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my little ribs around you

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X is shaken awake in the middle of the night, roughly enough to pop the recharging cable from its socket at the base of his neck, hands grabbing him and rolling him hard onto his back.

The force, the brusqueness of motion, is intimately familiar to him, as is the hair brushing his face. “Zero?” he asks, and tries to rub at his eyes with his hand, only to have his wrist wrenched away.

“Eyes,” comes Zero's muttered voice from above him. “Two of them. Hands —” A hand runs down his arm, finds the fingers at the end, squeezes too hard. Zero's breath is coming harsh and rough and audible. “Two of them. Ten fingers.” His hand scrabbles over X's chest. “Intact —” He's clearly talking more to himself than anything else, clenched teeth under his breath, a reassurance that what he's seeing and feeling is real. “Okay. Good. All right.”

The presence above him pulls back and vanishes.

X sits up, no longer groggy, and says to Zero's hurriedly retreating figure, “Nightmare?”

Zero nods, a single curt movement, then reaches for the door.

“Stay a bit,” protests X; Zero is trembling, breathing hard and fast to cool off a clearly overheated system. He's in a terrible state. “Don't leave so fast —”

He gets up, reaches out a hand, and Zero spins around, teeth bared. “Stay away from me.”

Oh. The second part of what Zero must have been dreaming about clicks into place, and X's hand drops to his side.

“It’ll all right —” he begins, moving to get up, and Zero bristles. He decides to stay where he is. “It’s all right. I’m not going —” He bites his tongue, amends the reflexive reassurance to fit the situation. “You’re not going to hurt me. It’s fine.”

Zero, tense and frozen, doesn’t move. The dim light from the socket of the recharger bed reflects off the lens inside his eye, the pupil shining like a cat’s.

“Do you want to hurt me?”

A vigorous shake of the head.

“Then you won’t. It’s fine.” X tries to speak calmly, softly. “It was a dream, it wasn’t real, you’re awake now and you’re not going to hurt me.”

Slowly, very slowly, as though making a deliberate effort, Zero lets himself relax.

“Do you want to come back here?”

Zero moves back toward him as though deep underwater. X has to repeat, “I know you’re not going to hurt me.”

“Sometimes I wish you didn’t trust me so much,” murmurs Zero, rough and raw and aching, and X’s heart breaks a little upon hearing that; he reaches out and takes Zero’s hand, which he’s now close enough to do.

“They’re just dreams,” he says, soothingly. “You won’t hurt me. You don’t want to, so you won’t. Right?”

Zero sits slowly down next to X, lets himself be drawn into X’s arms. He’s still trembling.

The light from the recharger bed pulses softly in the dark.

“I keep seeing it,” says Zero hollowly, at length. “All the ways —” His voice breaks off as though swallowed in on itself. “I keep seeing myself hurting you. Killing you. Torturing you.” The trembling intensifies. “I don’t — I’d never do that. I’d never do that to you. But I keep seeing it. It makes me sick. I wake up and it’s —” His voice chokes off again.

All X can do is hold him, and rub his back as gently as he can.

Wait, comes the thought; maybe… maybe that’s not all he can do.

He pulls away enough to make eye contact with Zero.

“Do you want me,” he says, before he can think too much about the absurdity of what he’s asking, “to interface with you? I could try to get in there, smooth things over a little —”

Zero has gone still.

“Sorry, I know that’s too personal,” says X, feeling his face grow warm and flustered, “never mind, I —”

“No,” says Zero, “no, it’s all right,” and his hand comes up to cup X’s face, pulling him in.

X kisses him first before he does anything else, a soft and lingering contact, then breaks away in order to pull Zero in and press the crystals on their foreheads together.

He doesn’t know what he was expecting, but in the intuitive way, devoid of sight or sound, that these things happen, a menu presents itself. Would he like to access any of the following recipients?: DWN-∞. Of course there isn’t any other option on the menu. He hits the button that will let him into Zero’s soul, breathless with the anticipation —

— and is met with a password screen.

As it turns out here are several layers of passwords to get through, each dozens of digits long, each practically uncrackable. Zero unlocks each one for him, opening all the doors before him — silently letting him in. X takes a breath before slipping through the last one, and —

Zero’s mind, the entirety of it, makes shivering contact with his.

If they were human he might compare it to reaching through someone’s ribs and touching the quick—beating heart. Distantly, in his own body, he hears himself gasp, feels Zero’s fingers tighten on his shoulders. Sharp, rough, swirling with subdued intensity — this is Zero, this is the thrum of his thoughts and his essence laid bare before him. He can feel what Zero is feeling — feel his own hands on the back of the neck. It’s dizzying. It’s electrifying, almost overwhelming. They could remain like this for hours, souls pressed together, breathing each other in.

But he came here for a reason. A sprawling forest of code, labyrinths upon labyrinths, the infinitely complex connections from part to part that can create something as subtle and multilayered as a soul — X pinpoints where the memory centers are as best as he can and heads there. Looming in the background, impossible to ignore, is a fortress of firewalls, locked and double-locked; the crawling seething mass of glitched data, of virus, remains quarantined behind there; not fixed, simply unable to keep spreading. Zero has to live with that pressure at the back of his mind every day of his life —

X stops by there, throws a few extra chains of code around it, adds a few more locks. Zero snorts. Won’t change much.

I’m trying to be helpful. X is up near the memory centers; a vast and swirling archive of information, detail, emotion, every thing that Zero has experienced that he can remember. He’s deep inside Zero’s soul now, far deeper than a more normal antivirus or troubleshooting probe would go; it’s a feeling similar to ears popping, although not entirely unpleasant. The pressure of Zero’s very being is warm and comfortable around him.

I like feeling you here too, replies Zero; of course he heard X’s thoughts, as much as X can hear his. Zero thinks X’s soul is calming, oceanlike in its reserves of compassion, the depths of it troubled with conflict. The thought darts across the landscape of Zero’s mind that he doesn’t deserve someone this compassionate; X responds with the thought and sensation of a silencing kiss. He can’t do it physically; to even move would completely shatter his focus.

So, the memory banks. This is the infinitely tricky boundary between programming and telepathy; the kind of thing where if you think too hard about what you’re doing — if you look down off the tightrope — everything falls apart. X dimly thinks, or feels, that inserting his entire being into Zero’s own memory banks would be disastrous; that Zero would be unable to handle having two lifetimes’ worth of memories in his head and might simply overload. So he extends a probe of questing concentration instead, pushing through Zero’s life experiences, feeling glimpses of sight and sound brush past.

In the center of Zero’s memory, like the eye of a storm — or maybe trailing from its underbelly, like threads from behind embroidery — or any number of things in the shapeless space they inhabit — are the tangled-together swirls of thought that manifest in dreams, and X drifts among them, feeling the way they snarl together. Memories of being with friends intertwine with memories of killing; the knowledge of the virus inside him stains memories of daily life; and always there is X, his bond with X, his love for X, tangled together with the thread I am dangerous. I hurt. I kill.

No wonder he’s been having nightmares.

So X undoes the tangles as well as he can. He sorts the positive memories together and the negative memories together, keeps them well clear of each other, and among the threads of Zero’s conviction that he is dangerous he leaves a memory of laughing together with Zero, carefree and happy, like a kiss pressed to a bruise. Then he withdraws, with a feeling like slowly coming up to the surface of deep water, slowly ascending from the dark and quiet deep to air and reality once more.

He blinks. Zero blinks.

The light of the recharger bed pulses a gently blue in the low—lit dark; the room is soft and solid all around them in the quiet.

“Are you feeling better?” he asks. The connection between them seems to have shut itself off as he pulled out; everything feels frighteningly cold and lonely without Zero’s presence entwined with his.

“I think,” says Zero slowly. “Let me run diagnostics…”

There’s a pause while his eyes grow unfocused; after a while he blinks and his gaze clears. “There’s been extra defragmentation done,” he says. “In the memory storage overflow.”

“Oh,” murmurs X, “is that what I was doing?” He feels very tired, all of a sudden. It took a lot of focus to do... all that.

Zero’s arms go around him, firm, supporting; the shaking has stopped. “You should sleep.” More quietly he adds, “I woke you up. Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” X yawns, and catches Zero’s wrist. “You should sleep too.”

Zero hesitates. “You mean — here?”

“If you want.” The memory of how it felt to be inside Zero’s core, warm and secure, lingers in his mind; falling asleep beside him sounds like a reasonable facsimile thereof. And he hasn’t entirely forgotten how wild and haunted Zero looked ten minutes ago, and the instinct of comfort that came with that.

Zero hesitates for a long time, body tense. X has to add, “You won’t hurt me. It’ll be fine.”

“I know,” says Zero, and finally settles in beside X, catlike in the slowness and deliberation with which he lies down and makes himself comfortable. X, in some relief, rummages for the backup cord and plugs it in at the back of Zero’s neck; Zero returns the favor, his touch warm and soft. He is only ever soft like this around X…

X rearranges himself, gets an arm around Zero, feels him settle into the touch. “Good night,” he says, “sweet dreams.”

“I’m sure they will be,” murmurs Zero, and closes his eyes, and X follows suit.