Shiro asked when the commercials clicked on, his eyes tearing from the screen to look at Matt.

“Sorry, I was just mumbling,” Matt brushed the other boy off.

“No, did you say it was shot with a drone? That’s so cool, how did you know?”

“Just the, uh, the camera motion and how fluid it was, I guess?”

Shiro studied him and Matt felt himself melting under the gaze, as if Shiro was a kid trying to solve their first rubix cube and Matt was the toy in question. He didn’t like it.

“You’ve never stuttered in front of me,” Shiro said finally, even though the commercials were ending and Matt knew he wanted to go back to the show. “Why are you nervous now?”

“I, well,” Matt fiddled with the sleeves of his shirt, knowing his face was heating up and it was stupid, it really was, “IjustknowIborepeoplesometimeswhenIsaystuffaboutcamerasorcomputersand-“

“You don’t bore me,” Shiro said, as if Matt hadn’t just had a case of verbal vomit. “People shouldn’t be bored of you talking about something you’re interested in, and if they are, they’re assholes.”

Matt felt assaulted by this seemingly simple revelation but let it go, instead just nodding and turning back to the tv.

 

His stitches had come out, and it had been a weird feeling, to not have to have his wounds covered with bandages. The first time he showered without the medical sutures intact he had to keep the curtain open so a nurse could make sure he didn’t scratch the scabbing away and reopen the wounds.

He doesn’t blame them for the vigilance.

He had been planning on doing it, anyways. So they were right to watch.

That was the worst part about this place, Matt thought.

He had been fine on the outside. Well, not fine, but functioning up until that last day.

The cutting had helped him when he needed something more than mindless movies and books and denial. It had opened up an avenue for feeling something when he hadn’t allowed himself true emotion.

He had deserved to feel the stinging pain of the aftermath, too. When asked by Dr. Coran every time it was brought up in their sessions, he couldn’t really pinpoint the why he felt like he deserved any form of punishment, but he knew he had.

But it had been his coping mechanism and the way he had kept everything under wraps in a tidy little package the world couldn’t – and wouldn’t – see or hear or know about.

But now.

Now it was gone.

And Matt was slowly realizing that maybe he did belong in the loony bin because he was fucking loony.

He also realized that they were more prepared for this than he was and he couldn’t even so much as look at a pair of safety scissors during craft time without it being documented in his file.

Fucking snitch-ass nurses.

“You do know,” Coran said tapping his pencil on the wood of his desk after a particularly bad morning in which Matt had earned an hour in solitary confinement for finally scratching a scab off with the aforementioned safety scissors, “It will scar worse and worse every time you reopen the wound.”

“What the fuck else do you think I’m trying to do?” Matt asked, eyes hard and arms crossed. He had made himself as small as possible in the corner of Coran’s couch, sweatshirt sleeves pulled down over his hands as if he could hide the truth from everyone in the room, himself included.

“Matt,” Coran sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose like Matt’s mom used to do and it finally made something inside his heart snap in half.

“No! Don’t you fucking ‘Matt’ me. You take away everything that made me feel like me, you’ve stripped me bare and cornered me like a fucking scared animal and it shouldn’t be surprising that I lashed out! Cutting was who I was. I know it wasn’t – isn’t – healthy. But that doesn’t change how much I need it right now.” Matt felt his lungs trying to get air in but he couldn’t figure out how to breathe properly anymore, “I don’t know how else to deal with any of this so at least let me have a fucking scab!”

“Matt,” Coran’s voice was gentle now, but Matt could tell it was forced. Kolivan had gotten out of his chair while Matt had been ranting and was now standing at the side of the desk, eyes boring holes into Matt. “Do you know that self-harm is classified not only as a side effect of depression, but as an addiction? It has the same addictive tendencies that drugs or alcohol do. I know this is a very difficult way to feel right now, but what you’re currently experiencing is a withdrawal from your vice. It’s not only normal but expected that this is how you feel.”

“Fucking bull,” Matt replied, “You wouldn’t have locked me in a padded room for an hour if you expected this.”

“That was for your safety, and unfortunately as a message to the other patients that destructive behaviors are a punishable offense and not something we take lightly.”

“Happy to be of service, then,” Matt spat, fingers twitching and shoulders shaking. He still hadn’t figured out how to get air fully into his lungs, again.

“Why don’t you tell me about the first time you ever cut yourself,” Coran suggested, motioning for Kolivan to move back to his chair, that he didn’t feel any fear that Matt would do anything dangerous.

“I was fourteen, I had failed a chemistry test because I read some of the instructions incorrectly and got chewed out by my father because he thought I should have known better.” Matt shrugged, signaling that that was the end of his tale.

“What did you use to harm yourself?” Coran pushed, leaning forward on his desk.

Matt swallowed, suddenly hot in his long sleeves, “I took one of my razors and snapped the little blades out, it was a quick fix.”

“What part of your body did you harm?”

“Jesus, what is this? An interrogation?”

“I’m trying to get you,” Coran pointed his once-again-steepled fingers towards Matt, “to realize why you began this destructive behavior and how it got you here.”

“It was my wrists, I was unoriginal. Still got the scars and all,” Matt tapped his fingers on his left wrist to emphasize.

“What did you feel, that first time? Obviously, you were sad and angry at yourself and I’m sure those emotions played a part in all of this, but when that blade touched your arm for the first time, what did you actually feel, Matt?”

Matt gulped, “Fear. I was scared,” his voice was small, but he knew Coran heard him even though Matt had closed his eyes against the tears that were threatening to fall down his face, “and now,” he continued, “I’m scared to lose that part of me.”

“And now,” Coran’s voice was soft, mirroring Matt’s, “we’ve actually gotten somewhere.”

 

Shiro hated, on a soul deep level, the time their ward got every Tuesday and Thursday in the gym. Seeing the younger kids get to play dodgeball was a slightly sick reminder that he had a stub where his arm should have been and an ankle that would cause him to limp every time the sky even thought about letting it rain.

At least on this particular Tuesday, though, Matt was finally allowed into group time activities, but was also sidelined alongside Shiro.

“I thought your stitches came out,” Shiro said when they were both seated comfortably against a wall. A nurse had presented them with some sort of depression worksheet on a clipboard and both boys were halfheartedly making attempts to fill it out. At least it wasn’t the stupid schoolwork they had started to have to do in the mornings.

“Indeed, they did,” Matt answered, looking down at where his sleeves covered his arms, even though the now-September air was still oppressively hot outside.

“Why can’t you play, then?”

“Coran is concerned that I will intentionally do something to harm myself if I’m allowed to play sports,” Matt hung his head, “therefore I am to be kept in a state of nonactivity.”

“Would you? Try to hurt yourself, I mean?” Shiro asked. He had learned quickly after his first few weeks in the ward that most people had no boundaries within the hospital’s walls, and after their initial encounter, Matt had fallen into that commonality as well.

“Are we so quick to forget the safety scissors incident?”

“And forget how you left me alone to cry throughBrother Bear? Absolutely not.” This got a giggle out of Matt, and Shiro took it as a win that even though it had just happened yesterday, he could have the other boy laughing about his quick stint in solitary.

“Sorry about that,” Matt said, bumping his shoulder into Shiro’s without a second thought. No one was paying attention to them, huddled against the wall, so Shiro took what little freedom he had and bumped Matt back. Just that brief moment of contact made Shiro crave something he couldn’t name.

“You owe me,” he told Matt instead, because keeping things joking worked better than digging deeper into whatever was going on inside his brain. That was a part of him he left to Coran to figure out.

“If you think I’m letting you pick the movie this week, you have another thing coming, Shiro.”

“It was worth a shot, wasn’t it?” Shiro smiled at Matt and felt the same something that had stirred when Matt had touched him flair up again when Matt smiled back.

“Absolutely not, you total mooch.”

They sat in silence for a bit, watching as the other patients devolved dodgeball into something akin to a soccer game. Shiro was paying attention, but he couldn’t figure out if any actual rules were being applied or if it was just a descent into a ball-type madness.

If he had money to bet, he would put it on the latter.

“You know,” he started, and Matt jumped next to him after the extended period of silence, “Of all the random things I remember from my prior life, one of the most prevalent is a love of soccer.”

“You seem like more of a football guy, to me,” Matt countered.

“I played football, but I watched more soccer.” Matt hummed in response and silence lapsed over them again for a bit.

“Why?” Matt asked as they were gathered in a group to walk back through the quad outside and to their ward.

“Why what?” Shiro whispered, dropping his pace so they were walking a little bit further from the orderly’s prying ears.

“Why did you watch more soccer?”

“Soccer guys are hot,” Shiro shrugged.

Matt choked on air beside him.

“Are you…?” Matt left the question hanging in the air between them as they were shuffled off down the hall towards their rooms for ‘quiet time.’

“Yeah, I am,” Shiro confirmed and then he went into his room and hoped beyond hope that that little nugget of truth wouldn’t shake anything up more than it could be.

 

Matt was reeling. He was reeling as he laid in his bed during down time. He was reeling as he ate his lunch while Shiro was in Coran’s office. He was reeling as he sat outside of the office himself, waiting to go in, and he was still reeling as he sat down on the couch and met Coran’s gaze.

“Shiro’s gay,” he finally said because saying the words out loud seemed to be a good thing to do now that there was no risk of anyone overhearing him say them.

Kolivan, in the corner, snorted. Coran, bless his ability to be an amazing doctor, showed no emotion.

“Did he tell you that himself?” Coran asked, prompting along the conversation.

“Not in so many words, but… yeah?” Matt was coming down from his stupor now and realized how big a mess he had just stirred up.

“Hmm,” was all Coran replied, scribbling something on his notepad and leaning back in his chair. “While I cannot say I’m surprised that you and Shiro have gotten along so swimmingly, seeing as you’re the only two seventeen-year old’s in this particular ward, I do find it a tad concerning that you are getting close enough to speak of such matters.”

“Why?” Matt asked, fingers once again fiddling with his sleeves. He had taken to tugging on them instead of letting his nails dig into his arms or pick at his scabs like he had been doing previously. Coran had approved it as a step towards his healing from the urges to harm himself when he was uncomfortable.

“Well, I want the both of you to be focused on your healing and personal journeys, not on one another. Especially if,” Coran waved his hand for a moment, seeming to search for a word, “my hunch about all of this is correct.”

“Hunch about what?”

“That due to proximity and a vulnerability you both feel in your current states, you will automatically develop romantic feelings towards someone in a similar situation because they can understand what you’re going through.”

“You think I’m falling in love with Shiro?”

“Falling in love and developing a romantic attraction are two separate things, Matt,” Coran smiled sadly at him. “I just want to warn you – warn the both of you – that we have a strict policy on personal information and contact once you are released. It’s not allowed and its part of the waivers you sign with your parents. Getting… attached is not the best idea. For either of you.”

“So?”

“So, even if you developed any sort of feelings, the likelihood of you and Shiro meeting once either of you is released from this institution is slim to none at best.”

Matt felt uneasy and steered the conversation away from the topic of him and Shiro, just to be safe.

“I never even confirmed that I was ‘developing feelings,’” Matt used air quotes, “can we talk about me now? Was this some weird tactic to make me want to actually be productive with my session?”

“Matt, you were the one who came in here on the cusp of a revelation, not I.”

“Screw you,” Matt replied, but for the first time he had no malice behind the insult towards his therapist. And maybe… maybe that meant that he was actually beginning to get better.

 

“So soccer boys, huh?” Matt asked Shiro a few days later when they had decided to play a game of Sorry! Instead of watching a movie.

“Yup, figured it out when I was fourteen, you?” Shiro moved his piece down the board.

“Who said I had anything to figure out?” Matt asked as he picked up a card and moved his pieces accordingly. Iverson was patrolling the halls that night, so both boys were keeping their voices low. And they still hadn’t said the gay word aloud.

“Come on, Matt, you’re not convincing anyone that you’re a cishet,” Shiro looked up at him through his eyelashes and Matt felt Coran’s words pounding in his head like a demented drumbeat.

“Leonardo di Caprio in Romeo and Julietwhen I was thirteen,” Matt conceded, jumping one of Shiro’s pieces as he made his move around the board.

“Oh shit, that’s a good one.”

“Yeah, I know. It made me pay attention in English class that year, anyways,” Shiro laughed at the poor attempt at a joke, and Matt was happy he did. Shiro laughing was quickly becoming one of his favorite things, Coran’s words of warning be damned.

If he was going to be screwed in this lifetime, of course it was going to be after his suicide attempt in a mental hospital. Because yeah. That’s the life of Matthew Holt.

 

The next morning, Matt was sitting across from Shiro at the breakfast table, head cradled in his arms instead of eating his sad excuse for eggs.

“What’s wrong?” Shiro asked, pushing a piece of what he believed to be pineapple across his tray.

“I miss coffee,” Matt mumbled into his arms. “I don’t know how I’m living without it. How do people survive this way? It’s horrific.”

“I would say I agree, but I’ve never liked coffee.”

“You what?”

“I remember that it made me too jittery.”

“We can’t be friends anymore.”

“I wasn’t aware we were friends to begin with, Matty.” Shiro realized he couldn’t hide the smile in his voice, even though he was trying to.

“Poor you.”

 

“So, Matt.”

“So, Coran.”

“There has been quite the interesting turn of events that I believe could be of possible issue, I’d like us to discuss it.”

Matt’s stomach sank, because none of this sounded good. It sounded like the time his parents had instead they were moving away from his middle school and out into a remote part of the country. It sounded like the beginning of the conversations they had had about him keeping his being gay to himself while Katie was still so little. It sounded like the conversations they had had right before all of this when Matt had started failing all of his classes so miserably.

Involuntarily, he began to clench and unclench his jaw.

“Matt, you’re not in trouble, nothing bad is going to happen, okay?” Coran’s tone shifted, softer when he realized his patient had been spooked. Matt didn’t calm at his words; the anxiety had already begun to fester in his bloodstream and it felt like the room was getting colder and colder. He wished he had another hoodie.

“We have a new patient coming in today, he’s transferring from another hospital but he’s eleven. We don’t have any room for him, and both you and Shiro are the only ones who have a room to yourselves. If this child was older, I’d put him with Shiro, but I don’t want him to try and find a role model in someone else in the hospital…”

“And what does that have to do with me?” Matt asked, still shaky and scared.

“Because of our small size here, you and Shiro will be sharing a room from tonight on, until space begins to open up again.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I know you and Shiro have developed a friendship, and I don’t want this to make it seem like we’re allowing you extra privileges. All rules are still firmly in place, and Iverson has insisted you both have a refresher course on those,” Coran pushed a sheet of paper across his desk and Matt reached forward to take it.

No touching of any kind

No sharing of outside information (telephone numbers, IM names, surnames, etc)

No speaking after lights out

If it is not yours, do not touch, handle, or move it

If your roommate is in any way speaking of or acting in harm to themselves or others, report it to a nurse immediately.

“Do you understand all of it?” Coran asked. Matt nodded his head in confirmation. “Good, now onto other business.” Coran shuffled the papers on his desk and Matt set to work on folding the sheet of rules into a tiny triangle in his hands.

“Can I choose what we talk about today?” Matt asked after a moment of mustering up his courage.

“Why of course, my boy,” Coran said, looking up in surprise. “These sessions are to help you heal, if there’s something on your mind, of course we can discuss it together.”

“I think my sister hates me,” Matt choked out, feeling the tears begin to prick at his eyes. He blinked them away as quickly as possible.

“What makes you believe that?”

“She never comes to visit with my parents, and they never tell me where she is or why. She’s the one who found me, you know. She had to call 911. I think I broke her. I think I ruined her life and I feel like I should have died because I can’t live with knowing I did that to someone I love so fucking much.” Matt’s fingers had crumpled the paper in his fist, the edges poking into his skin. As many times as he blinked and as hard as he squeezed his eyes shut he couldn’t get the image of his sweet, wonderful, talented sister out of his brain. The thought of never getting to see her, to confide in her again, stung his skin and made his chest ache.

“Matt, everyone deals with grief in different ways. Those five stages are just a general guideline,” Coran waves his hand and then sets to work with his usual way of indicating that he’s going to monologue – playing with the ends of his mustache, “Your sister, from every time you’ve spoken about her, obviously cares for you very deeply, just as you care for her. But a traumatic event is a traumatic event, and I’m not sure a thirteen-year-old is equipped with the ability to process finding their sibling in an overdose coma on the floor.

“My hypothesis is that she is just taking time to come to terms with the event. I wouldn’t be surprised if your parents found a doctor for her to see to figure all of this out, as well. What happened did not just affect you, even though that’s what you and I are focused on dealing with here, but it affected your entire family, and the dynamics you have with one another.

“As we get closer to transitioning you back into life at home, we will meet with your entire family and work together on some counseling strategies. It’s important for all of you to have a place to talk about everything that happened that’s safe, which is why I’m here.

“Matt, I want you to know that you have done nothing wrong, or incorrect, or bad. What you did was a symptom of a disease that you have and will always be battling. You cannot get angry at a cancer patient for vomiting after chemo, nor can you get mad at a child for sneezing on you when they have a cold. Your reaction to your diseases was one that is quite common.

“What we’re doing here, together, is the process of healing. I can’t just give you a medicine or a cast or a tissue and hope for the best. With the mental illnesses you face, we have to create mental casts and tissues and supplement them with the medications that we can. But I know you’re beginning to feel isolated in this again, especially without your sister there with you, just know that we’re here for you. And this journey isn’t one you’re going to have to take alone.”

Matt couldn’t remember when he began crying heavily, initially. He just knew it had happened at some point in the time it took Coran to say all of that. Because Matt hadn’t realized how alone he felt, how hopelessly useless against these demons in his head he had become.

“This is a battle we’re going to win together, alright my boy?”

Matt could only numbly nod, because he didn’t have the words in him to figure out how to express how he suddenly felt not as alone.

 

Shiro was nervous. He wasn’t sure why sharing a room with Matt would make him nervous (he had a couple guesses, though) but he was. Matt had come to his room, a few books in his arms and a blanket thrown over his shoulder. Shiro had smiled at him from his bed and Matt had put his few things down on his side of the room and sat down on the bed, drawing the blanket closer around his shoulders.

“You look like you’ve been crying, are you okay?” Shiro asked when he noticed the redness around Matt’s eyes.

“Yeah,” Matt rubbed at his face with the sleeve of his now well-worn sweatshirt, “just had a hard session with Coran.”

“I get it,” Shiro nodded, grabbing his pillow and hugging it to his chest. “Sometimes I get so frustrated that my memories of my family won’t come back I can’t help but just cry. It’s so horrible to not know why you can’t just… make things come back to you.”

“I’m sure,” Matt replied, “I feel like a jerk, now too, because I miss my sister and you-“

“No.” Shiro cut him off, waving his hand, “don’t feel like a jerk. My pain doesn’t outweigh yours.”

Matt gave a watery chuckle, “Coran is rubbing off of on you, you totally stole that line from him.”

Shiro laughed as well, “Now I just need a mustache to twirl around my fingers.”

“You would look horrible with facial hair.”

“I would not,”Shiro placed his hand over his heart in offense. “We’re roommates now, Matt, you can’t insult me like that.”

“I think that means I can absolutely insult you like that. If not me, who else?”

“You have not yet met Keith, but he’s the king of insults,” Shiro responded with a smile.

“Is that the friend who always visits you?”

“Yeah, him and his boyfriend, Lance. Sometimes their friend Hunk comes along, too. But it’s mostly just them.”

“Do you…?” Matt’s voice trailed off as he searched Shiro’s face, hoping he got what the question was. Shiro did.

“Remember them? No. I don’t have really any people memories. Just random stuff.”

“Like our hatred of coffee.”

“And the fact that I am gay.”

“Did you just…” Matt scrunched his nose up, “almost quote John Mulaney?”

“By peppering in the fact that I am gay?”

“Oh my god you did,” Matt collapsed backwards across his bed, giggling. “I cannot believe you just did that.”

“You must be-“

“If you say ‘new in town’ I’m going to throw my pillow at you.” At this point Matt was in hysterics and Shiro was giggling along as well. “That is such a random piece of pop culture to remember.”

“Try telling my idiot brain that.”

“Dear Shiro’s brain, you’re a dumbass,” Matt breathed through his laughter.

“Language, boys!” A nurse popped her head in to scold them on her rounds. It just made the two laugh even harder.

 

Matt was not used to sharing his sleeping space with someone else. It wasn’t that he was opposed, not really. It was just that he was used to quiet and aloneness. Knowing Shiro was three feet away, asleep and curled up in blankets was something that Matt wasn’t sure how to deal with.

He could hear Shiro breathing, soft steady exhales as Matt watched his chest rise and fall. He knew it was creepy to be watching someone else sleep, but in a room that was only half dark from the light in the hallway that didn’t have a television or computer or phone to pass the time with, Shiro’s sleeping form was the only thing that he could watch. Every time an orderly’s shoes squeaked against the tile Matt closed his eyes and tugged the blankets over his head, knowing that it wouldn’t really trick them into believing he was sleeping but was at least worth the shot, but once he was alone again he’d lower them and go back to observing.

It was weird, yeah, but it was all Matt had.

He lay in the dark, and he thought.

He thought about Shiro’s laugh, about how open he was to sharing why he was here and what was wrong and how much it absolutely sucked. He thought about the way Shiro smiled, like it was something easy to do. He thought about the scar on Shiro’s nose, pink and still healing in the center and the matching ones Matt had gotten a glimpse of on his back when Shiro had changed into his pajamas that night. There had been slashes across his spine that made Matt’s stomach clench. He thought about his own, matching slashes. The one on his cheek that would never be fixed and the ones on his arms that would always remind him of this. Being sick enough to stay in a mental hospital.

But Shiro was here. And Matt was here. And because they were here together, maybe it made a little sense.

And so, Matt watched Shiro’s chest, and he curled up in the blankets, and allowed himself to fall in love with Shiro just a little bit in the dark.

 

A week passed. A week of living with Matt and sharing a room with him and having the ability to talk a little more freely with him. It was nice, to have someone to talk to. Shiro had no qualms about talking to himself, but the orderlies weren’t exactly fond of it, so he hadn’t been too open about working his problems out that way.

But now he had Matt. And it was… amazing.

Matt was analytical. Shiro found that out quickly, learning that Matt’s brain worked linearly, solving problems one at a time and not resting until something was completed.

He learned that Matt got lost in books, and could only be pulled out if you called his name multiple times or tugged at the book itself.

Shiro saw Matt’s healing scars and Matt saw Shiro’s. They weren’t scary or ugly, they just were, and it was a comfort to know someone out there knew what it felt like to look at your body and not recognize entire swathes of skin.

Most importantly, Shiro learned that Matt adored his family. Matt would talk about them as much as Shiro allowed. Shiro allowed him as much as he needed, after repeatedly assuring Matt that it wasn’t something bad to talk about around him.

Shiro learned about Katie, and her brilliant mind and ability to build anything out of wires and scrap metal. He learned that Matt’s father was an astrophysicist and was working with a team on ways to reverse engineer climate change so they could solve some of the issues alongside Matt’s mother who was a botanist. Her life goal was to grow plants in space. Shiro slowly grew to love Matt’s family through the stories he heard. It was refreshing to have stories told to him that he shouldn’t already know.

Shiro also learned that Matt’s parents were coming that particular day for their first round of family counseling with Coran. Which, if it went well, meant Matt would begin the process of working towards being discharged.

Shiro had to bite down the resentment he felt at that word.

For him, the word held no meaning. No one believed he’d be better enough to begin the transition out of the ward any time in the near future. It was so set in stone that he’d be there for the long haul, he didn’t even believe he’d be out in time to graduate from high school with Keith and Lance.

But, he tried to keep a smile on his face and encourage Matt when the other boy walked off towards Coran’s door. Because if Shiro couldn’t be happy, maybe Matt could be happy for the both of them.

 

It was longer than a typical session, the one Matt had shared with his parents. They had both cried when explaining how much ‘the attempt’ had hurt them. How they felt like failures for not noticing his pain. It wasn’t exactly like Matt could emphasize. Or blurt out the ‘I didn’t want you to notice, I wanted to die?’ statement that was huddling on the tip of his tongue the entire time. They even had the audacity to tell him that the apple picking his mom always took the family on that year had been so dull without him.

Even Coran had looked surprised at that, that his family would do such an important activity without him there for it.

Matt had held the tears in until he had gotten back to his and Shiro’s room and then the exhaustion, anxiety, sadness, and anger all flooded out of him when he dropped his head onto the pillow and sobbed. Shiro had let him lay there for a while, crying it all out of his system until the huffing sobs had quieted to dull sniffles.

“It was that bad, huh?” Shiro asked a few minutes after Matt had quieted down. Matt just nodded his head. “Do you want to talk about it? I’m here.”

Matt nodded again then turned his face to the side and cracked his eye open so he could look at Shiro. “It was all about them, you know? Shit I didn’t-“ Shiro waved the apology off.

“Keep going, you’re fine, Matty.”

“It was about how they were failures and how sad theywere. I couldn’t even, I don’t know… how to deal with the fact that they think it has anything to do with them. It’s me that’s fucked up. And I wish they could just understand that. It had nothing to do with them.”

Shiro nodded encouragingly.

“And they even had the audacity to tell me that they went on our annual family trip to the orchards to check on my mom’s special apple trees? And I felt so… left out. Unnecessary.” Matt’s voice grew quieter as he spoke, wrapping himself up in a comforting memory, “It’s my favorite weekend of the year. The air smells so sweet and Katie and I get to climb up in the trees and eat the apples right off the branches. They’re warm and crisp and it means that fall is here and we go home and my mom has the pie crusts already made and we each get to make an apple pie and-“

Shiro gasps. His head erupts in a headache, splitting and fierce, and then suddenly he’s in a kitchen with blue tiles and cinnamon is in the air and the tv is droning on in the background with the Thanksgiving parade. His mother, not the one in a picture but his real mother, is standing at the counter, flower in her hair, rolling dough out on the counter, cursing the American cookbook and traditions like she did every year as if her pies weren’t the most delectable things he’d ever tasted.

And then he’s back. In the room with Matt staring at him. Shiro’s ears are ringing and he has to blink and scrunch his eyes up to make everything come back into focus and Matt is kneeling in front of him, looking at him with an intense look of fear on his face. When Shiro comes-to enough to realize what just happened he collapses forward onto Matt, wrapping his arm around the other boy’s back and clutching him to his chest as tightly as he could.

“Matt,” Shiro whispered, digging his fingers into Matt’s scapula, “Matt you made me remember. I remember my mom, holy fucking shit, she was right there.” Matt is now hugging him back, arms thrown around Shiro’s waist in their awkward tangle on the floor and he’s holding Shiro back as fiercely as Shiro is holding him and he’s mumbling some excited something into Shiro’s shirt but Shiro can’t understand because his brain keeps looping the memory of her back into play.

His mom.

He remembered his mom.

And it’s all thanks to Matt.

 

Things happened quickly after those few initial moments of Shiro clinging onto Matt for dear life. A nurse had been passing by and saw the boy on the floor, folded into Matt’s embrace and quickly rushed into the room. Matt had explained what had happened the best he could while rubbing Shiro’s back, but Shiro was still forced to let go of his grip on Matt and Matt was led out of the room as other nurses came in. Shiro was speaking to them, Matt could hear his voice even as he was ushered down the hall and into the day room and told to watch whatever he wanted on TV.

Holy shit. Shiro had remembered. Remembered his mom, just from something Matt said.

Matt’s mind had begun, in the past few weeks of medicines and therapy, to regain its logically linear form of thinking, and so he found some stray paper and a crayon (pencils couldn’t be given out freely as they were sharp or something) and began to write.

Shiro’s Memories

Trigger list?

Apple picking = mother/holiday

Father? Baseball or soccer? Car, family trips, vacations

Friends – sleepovers, M. Dew, coming out, Harry Potter midnight premiers?

 

Matt kept on listing things, things he associated with his family and friends, thinking that if a story about his mother had been a key trigger, maybe other related stories could help as well? But what if it had been just the apples, not the story that made the connection?

No, that was bull, it had to have been the overall story or else Shiro would have pinged in the memory every time he ate lunch.

Matt let his mind keep turning the facts and variables over and over in his brain until a nurse, he thought her name was Barb, came into the room and beckoned for him to follow her. She led him to Coran’s door and knocks only once before letting him in.

Shiro is sitting on the couch, knees drawn up to his chest and chin resting on them. A pile of discarded tissues is wadded next to him and he wearily greets Matt when he walks in the door.

“Hey Matt.”

“Hey Shiro,” Matt finally moved to sit on the couch next to him, Coran watching them with a look of academic intrigue on his face. “How are you feeling?” On instinct Matt reached out to touch Shiro’s temple but stopped himself midway. His hand hovered between them for a moment while he realized that whatever happened back in the room didn’t negate any no touching rules set by the hospital. His hand fell back to his lap and Shiro watched it go.

“My head doesn’t hurt as much,” Shiro answered, and Matt nodded at him.

“Matt, Shiro and I have been discussing this… medical anomaly that seems to have happened when you were speaking earlier.

“I… I’ve been thinking of it, too. Maybe the coloration to my familial memories has something to do with the memory sneaking back in for Shiro. The neurons re-fired or something.” Coran nodded along as Matt spoke.

“Precisely, but I also believe that Shiro remembered because of something else, as well. A connection to you. The relationship the two of you have seemed to develop, one that is far beyond what our hospital rules are set to allow I must add, is a comfort to Shiro, so his brain is no longer on high alert around you like it is with me. It’s not trying to keep him from getting hurt or remembering the trauma that sparked all of this.”

“So…” Matt looked at Shiro and then back to Coran, “I’m basically the backdoor entry into Shiro’s brain?”

“If you want to put it into computer terminology, I would believe that to be correct, yes.”

“Huh,” Matt turns his body so he can face Shiro, “that means I’m your cheat code.”

Shiro smiled at the halfhearted excuse for a joke, wincing as the gesture hurt his head.

“So we need to discuss where to go from here,” Coran interrupted their eye contact and both boys looked away from one another. “Matt, we’ve spoken, and if you are up for it, believe sessions between the three of us could be beneficial. This is in no way connected to your own path of healing, so you may say no or opt out at any-“

“I’d never say no. That’d be selfish of me, of course I’ll help.”

“Brilliant,” Coran seemed relieved at that, “Then let’s begin.”

 

It had been two hours. Two hours of sitting there and listening to Matt talk on and on about seemingly nothing, and Shiro was tired. It was not like he didn’t enjoy listening to Matt. Of course he did. The boy had a way of telling stories that kept him entertained and engaged, but the real reason they were here seemed to have left the building. Nothing Matt came up with made anything in Shiro’s brain click.

After a particularly colorful story of Matt’s first Pride, Coran sighed and took off his glasses. “Any updates?” He asked Shiro, as if the answer would be any different from the last ten times he’d been asked.

“No,” Shiro dropped his head to hit the back of the couch in defeat.

“I fear,” Coran began, and he shared a look with Kolivan that worried Shiro a slight bit, “that I am the problem in this situation. Just having Matt is not enough. You’re still… guarded as it were.”

“So what does that mean?” Shiro asked, already knowing what he hoped Coran would say.

“It means that we’ll have to discuss an alternate plan to the already quite alternative solution. Why don’t you boys go eat the dinner I had Olivia bring down for you, and get some rest. We’ll talk tomorrow in your individual sessions and then… go from there.”

Both boys nodded and Kolivan led them from the room and to a table in the hall that had trays on it. Shiro sighed when he realized it was sandwiches and they would not be eating cold meatloaf from the cafeteria. Shiro collapsed into his chair and picked up the white bread with some form of deli meat on it.

“Today has been weird,” Shiro said and Matt nodded.

“It’s good to hear your voice again, mine was getting annoying even to me.” Matt said while he picked the crusts off his bread. Shiro laughed and nodded.

“Yeah bud, we’re friends but I feel like I should tell you the bubble tea story is absolutely not real. That one you made up.”

“How could you tell?”

“Your flavor choice changed halfway through.”

“Damn inconsistencies. I should know better, had to keep it interesting.”

“Thank you,” Shiro said after they had lapsed into silence for a few minutes while shoveling food down, “for trying to help.”

“You don’t have to thank me for that, it’s what friends do.” Matt shrugged and took another bite of his sandwich but Shiro could hear another voice in the back of his head saying those same words. Keith’s voice, a smile in it when he had snuck Shiro out of his house after his first boyfriend had cheated on him and they had sat in Keith’s beat up Honda for hours, just talking.

When he finally returned from the memory, Matt was looking at him with a smile on his face and it felt so good to see the smile, even if it had been there the entire time Shiro was away in memoryland.

“Two memories in one day, Coran was right and I’m on a roll. Hell yeah cheat code Matt!” Matt first pumped and both boys collapsed in a fit of giggles that had to be broken up by a nurse telling them it was time for their bedtime meds.

 

“Hey Matt,” Shiro whispered into the dark after the orderly had passed out of hearing range.

“Yeah?” Matt was groggy, the sleeping medicine was finally kicking in and his head felt numb and that sandwich had made him gain a hundred pounds he felt so heavy.

“Thank you,” Shiro repeated as he shifted in his bed and the rustling of covers filled the space of Shiro’s pause, “I don’t… without you I would have never…” he trailed off and Matt closed his eyes, expecting this to be the end of the conversation, but just before sleep takes over; “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

 

When Matt came into the room after his session with Coran and his parents, Shiro could tell it hadn’t gone well yet again. The hunched shoulders and no greeting were keys, but the exaggerated flop onto the bed was definitely the dead giveaway.

“That bad?”

“Worse.”

“What happened?” Shiro shifted so he was sitting cross legged on his own bed facing Matt. If Matt could help him with his memories, he could help Matt with his parents. It was only fair.

“They just… refuse to talk about my sister. It’s like she doesn’t even exist.”

“What do they do when you ask about her?” Shiro wiggled around on the bed so he could get his blanket around his shoulders and tucked himself in against the sterile cold air of the hospital.

“I… don’t.”

“You don’t ask about her?”

Matt finally turned his head to look at Shiro and smirked at his blanket cocoon before going back to the conversation at hand, “No. They never really give me the chance to. I try and go for it but my mom looks so worried and my dad looks so sad…” He trailed off and pulled his knees up into the fetal position. “I don’t know why she just won’t come. So we can talk about it.”

Shiro took a big breath before beginning to speak. “I think you maybe aren’t considering just how fucked up she might be.” Matt looked at him with wide, terrified eyes, but Shiro kept talking, “I mean she found you, right?” Matt nodded, “I know you feel awful about that, and you shouldn’t because you were sick, obviously, but I think she may have been more affected than you think.”

“This is what Coran told me already,” Matt’s voice had gone from normal to tiny, small and quiet even in the confines of their room. “But keep going.”

“Well. If I had found my brother in a pool of blood coding out… I probably would need some help. Maybe she isn’t here because she’s… somewhere else. Another hospital. Working through that trauma.”

Matt was up and sitting and facing Shiro now, guilt and grief streaked on his face. “I never thought of that. Oh god how selfish is that? How could I not… this shit is genetic and I never considered that Katie was… could be… prone to it too.” Matt looked like he was about to cry and instead of consoling him, Shiro let the tears come. If there was one thing therapy had taught him, it was that crying was one of the most cathartic things the body could do. Even if Matt had probably already been doing it all day.

“Like I said, Matt,” Shiro made sure his voice was soft and soothing as best as he could, “it’s not your fault.” He watched as Matt sunk back down onto the bed and hiccupped into his own blanket. Shiro spoke softly so anyone who was passing wouldn’t be able to hear his next words, “God I wish I could hug you right now.”

“I wish you could, too,” Matt sucked in another breath as he cried, “I really really wish you could.”

 

“Is Katie in the hospital?” Matt hadn’t sat down when he entered the room with his parents and Coran, just stood in the doorway and stared down his mom and dad. His mother stared back at him in shock and his father was fumbling with the papers that had been in his hands.

“How… how did you find out, Matt?” His father asked, shock peppered in his tone.

“I didn’t find out, I guessed. She would be here. The only thing stopping her from being here for me would be… something like that.” Matt didn’t realize he was crying again until the first tears began to drip off his chin. “Fuck! How could you not tell me?” He felt his hands start to shake and the room was tilting back and forth, his lifeboat going down, down, down, “My baby sister is hurting and it’s all my fault and no one in this room cared to fucking let me know.” Matt turned to storm from the room as his mother and father protested behind him but Kolivan blocked the door and just shook his head at Matt.

“Why don’t you sit down and at least… hear them out?” He suggested in a low and soothing tone Matt guessed he was imitating from Coran. Shockingly, it worked. Matt turned back towards the table and hesitantly sat.

“Matt, we-“ his mother started but Coran held up a hand to silence the room.

“In full transparency of the matter,” the man turned to face Matt and looked directly in his eyes, “I had no idea your sister had fallen ill in such a manner. I believe my knowing and you knowing would have been helpful to your process of healing.” He held out his hand and Matt’s father handed over the papers he had been fiddling with like a child being scolded by a teacher. “These were your release papers, I thought you would be close enough to a stable condition today to begin outpatient treatments, but,” Coran ripped the paper down the middle and smiled sadly at Matt while tucking the papers into his notepad, “in light of recent developments don’t think you’re ready to face certain new developments in an uncontrolled environment, yet.”

Matt nodded and shocked himself by blurting out the truth as he had become used to doing around Coran, “I’d probably fall back into cutting myself if I went home today.”

His mother let loose a sob to his right but Matt stayed focused on Coran, trying not to feel the resentment and anger that were banging at his mind, trying desperately to get out.

“That’s good progress, to understand a trigger when it comes upon you, Matt. Good job.”

“Him admitting that he’s going to deal with his problems by harming himself is good?” His mother asked, incredulousness in her voice behind the teary tone.

“Very much so,” Coran answered, turning back to Matt’s parents. Matt did the same as Coran began to explain things like trigger recognition and how knowing something would upset him into returning to his addictions – and yes self-harm is an addiction, and just as powerful as if he had been doing cocaine or shots of tequila – was a very important step towards Matt not falling prey to them again. While Coran was talking, Matt took the time to actually look for the first time since he had been admitted.

His mother had lost significant weight and even though she had makeup and her normal put-together air about her, he saw the cracks. Her eyeliner was shaky, her manicure had grown out and been picked at, and her roots were showing. She was normally only so unkempt when it was early spring and she was wrist deep in soil redoing the garden, the rest of the year she was the collected professor who didn’t look like she had two teenagers at home.

His father didn’t have any of the physical abnormalities he mother had, but he didn’t look like he normally did. It took a moment for Matt to figure it out, but his father looked confused. His eyes were glazed over and his mouth wasn’t smiling in that ‘I have a brilliant idea’ way that it normally did. There wasn’t ink on his hands or a notebook in his shirt pocket. It looked like he hadn’t worked on something in weeks.

If this was how bad his parents looked, Matt wondered what Katie looked like. Her hair had probably grown out to cover her eyes and he knew she had probably lost more weight than his mother. She was a picky eater and hospital food wouldn’t have catered to her tastes even if she pleaded. He hoped she at least could find something. He could see her, curled in sweatpants and a shirt from one of the cons they had gone to together, in a small bed like the one that was waiting for him back in his and Shiro’s room. Was she cold all the time too? And had she found a Shiro of her own? Someone to confide in and who could make her laugh even though the world was crashing down and everything, overall, kind of sucked. He hoped she had, that she had someone who could be there and love her when he couldn’t.

“What happened?” He interrupted his parents’ and Coran’s conversation about Matt’s future susceptibility to substance abuse. “Please, tell me why she’s not okay.”

His mother took a deep breath, and looked at him with a look of regret and sorrow he hadn’t seen coming. “She had a nervous break, Matty. We left to bring you here and when we got home she wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t eat… She just sat in your room and cried and she was throwing up and shaking. We brought her to the ER thinking she could have… done what you did? Thank god she didn’t… It was like she wasn’t there at all. They suggested bringing her here but when I told them that you were already here…” His father put an arm around his mom when she broke down into yet another sob.

“They found a place a few towns over that Katie went to and she’s doing really well now. They’re working on her anxiety and PTSD from…”

“From finding me,” Matt finished for him.

His father nodded, “They sent an investigative team in from child protective services, too. They actually want to do interviews with you and your sister when you are discharged.”       

“They what?” Mat didn’t try to hide the fear and shock in his voice.

“Since both our children were insti- hospitalized. So close together,” his mother swallowed back her tears and patted her eyes dry, “they were concerned about our parenting.”

“Oh my god, no,” Matt sat forward and grabbed his mom’s hand, suddenly realizing something he had been casually ignoring ever since his admittance to Altea. “Mom you are not the reason I’m here. I know you thought, you think you are,” he looked to his dad for backup but the man was staring at him with wide eyes, seemingly in disbelief, “you guys. Both of you. You’re incredible parents. You love us and we know that… something yes, you’re a little tough on our work and our studies. But that’s just because you love us.

“Everything that’s happened… you wouldn’t expect me to not go to the hospital if I had a broken leg, right?” Matt looked to Coran but he just nodded for Matt to keep up with the analogy he had taught him in his first days here, “If I had diabetes you wouldn’t expect me to not take insulin, and if I had cancer I’d get chemo. My brain is sick, and we’re treating it. It’s not because I’m a shitty person or stupid or whatever, and it’s not because you guys didn’t raise me right or love me enough.” He squeezed his mom’s hand and leaned forward to kiss her forehead, “I’m just a little sick, but I’m getting better. It’s just how my brain is, okay?

“Mommy, it’s not your fault. I’m so sorry I didn’t realize that you blamed yourself this much earlier.” His mother just nodded and opened her arms and Matt complied, dropping down to his knees so he could lean forward and hug her.

“I love you, Matt, and I’m so sorry you were alone in this for so long.”

“I’m not now, though,” Matt leaned back and brushed the tears away from his eyes, “and I love you too. I think we just have some things we need to work on before I can come home with you guys.”

And when Matt looked up at Coran for direction, the man was just nodding his head and smiling at him. He didn’t have to say it aloud, but Matt knew from that look that Coran was proud of him.

 

“She had a nervous breakdown,” Matt leads the conversation with as he and Shiro walk to dinner together that night. They had yet to have another joint session and not enough time to talk casually for Shiro to regain any more snippets of his memory.

“You seem okay, though,” Shiro noticed and Matt nods next to him.

“Talking about it actually let me and my parents… get somewhere. It was good. Really good, actually,” Matt took the tray of food offered to him as Iverson glanced over at them with a withering gaze. Coran had, begrudgingly, given them special permission to freely talk as much as they wanted in hopes that it would further Shiro’s healing, and none of the staff was happy about the exception to the rules.

Yesterday it had been so tough at meals to keep the younger kids from ‘the beginning stages of fraternization’ that now the two got their own table at mealtimes.

Matt picked at his veggies and pushed them around his plate while Shiro began to work at pulling his piece of chicken apart with two sporks.

“They were going to send me home today,” Matt finally says when Shiro has a few manageable bites. “My parents had signed the discharge papers and everything.”

Shiro stopped eating and swallowed around the weird feeling bubbling up from the back of his throat. “That’s… good? Why are you still here?” He asked, putting down his plastic cutlery and looking across the table.

“I think my parents and I have more to… figure out and work through before I’m home with them and I’m alone. I don’t think I’ll be, uh, safe, out there. From myself.”

Shiro nodded along and when Iverson went to scold a few younger kids for tossing their cantaloupe pieces he nudged Matt’s shin with the toe of his socked foot gently. “Did you get that really smug smile from Coran when he realized you’d made a breakthrough?”

“Oh my god, he totally did,” Matt said, keeping up the conversation even as he let the side of his own foot rest against the side of Shiro’s under the table. He wasn’t happy to be in the hospital for another undisclosed period of time, but he sure was happy he had a little more time with Shiro.

 

“So,” Coran began when both boys were seated on a couch in a room three levels up from their ward’s floor, “This is the solution.” Shiro nodded along and gave Coran a raise of his eyebrow.

“Can I ask what the problem this solution is for was? Because an empty room with a couch against the wall and a camera in the corner-“

“Looks like a porn shoot,” Matt blurted next to him then covered his mouth with his hand. “Jesus sorry,” he said through the muffling of his fingers, “I just really really had to say it, I’m done, continue.” Shiro had to bite his tongue to keep from giggling with Matt, because yeah. That was what he was going to say, too. He’d have high fived Matt if it hadn’t looked like Coran was ready to smack them both.

“If this wasn’t working so well to further Shiro’s healing process,” Coran was rubbing the bridge of his nose as if just the sight of the two of them was giving him a migraine, “I’d have you two separated right now.” At this, and the slight smile that Coran was attempting to hold in himself, both boys cracked up in laughter. “This is what we’re going to do. I’ll be able to watch the feed of what’s happening, but won’t be speaking or in the room or interfering in any way. You boys will just talk. Whatever you want, in attempts to dislodge memories.”

“Sweet, I like this kind of therapy,” Matt settled himself further into the cushions on his side of the couch.

“This comes with rules,” Coran looked down at his notepad and then fixed the boys with a glare. “Absolutely no touching. None. As much as I don’t want to do it, you break that one and it’s a night in solitary for both of you. Also, let’s not dive into the thing I already had to discuss with the both of you in your individual sessions.” He looked between Matt and Shiro and both boys would not admit that they knew exactly what thing he was referring to. “You follow both rules and you get ninety minutes in here as often as we can swing it. Sound fair?”

“Extremely,” Shiro agreed pulling his legs up under him. Matt nodded.

“Please mind the rules, boys,” Coran sighed and he left the room.

It was suddenly overly quiet, barely a hum of the central air conditioning through the ceiling. Shiro turned himself to face Matt and Matt had already positioned himself to face Shiro. They both sat in the silence for a moment before Shiro cracked a small smile and Matt started to giggle again.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” Shiro broke the silence and Matt burst out into laughter.

“I’m your shrink now Shiro,” Matt got out between laughs, “tell me how you feel.”

“Like this is fucking ridiculous!” Shiro joined Matt in the laughter and soon they were both holding their sides and giggling like maniacs. “Oh my god what the hell is our life even?”

“I mean, obviously a sitcom or something. Mental hospital sitcom. Two teenagers heal one another. The feel-good comedy of the fall!”

“Thursdays at nine-thirty, eight thirty central!”

“If you’re on the west coast, you’re fucked!”

Shiro’s sides are hurting, his abs aching from the constant contraction of laughter.

Then he’s lying on a bedroom floor, a poster of My Chemical Romance looking back at him from the ceiling while one of Keith’s playlists cycles through in the background. Keith is on the bed and he’s groaning.

‘This is why we don’t try new things,” he’s saying, one hand clutched to his stomach in an attempt to make the muscles there stop twitching in pain.

“No one told me rock climbing was such a demanding sport!” Keith defends from the bed.

“I did!” Lance replied from Keith’s side, “Multiple times in the car! I said Keith! Let’s not do this! But yet, here we are. Dead! From rocks.”

“That lady outside Pinkberry did say we should be stoned for being faggots,” Shiro reminded him and this sent Lance and Keith both into a torrent of laughter. Someone from beside Shiro pipes in then, and when he looks over it’s his brother, smiling at all of them.

“I seriously regret being the token straight friend, sometimes,” Ryou spoke, and hearing his voice shocks Shiro so violently he’s back in reality, Matt’s giggles dying down as he watches Shiro’s eyes refocus.

“What did you remember this time?” He asked gently, and Shiro wipes away the tears that have formed before answering.

“My brother,” Shiro rubbed at his face and smiled at Matt with the memory still looping in the back of his mind, “Holy shit, he was a total dick. You would have loved him.”

Memories were popping in and out now, Ryou in the car with him and Keith and Lance. Riding bikes as kids and flipping a canoe at summer camp. It hadn’t happened with the other memories and Shiro swallowed thickly around a lump forming in his throat.

“Are you remembering more?” Shiro just nodded, too overwhelmed to form words for a moment.

“It’s like a dam is breaking,” he finally tells Matt, “like if we keep chipping away pieces, soon this trickle is going to be a flood.”

“Then let’s get digging.”

 

It easily becomes the best part of his days, sitting in that room with Shiro. It wasn’t every day, and there actually wasn’t a schedule ever set. They’d be doing art therapy or watching a movie and Coran would request they be whisked off and plopped onto the couch where they can just talk.

The first few times, Shiro let Matt lead the conversations, and he keeps telling stories. They’re still balancing his anxiety and depression and sleeping meds, so sometimes his brain would get hazy and he’d forget that Shiro had already heard particular tales before. But Shiro would just say something and they’d galivant off on another path through Matt’s brain with each other.

As they pressed forward and continued on, though, Shiro would share whatever small piece of his old life that came to light when it hit him. Matt savored these pieces of Shiro that only he got to see, tucked them away in the recesses of his already breaking heart in an attempt to patch it back together.

He knew that soon this was going to be over. His sessions with his parents were slowly improving, and they had been talking through some of the things that Matt felt had driven him to the initial times he had wanted to harm himself (the root of his downward trek into it becoming a form of addiction, coined that way by Coran). They also talked about Katie. Her doctors had agreed to let him send her a note, but it really ended up being a three-page paper of apologies and regret. Matt had sobbed when writing it in their room, and Shiro had just repeated what he had said that when they had been sitting in their room with one another. I wish I could hug you right now.

Matt wished it, too.

He had always thought that the idea of touch starvation was bizarre until he felt it every time he looked across the room. When Shiro had hugged him (collapsed into him, really) it had been one of the most intense feelings Matt had had in years. Something had swooshed through him in a crash and now he felt like he was chasing it, trying to catch onto the tail end of some pipe dream. His very own white whale. Wouldn’t his AP English teacher love to hear about this? 

But, through it all, he was surviving. The slices on his arm and the one on his face had lost their scabs and were now just pink skin, slowly turning white at the edges to form scars. He had gotten used to seeing himself with the slashes now, they had slowly become something that he wasn’t afraid of others seeing anymore.

He just wasn’t expecting Shiro to ask about them.

“Why your face?” The boy blurted out one of the days they’re curled up on the ancient couch with Coran watching them from afar.

“Huh?” Suddenly the threadbare cushions were extraordinarily interesting to him.

“The cut. On your face. What was the… point?” Shiro’s voice is low and gentle, like the old lady who lived three houses down who tried to coax stray cats into her garage. He was trying to keep from frightening Matt.

Matt appreciated the sentiment.

And it wasn’t that Matt was frightened, or anything, it was just that he had never told anyone other than doctors.

“I didn’t do the one on my face.” Shiro just kept looking at him, obviously curious but not pressing. Just waiting for Matt to keep going like he always did. Matt took the quiet in for a moment and then kept telling the story, “I. So I guess maybe I should just. Tell you the whole thing? It’d, uh, it’d make more sense that way.”

Shiro nodded and leaned forward, closing the space between them just a hair. It was something both of them had taken to doing, they never touched, but moving closer had come to mean comfort and safety and companionship. “Only if you want to tell me it all, you don’t have to.”

“I think,” Matt raised his gaze to meet Shiro’s, “I think it’ll be good to tell someone.” Shiro nodded him on. “It’s kind of weird to think back, it hadn’t been a bad day and nothing really triggered me, actually. I had just kept getting into this darker and darker hole every day and just decided that I didn’t want to be in it anymore. I couldn’t sleep and had been up for days and days and I just wanted to rest. Or to laugh, or cry, or something. I felt this…” Matt crossed his arms over his chest, automatically going to hide the scars that littered them, “this numbness. It wasn’t a dark cloud or anything for me. It was just numb. Like when you go to the dentist and they have to drill in your mouth. Nothing felt real.

“So I started cutting, like I normally would. I would do my arms some, then I. I have a lot of scars on my legs, too. But it wasn’t working. None of it was working anymore and god I couldn’t even feel pain. I just kept going deeper and deeper and suddenly I had these.” He lifts his arms to show the parallel lines on each arm. “After them I started to feel lightheaded because I think my body was finally catching up to the blood loss, and I was tired and just wanted to sleep. So I got the Nyquil. And drank the whole bottle.

“Between that and blood just like. Gushing out of me, I collapsed against the counter and knocked the x-acto knife I was using down as I finally. Um. Well, started coding out. It fell with my and sliced my cheek open when I got to the ground. So now I get to have a mutilated face, on top of everything else.” He looks over at Shiro and sees the scar that now spans across the bridge of his nose and under each eye. “Not all of us can pull off the battle-hewn look, I mean.”

Matt rubbed his face with his hands and took a shaky breath. “You’re the first non-doctor I’ve told all that to.”

The boys are quiet for a moment, until Shiro spoke again.

“Your face isn’t mutilated.”

“It was a poor choice of words.”

“Kind of. But. Uh,” Shiro’s swallowing hard now, and it looked like he’s trying to keep a sob locked in his chest. “When you were telling me. The story. I think I remember the day we got in the crash?”

“You do?” It’s Matt’s turn to lean forward, inching himself as close as he dared when Coran was probably just one room over ready to pounce.

“A little. I think. I remember leaving the beach. Ryou insisting he got to play his music and my mom making him tell her all the lyrics to rap songs. And my dad just driving, ignoring us all with a smile. And then it’s just black. But not the… not the black it was before, you know? I mean you don’t know. Of course, you don’t,” Shiro’s rambling now, “but it’s a loud black. The black before was… empty. It was nothing. This is like the whole world is cranked up to eleven so my brain just. Stops,” Shiro ran a hand into his hair and gripped it and it’s all Matt can do to keep his hands on his side of the couch and not try and pull Shiro’s fingers away from tugging out clumps of hair like that girl that was in the ward when he got here. “Oh god my head hurts,” Shiro placed his forehead against the back of the couch and coughed, it’s not a sob but his chest heaved with it all the same.

Coran is opening the door then and kneeling at Shiro’s side.

“Matt, why don’t you go to your room?” Matt nodded and moved to up to go but Shiro shot out a hand to grab at the hem of Matt’s shirt. Matt stared down at the fingers and their grip on him in horrified shock. Coran just kept looking between the two while Shiro took a firm hold on Matt.

“I don’t want Matt to leave,” he finally says, and his eyes are squeezed shut so firmly Matt can see the pain coming off him in waves. “No offense, Coran, but if I have to be working through this shitty trauma and my brain is imploding, I want someone I… I want him here. Please?”

Coran just nods and motions for Matt to sit.

He does.

 

Shiro’s head is splitting open. It has to be from the pain that’s radiating through his skull and down his back and over his shoulders. His stomach hurts and he’s scared that the eggs he had for breakfast will be on the floor soon. He’s hot all over, and he can’t open his eyes. It’s the worst kind of feeling, and all of it is put into the shadow of knowing that he can now recall what each of his loved ones looked like the moments before they died.

He’d been there. He’d been in the car. He’d been trying to rap with his brother while his mother gasped at the language. He had been wondering how his father could tune all of them out so easily all the time.

And now all of them were gone and he was the only one who had gotten out with his life. God, why him? Why had the universe decided that an arm and a hospital stay were his prices to pay when all the other people in the car had to give up their lives. Their futures with him.

For the first time, Shiro wished the memories had stayed away. Because this feeling, deep inside his chest, clawing its way to the surface to burst through his sternum, was worse than any therapy session that went around in circles.

He didn’t know he was screaming and sobbing until someone was sticking a needle in his arm and the world fell away to darkness, just like it had after the crash.

 

Shiro’s screams are looping themselves in Matt’s brain. He’s lying in their room, alone, and all he can hear is Shiro screaming for his mom and his dad and Ryou. After they had injected the valium and Shiro had calmed enough for them to take him to a solitary room for the evening to be monitored, Coran had pulled Matt into his office.

“My initial diagnosis is probably delayed PTSD,” he started, and Matt was a little confused at why he was being given Shiro’s clinical evaluation but, here he was. “And he’s most likely experiencing the survivor’s guilt and now because his brain has finally allowed him to experience the death of his family members first hand…” Coran sighed and placed his glasses down onto his desk to rub his temples, “he’ll have to begin the grieving process. Which while I’m elated that he has regained a majority of the memories he’d lost, I think this will be the most difficult portion of his healing.”

“What can I do?” Matt had asked immediately, not really thinking through his words.

“That’s why I pulled you in here, Matthew,” Coran had fixed him with a look and Matt was startled to hear his full name, Coran usually didn’t use the names they didn’t prefer. “You have to realize that while you somehow were the key to get us to this point in Shiro’s journey, you can’t do anything. You’re a helper. You always want to aid and assist and make things better, and while this is an admirable quality, you cannot fix everything and everyone. This is something Takashi will have to go through on his own.”

If there hadn’t been an overarching problem, Matt would have loved finding out that Shiro’s full name was Takashi. He liked the way it sounded. But all he could think about is Shiro, pressing his face into the couch and slowly going from small tears to sobs to screaming in pain.

Matt couldn’t imagine having to experience the death of the people you loved so horrifically after the fact. He had wanted to do something, anything, so that Shiro didn’t have to feel the pain alone – just like Coran had predicted he would. It was heartbreaking to see someone like that, no matter who they were. The fact that it was Shiro just made the entire thing so much worse.

They had had to give Shiro a pretty large dose of meds to get him to calm down enough to walk away. Matt knew solitary would be the safest place for Shiro right now, where he couldn’t hurt himself while the grief took hold, but it had been nice knowing someone was in the bed next to his. Now the room felt a little empty.

Matt felt a little empty, too.

 

Shiro still had a migraine when he woke up. It was pounding at the back of his eyeballs and creeping over his skull, scalping him. The lights in the room were too bright and when the nurse who was checking on him spoke, he just groaned and rolled over.

Then rolled back away from the wall and promptly vomited all over the floor.

He heard her tsk her tongue and he heard the custodian come in and clean it up and the smell of lemon and pine made his brain hurt even more. His limbs felt heavy and he knew from experience that he was drugged, but he wasn’t in a place to say anything nor care that he was probably being given some strong as hell tranquilizers.

He just hoped that they would work faster and he could get back to sleep.

 

The next time he woke up he was groggy and his brain was a little hazy, but his head wasn’t splitting open with every breath, so it was an improvement. He sat up in the bed and yawned, tasting the bile that had decided to hang out in his mouth. He vaguely remembered puking, and now thirst and the extreme need to pee has overtaken his body.

Before he can rise, a nurse came sweeping into the room and gave him a smile. It’s Linda, one of the more motherlike types who somehow was always kind, even when working with difficult kids in the ward. “You gave us quite a scare, kiddo,” she said and handed him a water bottle. “For a little bit there, we thought we’d have to transfer ya back over to the big hospital.” Shiro drank in sips and nods.

“Bathroom?” He croaked out, the dryness in his mouth still overtaking him. She nodded across the room to a toilet and that’s when he realized he’s still in solitary, not back in one of the rooms in the ward. He shakily stands to pee with her watching his every move. It’d be horrifying if his brain could even get in gear enough to think about anything that wasn’t his family.

Now that the crash has resurfaced in his brain, the dam had broken and if he tried he could recall memories he hadn’t had before. His eleventh birthday party. What his mom had gotten him for Christmas last year. What Ryou’s favorite song was. Junior prom as the third wheel to Keith and Lance.

It was awesome, wonderful. He knew who these people were to him. But now he had to face the reality. That all he would have for three out of the five of those people for the rest of his life were memories. He understood the numbness Matt had been talking about, now. Because it was slowly beginning to get to him, too.

 

When Shiro walked back into their room after lunch three days after he had regained the crash memory, Matt started and quickly sat up on his bed, afternoon nap forgotten.

“Shiro! Hey,” he rubbed at his eyes and tried to put a non-sleepy smile on his face. “How, uh, how are you?”

Shiro shrugged at him and collapsed on his own bed. “Not that great. My parents and brother are dead and now I have to… actually deal with that fact?”

Matt twisted up his face and nodded. “Dealing with shit stinks.”

Shiro laughed and even though it was much more subdued than his normal one, it was a welcome sight in Matt’s eyes. “Yeah,” Shiro continued, “it really does.”

Matt tugged on the strings of his blanket, it had started to fray with how much he gripped it in his sleep. “You scared me,” he confessed, looking down at his lap, “when you. I don’t know how much you remember, but when you realized what was happening you just. Started screaming. And you looked like you were in so much pain…”

“I was,” Shiro was looking down at his own lap now, “my head felt like it was being smashed and burned and sliced all at once.” Matt winced in sympathy, “but I think that was my body’s last stand of protecting me. If I was too preoccupied with physical pain, I couldn’t focus on the emotional. At least that’s what-“

“Coran thinks,” Matt finished for him, finally looking up to meet his friend’s eye. “He told me yesterday when I was ‘fretting,’” Matt used air quotes to signify that it was one of Coran’s words and not his own, “during my session.”

“I’m touched that you fretted over me,” Shiro spoke, but even with the joke his tone was off from its normal humorous lit.

“Course I did,” Matt dropped his blanket, “I missed you, too.”

“I missed you up there in solitary,” Shiro confessed back and Matt felt something bubble up in his stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Matt says next, after a moment of quiet, “about your family, I mean. I just. Feel like I should say it now that you can remember them. It’s horrible and… god this is going to sound so like Coran, but. It’s okay to feel horrible about it, you know?”

Shiro nodded his head across from him. “Yeah,” he said, voice a little thick, “I think I need to learn that.”

 

“So,” Coran is shuffling papers and is not meeting Matt’s eye when he walked in to his appointment the day after Shiro was released.

“This is not a good omen.”

“Your mother called me and wants me to ask you about something,” Coran put on his best serious face and fixed Matt with a look. It was one of his rarer expressions, this one laced with concern. “Your sister has just been released from her ward of care,” the information made Matt shift in his seat. He’s happy Pidge is out and about and feeling herself, but the news also drove home the length of his stay. Sixty-seven days today. According to his on the spot calculation, at least.

“I think you’ve made amazing progress, Matt, and I want you to be home with your family. I was hoping you’d be ready this week, actually. I just believe you and Katie need to have a discussion here, in this space of safety.

“Her attending physician is actually a colleague of mine. She did her residency with me and, if you are willing, thinks a family session with you two and your parents would be a good…” Coran’s voice trailed off for a moment before he brought himself back, “a good healing opportunity for everyone. So you aren’t going back home and being blindsided.”

“You mean I get to see my sister?” Matt’s skin is buzzing, true happiness filled his blood for the first time in what was probably years. “She’ll be here? When? When can we do this?”

“This afternoon, if you think you’re ready?”

“Yes, god yes. Call my mom.”

 

Katie is standing when Matt enters the room. She’s standing at the end of the table and his parents are both turned in their chairs to face her. A white-haired woman sat next to Coran and they were comparing things in thick folders with one another. But all Matt could really see was Katie.

She was in a hoodie and jeans, and her hair looked like she had just woken up, but her face had color and she wasn’t skinny like he had thought that she’d be. It hit him like a truck, looking at her, how much he had missed just feeling his sister’s presence in the room with him. Just seeing her was like a Xanax. Everything that had felt topsy-turvy came back into focus and Matt could breathe.

“Hey Pidgeon,” he greeted her with nothing else to say. Because what do you really say?

“Matt you’re a fucking asshole,” was her reply, but she was still shoving aside rolling chairs and rushing around to throw her arms around his neck. He grabbed her back just as fiercely as she latched onto him, and he held her there. “You can’t fucking leave me, you can’t just decide to leave. You don’t get to do that.” Her first hit his back lightly and he took it, gripping her harder against his chest. “I need you here. God Matt, I need you to be here always you can’t die.” And she’s sobbing. Matt’s sobbing too, and he can’t discern between them being happy tears or angry tears or sad tears. They’re all three, probably. “I’m sorry,” she’s saying now, and he’s saying it too, and it’s muddled by their tears and how they’re holding onto each other, trying to keep one another afloat.

But they do. Keep one another afloat. His sister has always been the air in his life raft. She’s always been there and he has always been thankful for that. He’d tried to be there for her, tried to support and love her, but in the end he hadn’t.

“Fuck, Katie. I’m so sorry, so so so sorry. I should have never done that-“

“Fucking put it in the past. Just come home, Matt. Please come home?” When she pulled back Matt instinctively reached out to wipe her tears from her face. She was fourteen but she was still his baby sister.

“Now that you’re there, I will.”

 

When the nurse had handed over the papers to prove to him it was real, Shiro had been confused.

Now, seeing Matt with a backpack, shoving his few books and a sweatshirt he had left on the bed into it, things were starting to fall into place.

“You too?” He asked as he stepped into their room, reality starting to settle heavily on his shoulders.

“What do you mean?” Matt asked, and seeing his brown eyes turn on Shiro, looking straight at him with guilt and fear, shoved the dagger that was already hovering over his heart in further.

“You’re leaving.” It’s not a question.

“My parents signed the discharge papers.”

“That’s good, Matt.”

“It doesn’t sound like you believe that.”

“I do. Makes me telling you that they’re transferring me to a different ward a little easier,” Shiro lifted his shoulder in a shrug and began to collect the few things he had in the room as well. A paperback and a moleskin notebook and the scrapbook and a few school papery things from their sad excuse for classes.

“Why are they doing that?” Matt stopped what he was doing to gaze into Shiro’s back. The weight of his stare was almost too heavy to bare.

“I’m eighteen today. Gotta go hang out with the adults, now that I am one,” Shiro’s stack of things topples on the bed and he sighs in frustration at having to work on gathering it all again with his one hand.

“It’s your birthday?” Matt’s voice was barely a whisper.

“Yup.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” And there’s the hurt. It hadn’t been his plan to hurt Matt, but he hadn’t wanted to think about leaving him all alone when they transferred him away. So he had pushed the thought back until it was inevitable and happening.

“I didn’t want you to worry about me leaving. Now,” Shiro gestured to Matt’s bag, “that isn’t the issue.”

“But…” Matt took a step closer so his toes were almost against the frame of the bed. All that separated them now was a twin mattress. “There is an issue.”

“It’s over.”

“I’ll never see you again.”

“You won’t.”

“And you won’t see me.”

“This is why you’re the smart one and I’m the hot one, Matty,” he couldn’t hide the teary tone of his voice any longer.

“Shiro…” Matt closed his eyes. Tears start to leak from them, too. When his eyes open again they’re staring at the ceiling and his chest shuddered and he looked so helpless.

And then he stepped around the foot of the bed.

And then he took Shiro’s arms and turned him so they were face to face, toe to toe.

And then Matt wrapped his arms around him and held. He held on and Shiro had his left arm around Matt’s waist. It’s a real hug. One where the both of them were lucid and sane and it’s everything Shiro’s chest had been aching for the last few weeks.

Both of them know that they’re being watched. Both of them know that this is a temporary Band-Aid to the problem that Coran had kept warning them about. A nurse would be in soon to break it up, but what were they going to do? Punish Shiro? He hadn’t initiated it. Punish Matt? He was going home. It was the perfect crime. Right that moment, getting to hold one another was all they had.

Matt pulled away before an orderly could come stomping down the hall from the nurse’s station. He nodded and dropped his arms and rubbed his face.

“My family’s waiting,” he whispered.

“I have to do intake paperwork,” Shiro replied. And then, because there was no risk and no reward and because he’d regret not saying it. “I think I love you.”

“I think I love you, too.”

Matt shouldered his backpack and walked out the door of their room, and he was gone.

 

Epilogue

 

“For your homework, I’d like you to analyze why you think death is such a common trope in both classic and current literature, and if you believe it has the same weight to it as it did back when Shakespeare was working on his plays. Class dismissed.” Matt scribbled a note in the margin of his paper to remind him to actually do the essay that evening and he began shoving his book and papers into his bag.

“Bet scarface over there won’t have any issues with that assignment,” he heard a guy mumbled a few seats over.

“That or he’ll be triggered into another Nyquil coma,” the guy next to him mumbled back and they snickered under their breath.

“Don’t listen to them, Matt,” the girl who was sitting in front of him said after turning around so fast her pony tail had actually snapped hard enough to get his cheek. “They just don’t understand,” her eyes rolled, “such assholes, honestly.”

“Uh,” Matt quickly tugged on the zippers of his backpack and stood from the desk so fast it moved out of the carefully aligned row. He didn’t even try to correct it as he fled from the room. “Don’t worry I won’t,” he breathed out quickly as he passed the girl and made his way into the hall that was flooded with students making their way here and there and back and forth.

It had been like that since his first day back. People did one of three things: avoided him like the plague, as if depression could be transferred by just breathing the same air as him, attempted to be overly friendly in compensation for being indifferent to him before, or just outright made fun of him. At least the later weren’t trying to be fake like the first two.

He’d been called about every name someone could come up with. Ghostboy, zombie, Jesus (he had explained heavily the first few days that he had never actually died and then given up when no one cared enough to even listen and the resurrection jokes continued on), scarface, emo, slicey the knife man… and those were just the ones that had stood out because he actually found them kind of comical. His parents had been on a warpath to end the bullying the first time Matt had told them but he had just waved them off over a plate of macaroni and cheese. No amount of anti-bullying assemblies or announcements would make them stop. He was the sacrificial lamb of suicidal teens at his school. So be it.

Pidge had just been “ill” for the few weeks she had been out. Terrible case of mono, shouldn’t go around kissing guys from other school districts. At least that was the report she was sticking by. Matt confirmed it, and squashed any rumors he could if he overheard them. If his ship was sinking, he wasn’t going to let his little sister’s go down with it.

The first few comments that surfaced had made him uneasy and made him want to scratch at his scars, but Coran continuously reiterated that that was a normal reaction, especially faced with triggers for his past addiction and living in a world where chaos reigned instead of the walls of Altea where everything was carefully controlled and monitored.

His mother had fretted the entire morning of the first day he decided to wear just a tee shirt, even though the November air was beginning to get a tad nippy. She had tried to shove a sweater and a button down into his hands with the cover of worrying that he would get a chill.

They all knew it was about the scars.

It had been terrifying for a few moments when he and Pidge had walked into school and everyone saw that they could get a good long stare at the thing they had all been whispering about, but after those initial moments, Matt felt liberated.

When he had collapsed onto Coran’s couch at the outpatient clinic that afternoon and the doctor had seen his tee shirt he just raised an eyebrow. “Feeling brave today, are we?”

“Yeah, and so are some of the people at school. A girl tried to hug me and tell me how brave I was and it was the worst experience of my life.”

Coran’s mustache twitched slightly as his face broke into a smile. “You do realize that you almost died not four months ago?”

“Yeah, but this was worse.I mean,” Matt helped himself to a lollipop from the bowl next to the couch that he knew was only for after appointments, “how do I tell them that I’m gay and don’t want their sympathy sex?”

Coran had gotten more openly joking now that Matt had left the hospital. His entire demeanor had broken a bit and he would cuss occasionally and let Matt talk about all the shows he was catching up on for the first few minutes of their sessions to relax.

It was insane to think Matt had been openly mean to him the first few times they met, because now Coran was a lifeline he couldn’t imagine living without. The first two weeks he was out of the hospital Coran insisted that he came to outpatient every day, but now that he was back at school and confident that the tools he had gained to work through the depressive spells that hit, he was only going three times a week. His parents and Pidge and Allura (Pidge’s shrink who she adored) would all get together every other week with Coran and Matt for one giant family session. It wasn’t perfect, and sometimes the urges caught up to him and the voice in his head started screaming that he should try again, finish the job off, but instead of locking himself in the bathroom, he found the most difficult math problems in his textbooks and worked through solving them for as long as he needed.

Or he wrote his feelings out in a journal that he kept in his sock drawer. It wasn’t something he needed to hide from anyone, they all knew what he was battling in his brain. Except for the fact that sometimes, he would write as if he was lying in his bed back in the hospital and talking things out with Shiro.

His heart still hurt sometimes when he thought about him. It was an ache that spread from his collarbone and down through his ribs and into his stomach, but he was managing it. Before he would have squashed the feeling down, told it to go away and stay away. Now, though, he let it happen. It was usually when he was just about to fall asleep, missing the sound of Shiro’s even breathing a few feet away, and he let himself hurt. It was a weirdly okay pain, one he kept close to his chest because it meant that he had loved Shiro just a little bit and it had been okay. Hehad been okay. He had lived through it and was now on the other side healing from it.

He let himself have that.

They were three weeks away from Christmas break and a week and a half away from Thanksgiving now, and everyone was starting to itch for the days off and getting out of school. Both Matt and Pidge had been exempted from any sort of mid-year exams based on what the guidance counselor had deemed ‘exterminating circumstances and long-term academic success that proved material retention.’ Which really meant that neither of them had been in their classes for a long enough period of time to learn any of the stuff that was actually on any test. They were just flying under the radar until January when they could basically start over with everyone else. Matt would still graduate on time in June, though, which his parents were endlessly happy about.

Matt was really good at tuning out teachers, then. He tried not to, especially in his less than stellar classes like history of literature, but who could blame him? Why pay attention when you didn’t have to regurgitate the information onto an exam? So, he usually sipped his coffee (bless coffee and being able to drink it again) in his first period European History class and zoned out while watching the teacher write things on the board that didn’t mean anything to him. He looked down at his iPad occasionally and pretended to take notes, but really was just coloring in an app like a middle-aged mother of three.

But then.

“Ah, everyone, our new student has finally arrived,” The teacher said with mirth, he had a thing about tardiness and apparently it extended to poor new kids finding their way around, as well. Matt didn’t look up. People were always transferring in and out of schools around here, parents moving for this job or that. He kept on shading the fur of the deer on his screen. “He’s joining us from a few districts over, welcome Ta, um, Takee-“

“Takashi,” Matt’s head snapped up, “But Shiro is what I prefer.” He’s there. He’s got a long-sleeved black shirt on that has the right sleeve sewed up to hide the scarring on the end of his arm. He’s giving the teacher a tight-lipped smile that meant he was trying not to laugh and he looked like a sunrise.

“Alrighty, welcome Shiro,” the teacher shuffles some papers and hands them to Shiro and then gestures to an empty desk near the door. Shiro doesn’t even notice Matt as he sits and pulls a notebook out of his beat-up backpack and begins scribbling the words on the board.

It takes every ounce of self-control Matt has in his body to not shout or call or throw a balled-up wad of syllabus from the bottom of his own backpack at Shiro’s head.

The remainder of the class is the most grueling forty minutes Matt had ever experienced. Every nerve in his body was on high alert and just wanted to do something. Anything. When the bell rang and everyone shuffled to the door, Matt couldn’t get out fast enough to catch Shiro. He was already halfway down the hall when Matt was able to shoulder his way out of the classroom and follow him even though his next class was on the other end of the building.

Matt finally was able to get close enough to Shiro to grab him by the arm in the stairwell that led to the basement science labs. He held on tight as the bell rang and kids all finished scurrying into classrooms and Shiro whirled on him, eyes frightened but obviously ready to fight.

“Jesus Christ almighty you can walk fast,” Matt panted and then, after a moment, removed his hand from Shiro when he sees that the other boy is still a little spooked.

“Matt?” Shiro’s voice shakes when he says his name and Matt wants to burst into tears at the syllable falling off of Shiro’s lips again.

“Hey,” he greeted. They’re still standing in the stairwell, but now they’re alone. Everyone else had settled in to their classrooms and everything had shifted into an eerie quiet.

“What are you doing here?” Shiro whispered, and there’s a hint of reverence in his voice when he says it.

“You’re the new one, you go first.” Matt can feel that his breathing has sped up and he can tell his chest is aching but this time it isn’t sadness that’s spreading down his ribs, its hope.

“My, uh, my old school? They were all treating me like I couldn’t remember anything or anyone still. Even the teachers, they were giving me special treatments and telling me to not do things just because they thought I’d not know what was going on the next day… Coran facilitated me transferring once it got to be too frustrating.” Shiro shrugged and Matt could tell there’s shame hiding under Shiro’s carefully schooled mask.

“That sounds terrible,” Matt took a step forward and Shiro nodded. “At least you’re not getting called completely uncreative names in a form of bullying,” he smiled to let Shiro know he was joking. The other boy made a face and Matt laughed.

That sounds terrible.”

“Oh, it is,” Matt nodded towards the area that’s hidden under the stairs and steps into the dark it provided. Shiro followed him hesitantly.

“Shouldn’t we get to class?”

“Just tell the guidance counselor, Mrs. Stanson, that you had a panic attack or an anxiety spell or needed a minute of quiet. She gets off on thinking she’s a therapist and will always let you get away with that shit.” Matt leaned against the wall and threw his backpack on the ground. Shiro mirrored him.

“Abusing the system already, Matt?”

“See, abusing would mean I do this often,” Matt reached the toe of his converse over and kicked at Shiro’s foot with his own, “but really I only do it when Shiro’s from my past show up and shock me so badly my body is telling me we need to have a panic attack.” Shiro was staring at their feet touching, as if he was suddenly remembering that they were free to do that here. Free to do whatever they wished, whatever they wanted with no cameras and no orderlies and no Coran peaking over their shoulders.

“Matt?”

“Yeah?”

“Can I hug you?” And instead of answering, Matt stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Shiro’s waist and buried his face in Shiro’s chest. And it felt like the dawn of a new day.

 

“Shiro!” Pidge screamed, her hair still widely sticking up in a million directions and a sheet imprint on her cheek, “Matt! Up! Up up up! Santa came! Preasent time!” And then she was off, pounding down the stairs, and Matt could hear his parents laughing from the den.

“Isn’t she a little old to believe in Santa?” Shiro asked from his place on the air mattress on the floor, sitting up and stretching his arm over his head. Matt could hear his back pop from the top bunk of his loft. His snowman shirt was a perfect match for the one Matt was also wearing. Matching pajamas were a necessity for the Holt Christmas Morning Spectacular.

“If you’re too old to believe in Santa, have fun getting only half the presents every year, fucking Grinch,” Matt replied, then dropped to the floor from his bed and shook out his hair with his fingers. He had let it keep growing after the hospital, and now it was shaggier and hung into his eyes. His mom hated how messy it looked, but Matt liked it. Shiro had said he liked it, too. So there was that.

“You should have told me that last night, I would have left out special cookies for him and everything.” Matt chuckled and offered a hand to Shiro to help him up off the ground.

After that first day at school, Matt and Shiro had sat in Shiro’s car and talked. At first it was just to catch up. To fill in one another on the past month of events that had happened, but as the sun set over the parking lot, they had breached the subject of them.

There had been tears, and frustration, and a pros and cons list of dating the person you had leaned on in a mental hospital.

“I still have feelings for you, Matt.”

“I have feelings for you too. But… we’re not the people who were in the hospital anymore. I’m not sure the feelings are for… you? Or for the Shiro I met in August.”

“Well… then why don’t we try and start something new? Learn who we are in the real world?”

“I would really, really like that.”

So Shiro had driven Matt home. He had come inside and sat down for dinner with his family and shared his story with Matt’s parents and Pidge over Oreos and a cup of tea. Matt’s mom had found out that Shiro was now and orphan and living in his old house with his aunt, who worked an hour away so was never home with him, and had fussed and insisted that Shiro eat dinner with them as much as he wanted. Breakfast, too. And she’d pack him a lunch to send with Matt.

She had also called Coran the next day in concern over the boys not healing properly if they had something to hold on to of their time in the ward. When Matt had walked into his appointment, Coran had just looked at him and shook his head.

“I should be mad at you two, but you’re a shining example of if there’s a will, there’s a way.”

And when Matt had explained the pro and con list and had laid out their plan to start over and just see what happened from there Coran just slowly nodded while he spoke. When it had been quiet for a beat longer than normal Matt had begun to get worried, but then a smile broke on Coran’s face and he laughed.

“I taught you too well, that’s the healthiest scenario you’ve ever dealt with.” And so Matt laughed with him.

Shiro had spent Thanksgiving with them, helping his mom cook and even attempting to make a pie.

That had not ended well for the pie.

It became common for Shiro to be in their house, curled on the couch watching movies or working with Matt and Pidge on homework at the kitchen table while his parents typed away at their research studies or graded papers. When Shiro had balked at the idea of spending Christmas with them, not wanting to encroach, Matt’s dad had just huffed and said, “But we’ve already begun to wrap your presents.”

And that settled that.

The tree had been bursting the night before, but now it seemed like his mom had been working overtime with the elves to get even more gifts stuffed under the pine’s branches. Bae Bae was already chewing on a bone that still had a bow attached to it, and Pidge was on the couch with her stocking in her lap bouncing up and down. “Took you long enough!

“Shush up, Pidgeotto,” Shiro ruffled her hair as he took a seat next to her and Matt hauled the two heavy stockings off the mantel for them. His mom had even written Shiro’s name on his with glitter paint like the rest of the Holts.

“Merry Christmas, boys,” his dad said, coming into the room with two mugs and handing one to his wife with a kiss on her head.

“Merry Christmas,” Matt replied with a smile and settled next to Shiro. If he was a little closer than he needed to be on their huge sectional, no one said anything.

They all tore through their stockings, popping chocolates and candy canes in their mouths as they went. It was all normal until Shiro started laughing so hard he was wheezing next to Matt.

“What?” Matt asked, looking up from a pair of socks with the periodic table on them, “What’s so funny?” And Shiro, unable to talk, just lifted up one single glove and kept laughing, a tear streaming down his face. Matt’s eyes widened and then he was laughing too, his parents joining in a moment later.

“Cause I only need one!” Shiro chortled to the room, his voice breaking with giggles. It shouldn’t have been as big of a joke as it was, but things were always better on Christmas. Funnier. More full of joy. So, they all laughed until they were crying and Pidge was making jokes and drawing on every one arm or handed movie character she could think of.

They got through stockings and a few gifts before Matt was pushing himself off the couch and padding to the kitchen in search of coffee. He could only be awake for so long without it. He was waiting for the Keurig to reheat when he heard someone walk in behind him.

“Hey,” Shiro greeted, pulling a mug and a teabag out of the cabinet for himself.

“Hey,” Matt replied, bumping his hip into Shiro’s with a smile.

“Can I,” Shiro cleared his throat when his voice cracked and then tried speaking again, “Can I give you your present?”

Matt felt his brow furrow and turned to face Shiro. His parents and Pidge were laughing in the next room, and a high pitch squeaking had started up, meaning Bae Bae had gotten her stocking, too.

“In the kitchen?” The machine began to whirl and Matt slid his mug under the spout just in time for it to catch the coffee pouring out.

“I… uh yeah. Here.” Matt shrugged and turned back to give his attention to Shiro and nodded.

“If you want to, sure, Shiro.”

Matt was expecting a box, or a bag, or something to appear magically in Shiro’s hands or for him to leave and go get it. But Shiro just took a step forward and they were close enough now that Matt had to tilt his head back just a little to keep looking at Shiro’s face. He could feel his body getting warmer, and instinctively somehow, he knew what was happening.

They still hadn’t gone beyond hugging and maybe leaning into one another while watching movies in the dark. Starting over meant that they were building up to this. The breaking point where everything flipped from what they had had to whatever the future was going to be. It was a point of no return. The final end of the no touching rules and the leashes they had kept on themselves even after leaving the hospital.

“Okay?” Shiro whispered and all Matt could do was nod because he wasn’t sure if he had a voice anymore.

Shiro reached over and placed his hand on the back of Matt’s neck. His thumb brushed against his jaw lightly, worshipfully, and whatever breath was left in Matt’s lungs rushed out of his body. Matt blinked a few times and let his eyes flick down to Shiro’s lips.

Shiro started to lean in and Matt closed the gap, meeting Shiro halfway. And then they were kissing in his kitchen on Christmas morning, the smell of fresh coffee floating around them and Shiro’s lips tasting like candy, and it was like the waves had finally broken to calmer seas and the last bit of rocking his lifeboat had been doing finally evened out and Matt was truly, completely, utterly happy.