Jr. startles awake, disoriented, alarm accelerating his solitary heartbeat. The bedside monitor beeps along with his pulse, and he’s aware of the noise long before he can convince his eyes to focus.
Panicked, he blinks to snap himself out of sluggishness, to get his bearings, to dispel the vertigo, but his head feels too heavy, the weight of his skull a surprise as his cheek presses into a pillow that smells like unfamiliar, commercial detergent.
There’s an arm draped gently over his upper body that reminds him of when he was a kid, the last time he was in a hospital, when he was the one anxiously awaiting someone to wake up from complicated surgery.
“I feel like KOS-MOS,” he mumbles, barely cognizant of anything else.
Gaignun laughs under his breath, faintly, fondly. “Good morning.”
His mouth is dry, coated with an acrid aftertaste that clings to his soft palate, lodged at his gag reflex from the flow of oxygen up his nose that’s stopping him from having sufficient spit to swallow. “Did I throw up?”
Gaignun lifts himself up enough to kiss the corner of his mouth, careful not to dislodge the nasal cannula or its tubing. He sniffs his face and makes a contemplative sound. “Maybe.”
“You must really love me to kiss me with puke-mouth.”
“I do.” The statement is deeply sincere in that way Gaignun always is, the magnitude of it half-hidden, like absorbable sutures, ensuring support where it’s not always easily seen.
Jr. frowns, his brow furrowed, and fumbles for his hand to hold it over his chest, over the left side, over the elastic bandage wrapped around his ribs to keep an ice pack in place against his back, over the tape adhering the monitor’s electrodes securely to his skin.
There’s a blanket over his lower body to save him from shivering and a sheet draped over both of them to give some sense of privacy. The well-worn fabric of Gaignun’s t-shirt is soft against his shoulders, the denim of his jeans slightly less so as he spoons him.
“You had a surgical gown,” Gaignun explains, “but you kept trying to tear it off and take the wiring with it. You were adamant that we all know, and I quote, that ‘The fucking Zohar should go fucking fuck itself.’”
Jr. laughs, exhausted. “That sounds like something I’d do.”
“I’ve got clean clothes for you whenever you’re ready for them.” Gaignun runs a light touch down along Jr.’s arm to hold his hand without disrupting the pulse oximeter on his index finger. “You should be able to go home today, once the anesthesia’s completely worn off.”
Jr. takes a deep breath through his nose and lets it back out through his mouth, gradually acclimating to the reality of his surroundings. It’s not as simple to convince his body there’s no need to sustain the distress, to convince his brain that he’s safe, that the hypervigilance is unnecessary; even though he knows it rationally, the physical reaction persists. “Remember when I was the one holding you in a hospital bed?”
Gaignun nods, exhaling against the short hair at the nape of his neck. “You were there when I woke up.”
“Didn’t think you were gonna.” Groggily, Jr. rotates his hand to squeeze Gaignun’s fingers. “They had to sedate me when they took you away ‘cause I wouldn’t stop yelling at them.”
Gaignun kisses his neck and closes his eyes. “That sounds like something you’d do.”
Jr. repositions his right arm away from how he’s been lying on it and presses his palm flat to his chest, over the right side, focused and feeling for nothingness, to prove a negative. He closes his eyes with the relief and heartache of having it gone for good, his thoracic cage restored to the way it should’ve been at the start, made whole through its removal.
He changes the subject before can get choked up. “How’s MOMO?”
“She’s fine. She’s waiting for us to get back.” Gaignun rubs at Jr.’s wrist, to press his thumb into his singular pulse. “Apparently she got to have pizza for the first time. And a calzone.”
“That’s awesome.” Jr. smiles and lets his right hand rest, sliding it up underneath the pillow. “Good for her. I wanna say that I want a calzone too, but it’s probably not a good idea yet.”
“As soon as you can keep food down, we’ll get whatever you want.”
“Maybe Jin has leftovers. His curry’s so good, the reflux is worth it.”
Gaignun kisses Jr.’s neck again and tucks his chin over his shoulder. “He’s coming by to check on you in a while. You can ask him.”
Jr. sighs and turns his head just enough to nuzzle against Gaignun’s temple, airline tubing be damned. The warmth of his skin is a comfort; his hair smells like home. “Mary and Shelley okay?”
“Yeah. I let them know everything was a success.”
“Good, good. Uh...” Jr. runs through his hazy list of outstanding external concerns. “They all get the Y-Data unlocked or decoded or whatever?”
“It’s looking promising.” Gaignun nods against his shoulder. “When you feel up to it, we can attempt to recover the original Zohar, but only after you recover. Possibly after it’s fucked itself.”
His heart rate speeds up again, panicked despite the joke. “Who’s seen it?”
“The Y-Data?” Gaignun holds his hand to steady him. “Just Juli and Helmer. No one else.”
“No one? Not even the 100-Series?”
“Nope. Not them, and not even me. They don’t want it getting out, but they each need a backup in case something happens to one of them.”
“God, I hope not.” Jr. sighs and brings Gaignun’s hand around his waist, held fast like a seatbelt. “Contingencies make sense. Like we did.”
“They’re fine, right?”
“They’re fine, and they both send their love.”
There’s a quiet moment that passes as the monitor tracks his vital signs, like clockwork, like a metronome. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” Gaignun curls his hand around Jr.’s and brushes their fingertips together, where he’s not blocked by the plastic. “I haven’t left the room since they put you under.”
“Don’t you have to like... piss?”
“Probably should at some point, yeah.” He leans his cheek against Jr.’s back, just above the bandages, his nose nudged into his shoulder. “Didn’t take as long as we thought it might. Everything went smoothly.”
There’s another pause as he hesitates, as he finds the words. “Y’know, while I was out, I think I... like, uh—” A knock on the door interrupts him, and he raises his voice from the familiar near-whisper of speaking with Gaignun. “Come in!”
Hirad is joined by Jin, and the two kind doctors enter the room together, Hirad with a tablet for notetaking on a digital chart and Jin with his reading glasses and a pen and paper.
“Welcome back to the waking world,” Jin says, smiling. “How are you feeling?”
“Tired. Can’t tell how much I’m gonna feel like shit any moment now.” Jr. returns the smile and tries to sit up, just a bit, just to make eye contact from an elevated angle.
Gaignun stays glued to his side, curled quiet against him while everyone else in the room speaks. Jr.’s skin still carries the scent of chlorhexidine wash, and it lightly pervades the smell of the sterile everything tethered to or wrapped around him. Their link was already open, but it’s as Gaignun sends him additional psychic reassurance, the equivalent of metaphysically holding his hand as well as physically, that Jr. consciously notices it’s as active and free-flowing as their blinking and breathing.
“It shouldn’t be too bad, as long as you keep some ice on it for a while. The incision was very small; we used nanomachines to suture it,” Hirad explains, the first of them to speak directly about the surgery. “It’ll hardly leave a scar at all. Won’t see it unless someone’s looking for it.”
“So it’s all out?” Jr. asks, trying to get comfortable, with limited success. The ice pack at the incision site is the only thing separating Jr. from fully cuddling with Gaignun, and the temporary chill can’t keep them apart; it’s yet another instance of something to heal from and push past and ultimately ignore in a sea of better memories.
“Yes. The cardiac tissue was removed at a molecular level. We used nanomachines for the procedure, which itself didn’t take long, but I know you had some concerns both with the tech and the severity of your situation.” Hirad meets Jr.’s gaze directly, without any trace of hesitation nor condescension. “We were exceptionally thorough to ensure every affiliated particle from that organ was removed, and that all of the nanomachines were extracted, too.”
There’s a quiet moment as Jr. mulls this over, turning tumultuous thoughts over like a spinning hourglass perpetually tossed between drawing a blank and jammed full of worries. He stares at the multicolored lines tracking his heartbeat alongside everything else. “What if it tries to come back?”
Hirad sighs, not unkindly. “Well, typically we’d offer to keep the nanomachines present for a time to keep watch over it all. Like security, so to speak. But in your case, now that the foreign matter is fully eradicated, your immune system ought to mount its own response if anything unexpected makes a reappearance.”
“But it shouldn’t,” Jin adds, shaking his head firmly. “Not without an existing foot in the door, and there’s nothing left of h—” Jin clicks his tongue at himself. “...it, in there anymore.”
Jr.’s silent, watching the array of medical equipment converting his body’s existence back into quantitative data. “Where do I go from here?”
Gaignun presses a kiss to Jr.’s shoulder without any attempt to disguise the movement as anything other than what it is.
“We’re going to monitor your vitals for a while, but then you can get dressed and get out of here as soon as you’re comfortable.” Hirad gestures with the tablet towards Gaignun. “Make sure he drives the spaceship on the way back, all right?”
Gaignun laughs without looking up, and speaks against Jr.’s arm. “You don’t want me to do that, I promise you.”
Hirad smiles, and looks back to Jr. “I’ll follow up with you during your recovery, and you’re welcome to contact us ASAP if you experience any complications.”
“Got it. Thank you.” Jr. hesitates, then offers a thumbs-up, for lack of other ideas to convey gratitude when he’s still somewhat out of it. “All of you, for all of this.”
“It’s why I do what I do.” Hirad returns the thumbs-up. “Otherwise they’d just call me The Kind-Of Doctor.”
“Don’t quit your day job,” Jin chuckles. “Second Miltia needs your expertise.”
“I thought it was pretty funny, FYI.” Jr. huffs a laugh and feels his breath hit the cannula. He gingerly lifts his left arm along with the wiring and brings it down to embrace Gaignun as he resettles against him. “But there’s no accounting for taste.”
Gaignun rests his head on Jr.’s chest, with his temple against his collarbone and his chin catching against the tackiness of the elastic bandage. “Speaking of which: he wants your curry leftovers, Dr. Uzuki.”
“I’m afraid there are no leftovers to be had.” Jin smiles at both of them. “I’ll have to make a fresh batch for you to take with you.”
“You’re kind as hell too, goddamn.” Jr. squeezes Gaignun’s shoulder in a side-hug, acutely aware of his vulnerability, his exposure, his emotional debt to everyone in the room. “Curry-osity killed the cat, but sophisticated medical intervention brought him back.”
Hirad raises his eyebrows as he types. “I’m making a note that you’re fully awake.”
Jin raises his fist to his chin, smirking halfway into his hand. “And you thought you couldn’t cure cats.”
“We learn new things every day in this field.” Hirad taps his tablet against Jin’s shoulder. “Take care of your sister, will you?”
“I certainly try to.”
With a quick wave to Jr. and Gaignun, Hirad exits the room and closes the door behind himself.
“Nobody did anything weird, right?” Jr. asks, the exhaustion creeping back into his voice.
Jin steps closer to the bed and rests his hand on the side rail. “I watched and understood everything that went on, from beginning to end. The procedure did not do anything other than remove the tissue you wanted removed.”
“And all the nanomachines are out, for sure?”
Jin nods. “Definitely so. We triple-checked so there would be no doubt.”
“Good. Thank fuck.” Jr. runs his fingers through Gaignun’s hair, and winces along with Gaignun when the hinge of the pulse oximeter catches on a few strands. “Shit, sorry.”
Gaignun hugs him, unfazed by the sensors attempting to block his access and make cuddling cumbersome. “I’m fine. You’ve been through a lot worse today.”
“Yeah, but still...” Jr. cranes his neck to kiss Gaignun’s head, which presses the cannula uncomfortably into his nostrils and the airline tubing awkwardly against his face. He looks back to Jin. “You don’t gotta make curry for me if it’s too much trouble.”
“It’s not at all.” Jin raises a hand to politely dismiss the very notion. “I want to.”
“Could you please make sure there’s enough for us to give some to MOMO? She’s wanted to try yours ever since I told her it was my favorite.”
Jin’s expression brightens further than Jr.’s seen in the time they’ve known each other. “You’re kind as hell to say that. I’d be glad to send some along for her as well.”
“Sweet, thank you. I’d say send some for the old man, but...” Jr. trails off, flexing his unencumbered fingertips against Gaignun’s upper arm. “Y’know, if they’d all admit to themselves what nanomachines are and what they do, they’d have to rewrite a lot of legislation surrounding the classification of cyborgs.”
Jin closes his eyes and sighs before writing something on his notepad with precise, deliberate mark-making. “My concerns lie with how those revisions might sweep even more people into servitude, rather than the reverse. But that reminded me.” He tears the page out and hands it to Jr., towards his right hand.
Jr. reads the name but doesn’t recognize it. “Who’s this?”
“Former classmate of mine, Dr. Naomi Clark. We did some catching up, and she’s become a neurologist with a specialty in bioengineering.” He recaps his pen and secures it to an elastic loop on the notepad. “She’s seen astounding results in restoring nerve function that would’ve been previously thought impossible. For privacy reasons, I didn’t give her any specifics, but if Ziggy’s interested, she’s accepting new patients.”
“Goddamn, that’s incredible. That’s sci-fi shit.” Jr. passes the note to Gaignun, who disentangles himself from Jr. enough to carefully fold it and stow it in his jeans pocket for safekeeping. “I’ll run it by him for sure. Thank you, seriously. On his behalf and ours.”
“You’re very welcome, Jr.” The mirrored fatigue in Jin’s eyes relents for a few moments. “When I told you I wanted to help, I meant that.”
“Hey.” The corner of Jr.’s mouth quirks up, and he raises his right hand above the bed rail. “When I said you’ve helped save our lives, I meant that, too.”
“And you’re very welcome for that, too.” Jin accepts the handshake instantly, his gaze never leaving Jr.’s face, never fixating on numbers instead of people. “I’ll let you two rest for a while longer. Once we’re certain everything is stable, we’ll come back to disconnect the equipment so you can get dressed. And after that, you’re welcome to stop by for dinner if you’re feeling up to it; otherwise, I’ll bring some dinner to you. Perhaps with a side dish of collectors’ textbooks.”
“Dr. Hirad’s right, you know. It’s hard to imagine you two are siblings.” Jr. smiles, and the fatigue is back in his own expression. “But hell if I don’t know how that is.”
“Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light,” Jin quotes. “And Gaignun, if you find it’s necessary, I know you have several friends who’d be willing to help pilot any spaceships Jr. can’t safely operate after the anesthesia, myself included.”
Gaignun laughs under his breath. “My skillset primarily lies in backseat driving.”
“As does chaos’.” Jin pats the rail of the bed lightly so it doesn’t rattle. “Rest up, and we’ll see you soon.”
Jr. raises his right hand again to wave. “Thanks, Jin.”
With Jin’s departure and the door’s most recent closure, Jr. trades social tension for other anxieties that backwash across the link. “Have we heard anything yet about what’s going on with Ziggy?”
“That’s what Juli’s been working on, besides the Y-Data and the calzones. Busy day for everybody.” Gaignun rests his denim-clad knee over Jr.’s legs, tangled up with his bare skin and the blanket. “Ziggy was able to join them for pizza, and enjoyed it vicariously.”
“Good. He deserves it and then some.” Jr. keeps his arm curled around Gaignun’s shoulders while he rests his head on his chest, while he feels his breath on his skin, while his lungs lift the welcomed weight of his skull each time he inhales. “Everyone deserves to rest, but especially after that level of extensive maintenance.”
Gaignun strokes his fingertips along the electrodes’ wiring and lets his left hand settle over the right side of Jr.’s chest. “That includes you, you know.”
Jr. sighs heavily, and Gaignun’s head sinks slightly with his exhalation. “What about, uh. Wasn’t there something Lapis had for us?”
“She has some intel about U-TIC via a soldier who defected. Whistleblower.” He runs his touch along the edge of the elastic bandage, peeling it back idly, but not nearly enough to actually dislodge it by more than a few millimeters. “Undercover in the Federation. Apparently he was involved in the disappearance of Ariadne, with the twelfth emulator we recovered.”
The monitors track his spike of panic once again as a beeping crescendo. “What the fuck?”
“I’ll tell you more later. I don’t want to stress you out.” Gaignun turns his head slightly to press a kiss to Jr.’s collarbone. “But I do think it’ll be productive. I think we can help him resettle on the Foundation; he’s been through a lot, from the sound of it.”
“Mm. So he’s a perfect candidate to be inducted into our support group for People Who’ve Got Shit We’d Rather Forget.”
“Among other qualifications, yes. The forgetting is an aspect of it.”
The beeping gradually slows somewhat, but Gaignun can feel Jr.’s breathing become shallower as he fights to find the phrasing for the myriad stressors ricocheting across the link.
“Society is not interested in taking care of bodies like mine, or his, or Ziggy’s, to say nothing of mental health.” Jr. sniffs hard, and the cannula irritates his nostrils.
“That’s what the Foundation is for.” Gaignun reaches across his body beneath the covers to find his right hand and lace their fingers together, as much as he can with the way the size of the spacing is too far apart to be easy or comfortable. “That’s why we’re running it. That’s why it’s rooted in Helmer and Juli, and chaos and Canaan, and Jin, all of them showing us mercy first, when no one else would’ve.”
Jr. squeezes his hand. “I know.”
“I know you know.” Gaignun squeezes back. “I try to remind myself, too.”
There’s a longer silence that stretches out like the dangling wires and tubing and electrical cords all connecting the various monitoring devices and medical equipment in the room to the physical embodiment of an anti-waveform intended for a single use, disposable and half-deployed, long past his anticipated expiration. Jr. is as fragile as a bomb, as an incendiary device, as an unlit match near gasoline, near an oxygen supply.
“There’s so much that’s fucked up about my body, dude. He built me to break apart.” Jr. laughs, miserable with feigned mirth, in the moments before the façade can be propped back up on the stage of interpersonal expectation. “He built you to last.”
“He didn’t take into account how invested I am in keeping you in one piece.” Gaignun raises himself up onto his elbow and kisses Jr., soft and sure and secure. He speaks quietly against his lips, hushed like he’s in a library, with empathy in his eyes, with the silhouette of his dark hair casting a protective shadow over Jr. to block the harsh overhead hospital light. “One piece only. No extras, no spare parts that no one asked for.”
Jr. brings his left hand up to touch his face, his fingertips tracing his cheek, the plastic on his pointer finger pressed lightly to Gaignun’s temple, still tethered to the machinery tracking all the vital functions that keep him alive but can’t come close to numerically measuring the nuance of his emotional state. “I love you.”
Gaignun smiles at him, at the worlds-weariness held in his eyes even if it doesn’t crease their corners, at the disheveled, sweat-soaked spikes of his short hair, at the expertly engineered synthetic materials arranged over his form as if the hospital bed were itself some sort of cockpit from which he’s still trying to fight the good fight. He kisses his forehead and holds his hand, sharing with him the impulsive impression of a recovery in Rivendell, of incurable aches alleviated by the Undying Lands, of having something, somewhere, someone to return home to at the end of all things. He rests his forehead against Jr.’s and closes his eyes. “I love you so much.”
Jr. runs his hand around to cradle the back of his head, careful not to move so much that it would snag his hair again. “I, um. I was gonna say, before they came in.” He chokes on a laugh, inhales sharply, wishes he could wipe his nose. “I could tell... I could feel you, I could feel you telling me you loved me through the link. It’s like remembering a dream you thought you forgot.”
“Like I said, I never left.” Gaignun sits up enough to keep holding his hand while he uses his right thumb to brush away the tears trailing towards the airline tubing. “I wouldn’t leave you here alone.”
There’s a vague, lingering impression of Gaignun, tensed up and trying to calm himself, his arms alternating between crossed over his chest or resting across his knees, too tall to make himself small and unobtrusive, too organic to camouflage himself against the muted grey and stark orange of the room’s seating, worried he’s in the way even when it’s been made clear that he’s not only welcome but encouraged to be present, pinging him through the link without much response, mentally sending a steady stream of unconditional love into a wavering uncertainty of whether Jr.’s online or offline as he’s physically stilled by a drip-feed of sedatives.
There’s a sharper, ingrained impression of Gaignun, alternating between inert and in pain, the then-recipient of complicated procedures to repair the damage done to his small frame from being riddled with bullets and thrashed against metal grating and left for dead until he was carried away by Jr., by Canaan, by Asher, by paramedics already overwhelmed with catastrophic losses of life, by a surgical team committed to intervening before yet another child was senselessly slain and counted among casualties instead of the shrinking list of survivors.
“I dreamt about holding you,” Jr. says, watching with red eyes as Gaignun worries. “I woke up and felt better.”
“We can make that a reality again.” Gaignun lies back down and returns to snuggling his side as affectionately as if they were in their own bed, as if there was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt. “I like when you hold me.”
“Good, because I like holding you.” Jr. brings his arms around him as completely as he can manage without tugging too disruptively at the distanced equipment, bringing his knee up to nudge against Gaignun’s and bringing both the blanket and sheet with it. “And I will always be here to hold you when you need me to, or just want me to.”
Gaignun kisses his sternum, right above where it disappears beneath the bandage. “And I will gladly do the same for you, if intravenous sedation or sheer exhaustion ever again get you to set down everyone else’s baggage for a while at some hypothetical point in the future.”
Jr. laughs. “I will always let you hold me, too, even if I’m stressing myself out. Maybe then in particular, if you can also convince me to hold still.”
“Maybe some mystic powers will grant me a miracle.” Gaignun runs his fingers from Jr.’s ribs, right below the bandage, and down along his waist to settle his hand on his hip. “It feels like someone’s looking out for us, for once.”
“We have at least three doctors trying to keep us alive, physically, spiritually, and mentally.” Jr. uses his right hand to pet Gaignun’s hair, where there’s nothing to prevent him from doing so, and soothes both of them for his efforts as he strokes through the soft strands and over his scalp. “And we’re looking out for each other.”
“All that, and you’ve got the fountain of youth.” Gaignun listens to Jr.’s heartbeat against his ear. “You’re a force of nature.”
“Nah, fuck that.” Jr. rolls over further, straining the dwindling slack of the wires and tubing as he gathers Gaignun into his arms and keeps him as close as he can manage. “Whenever we go, whatever happens, we’re gonna go out together. In style.”
Gaignun hugs him back, his hand flat to the bandages, chilled by the ice pack’s placement beneath his palm. “Should I let Lavare know, or are you intending to wear your birthday suit for the occasion?”
Jr. kisses the crown of his head and laughs again, against his hair. “I should probably get dressed, huh?”
“This is definitely the most expensive hotel room you’ve ever booked, so you should at least get your money’s worth if you want to keep sleeping.” Gaignun kisses his chest over the elastic bandage. “That said, this is an outpatient procedure, so we should hope you’re not spending the night.”
“Okay, yeah. You got me.” Jr. kisses his head another time, indulgent with no reason not to be, and breathes in the scent of his hair. “What button do we have to press to ask them to come back?”
“If we press enough of them at once, that ought to get someone’s attention.” Gaignun speaks into his chest, and there’s no indication he’s in any hurry to move. “But since we’re blessed and/or cursed with the technology of written language, I think there’s one that says it calls a nurse.”
“Sounds like that’s the one we want.” Jr. sighs, balancing the discomfort of his circumstances and the beginnings of pain along his back with the contentment of hugging Gaignun to his chest and the comfort of knowing they’re both still breathing. “Jin’s notepad was fucking awesome, by the way. I’m tempted to ask if he has any extra he’d sell me.”
“We have notebooks at home,” Gaignun faux-chides. “Let’s go home, and I’ll go with you, and you can have all the curry and notebooks you’ve ever dreamed of.”
“I think the nausea has worn off enough that I’m fucking starving, so that sounds like a plan to me.”
“While we’re discussing the mystical art of writing, you might appreciate this.” Gaignun pats the ice pack thoughtfully. “You know what they had on Lost Jerusalem?”
“Stuff called white out.”
Jr. considers this. “For covering ink?”
Gaignun nods against his chest. “For correcting mistakes.”
“Oh, bleak.” When he laughs, it’s with a sense of firm decision, dulled and at a distance, further behind him with each further ticking hand and footstep in forward motion. “But you’re not wrong.”
Reluctant to leave the warmth of the covers but finished with subjecting himself to the ice, Gaignun sits up enough to kiss Jr.’s cheek, then offers him his hand. “Remind me we should ask King how Josephine’s doing, now that you’re Dr. Hirad’s most recent feline patient.”
“We should send her a card. A mutual get well soon or something.” Jr. takes his hand with his left and sits up, and continues to hold it as he glances around his surroundings, far more alert than the first time he tried. “Where the fuck?”
“That’s the one.” Gaignun points to a device hanging from the side rail, within reach for this express purpose, glad to be helpful even or especially with simple, small, everyday things.
“Oh, duh.” Jr. leans over and presses the obvious button with his right thumb. He smiles at Gaignun as they sit together. “Thanks.”
Gaignun smiles back, squeezes his hand, and offers him a thumbs-up. “Always.”