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Nine Lives

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66 days until Glorification

The first time the boy appears, Tyler mistakes him for the sun.

And not in a grand allegory kind of way, either. He’s on the roof again, in the early morning hours, before the shroud of darkness has lifted from the city. He’s been doing this for awhile now – how long, he’s not really sure. The past folds in on itself in Dema. The future is easier to keep count of.

Despite the curfew, despite the threat of smearing if he’s discovered, Tyler finds himself doing it again – climbing the eastern stairwell of his building, pushing through the door to the roof, and settling against a long metal pipe to watch the beginnings of sunlight creep over the city’s outer wall. It gives him a feeling that he never gets anywhere else inside this place; like something bigger than his own consciousness exists. Something bigger than Vialism.

On the day the boy appears, Tyler gets there early. Sleep has been growing harder and harder to chase as the Assemblage draws nearer, and he climbs up to the roof for a lack of anything better to do. The long pipe is cold against the small of his back, even in the cloying humidity of their district. Like always, he faces east, even though it places him at an awkward angle – overlooking the back end of their slice of the city, towards the outer wall, and whatever lies beyond.

Already, the sky is beginning to lighten.

He blinks – and in the next moment, a bright golden mass is in front of him, so blazing and sudden, so sun-like, that Tyler instinctively shields his eyes, leaning back so fast that his head slams against the metal of the pipe, and now he’s seeing every kind of stars.

It only takes a few more rapid blinks for him to realize that it’s a person standing before him, and not a celestial body. And yet, his confusion wasn’t unwarranted: the boy, the man, is dressed in the color of the sun. It’s a color that he’s never seen anywhere except in the sun’s brilliant glow, the radiant heat it casts over the city, the sharp beams that peak through the clouds in the later afternoon. That color was half the reason Tyler was up here in the first place.

Reality catches up to him quickly, and he tries to scramble up, to form words, ready-made excuses about sleepwalking on his tongue. If this is a Watcher or a Regulator, he’ll be on his knees for a month doing penance for breaking curfew. But the man makes no move towards him, makes no move at all.

Instead, he speaks.

“Not every day you see a worshipper breaking the rules,” he says. At least, Tyler thinks he does. He’s too darkly silhouetted for Tyler to see if his mouth really moved.

“You’re one to talk,” is the only thing Tyler can think to say, his voice rough with disuse. He can’t remember the last time someone had spoken to him so casually.

The sun-colored man shifts his position, and Tyler realizes that his startled senses had exaggerated the amount of the color on his body. And yet Tyler marvels at his appearance, at the earthy color of his pants and hoodie, the cap on his head, the bright unnamable color that stripes and crosses over his heart, above his knee.

“Huh,” is all he says, striding past where Tyler is half-leaning half-crouching, surveying him from another angle.

For a moment, it looks like he’s going to pass Tyler by, continue on his way - but he balks, taking a few steps backward, and crouching down.

“What’s someone like you doing up here?”

Something unfamiliar passes through Tyler’s chest, something warm, like the sun is hitting his insides the way it hits his face. He doesn’t answer - he has nothing to say.

“I’m Josh,” the man goes on, and the confidence in his voice astounds Tyler. He’s never heard a citizen say their name with such confidence. Most people are just guessing, if they say anything at all. Only Bishops have real names here.

“It’s okay,” Josh hums, sensing Tyler’s shock. “I know you don’t remember your name.”

“I –“ he stammers, but can’t think of anything else to say. It’s true. The heat wells up quickly in his chest, and before he can stop it happening, the corners of his eyes are prickling and he’s tensing his throat, turning away.

He only stops when the weight of a hand settles on his shoulder.

“Don’t even worry about it,” says the voice attached to the hand, and when Tyler looks up again, blinking back his tears, he can’t help but notice that Josh’s eyes are unlike any he’s ever seen, unlike the cold unseeing irises of the Vialists, or the Bishops’, glowing red. These eyes are so bright in their brown, they could almost be mistaken for gold.

It’s enough to make him forget his tears.

Josh crouches down, letting his backpack slide down his shoulders, leaning back against the lip of the roof and facing Tyler head-on. He just stares at him, head tilted a little, like Tyler is an interesting rock or flower or something that he’d stopped to examine on his way home.

The sun-hot feeling inside Tyler burns warmer, but he doesn’t know why. He can’t remember ever being this close to someone, let alone a stranger.

It’s Tyler who breaks the silence.

“I like watching the sun come up,” he offers by way of explanation. The man doesn’t seem like the type to report him to the Bishops, but he still feels the need to make an excuse for his flagrant and habitual disregard of the rules.

Josh raises an eyebrow. “Now that’s something you don’t hear very often on this side of the wall.”

Tyler understands the words on their own, understands how they work together semantically, but still can’t make sense of it.

“You like to watch the sun come up,” Josh echoes back at him, leaning his head on his own arm to look over at him. “Why? What about it?”

The question frustrates Tyler. These aren’t the kind of questions he’s become accustomed to answering. He’s used to the dark, parabolic questions of the Bishops, uttered only to be repeated and made into dogma. He’s used to Clancy’s probing existential questions, bordering on blasphemy, the kind of questions that keep him up at night. But no one has asked him about himself for as long as he can remember.

“I don’t know,” is the only answer he can give, and it makes his frustration build, double over on itself. “Does it matter? I’m going to be Glorified soon, and then none of it will really matter, will it?”

Josh makes a scoffing sound that he can’t interpret. It’s only now, only after he’s starting to register the air of dissent in Josh’s tone, that Tyler begins to put the pieces together. The bulging backpack, the strange colored clothes, the fact that he’s certain he’s never seen Josh around Nico’s district before.

Josh interrupts his train of thought.

“You ever thought about what would happen if you just didn’t attend the Assemblage?” he says, a glint in his eye that hadn’t been there before. “You ever wonder if maybe Glorification isn’t the only way to be free?”

Tyler just stares. He didn’t know words were allowed to go together that way. He doesn’t understand.

“Not many people around here care about shit like sunrises. Just food for thought.”

Tyler flinches at the curse, and Josh grins, touching him on the shoulder. He feels it in his whole body.

“You’re not from here,” he says quietly, finally understanding.

Josh shakes his head, just slightly, only enough for Tyler to see. Only for him.

“You’re from out there.

A nod. A half-smile.

Tyler’s going to say something else, something disbelieving or awed or fearful - but before he can make his lungs work, it happens. He forgot to even look for it, but now it’s here, the sun, rising in a brilliant orb behind Josh, throwing him into sharp, dark relief.

His eyes dance orange in the new light of morning, and Tyler feels a inexplicable lurch in his chest, knocked unsteady by the sudden but incontrovertible realization that he has seen Josh before. He has no idea where the feeling comes from, but it’s as solid and factual as anything he’s ever known. He’s sure that he has never seen him within the city walls, and yet he is equally sure that Josh is not a stranger, that he has known him, and been known by him - that he’s seen those eyes before, in another context, in another life.

The sun emerges from behind Josh, and Tyler shields his eyes, squinting and throwing a forearm over his face to block out the blinding light.

When he opens them again, Josh is gone.

*

There are no mirrors in Tyler’s room. There is no bathtub, and the sink doesn’t have a stopper. Reflections have been outlawed by the Bishops for as long as Tyler can remember. Vanity is unholy.

The windows have glass – that’s the only reflective surface. Tyler knows that window panes should show him a mirror image, but these ones never have. He’s sure that it’s something to do with the light from the Vials, unlike the sunlight, unlike any light Tyler can remember, but he doesn’t question it. No one does.

He worships every morning with the rest of Nico’s, solemn and pious in the central towers. He repeats the tenets of Glory alongside the others:

Doubt is Fear.
Faith is Freedom.
Order is Love.

In his head, there’s an image of a boy – a young man; a swatch of fluffy brown hair, a smattering of tattoos. It must be him; he knows it is, wakes every morning to the sight of the tattooed rings around his arms, the crosses on his shoulder and chest. He can feel the length of his hair, tufted in the front and short on the sides, the tan of his skin, the muscles in his thighs and his calves.

Tyler knows that the man from his head is him. He just doesn’t know who that man is.

He is a citizen, a devout Vialist, an inhabitant of Nico’s district – he knows these facts to be incontrovertible. And yet, Tyler does not know his name.

*

361 days until Glorification

Tyler knew right away that Clancy wasn’t like the others. People simply didn’t act like that here; they didn’t talk for no reason, or write, or question. Doubt is fear.

And yet, Clancy marches to a different drum.

Tyler doesn’t remember much, but he remembers meeting Clancy as if the moment is branded on the inside of his skull. Exact dates are hard to pinpoint, but he knows it happened near his beginning, his first few days in Dema, at a normal secondmeal in the canteen. One minute he’s alone with his food, staring blankly ahead, and the next instant there’s someone in his line of vision, hunched over and scribbling in a leatherbound book.

The boy is small, thin, pale - younger than Tyler, maybe, but not by much. He looks up at him from whatever he’s writing, peering strangely into his eyes. Tyler swears he wasn’t sitting there a minute before.

“How long have you been here?” the boy says. His appearance is something like what Tyler thinks he himself is supposed to look like. Briefly, he wonders if this is his reflection. But no - the tattoos, the teeth. It’s another person.

“Not long, I think,” Tyler says. “I’m waiting to be Glorified in 361 days.”

“I already know that,” Clancy says briskly. “But how many times have you been here before?”

Tyler shakes his head, uncomprehending, and Clancy mirrors the gesture, shaking fast and vigorous.

“I thought you looked different,” he says. “But you’re like the rest of them. Something’s not fucking right, but you can’t see it.”

Tyler flinches at the curse, surprised to hear it coming from the mouth of someone whose slight, innocent appearance seems to ooze naïveté. All he can do is open his mouth, and close it again; It’s like Tyler doesn’t have the vocabulary for this conversation, like he hasn’t been equipped with the skillset, programmed with the proper words and feelings.

Clancy seems to know this.

He looks Tyler in the eye, straight and hard and fast, and something about him is different - unlike the mindless drones around him, unlike Tyler himself.

“Call me Clancy,” he says pointedly, firmly, a fire lit behind his eyes. “And then, figure out what to call yourself. That’s the first step.”

Tyler swallows.

“The first step towards what?”

Clancy flips the journal closed.

“Being a person.”

The next moment, he’s gone.

*

The oceans come to Tyler in his sleep. Vast expanses of water, sometimes black and stormy, sometimes placid and clear as the sky. In dreams, on the shore, he can almost see his reflection. He almost knows who he is.

On the nights when the dreams are at their most vivid, Tyler wakes in pools, his back sweat-soaked, the sheets damp and warm. It’s the closest thing he knows to swimming.

*

63 days until Glorification

It’s another three days before Josh comes again.

Tyler would be lying if he claimed not to be waiting for him. Regardless, he gets up early; his morning-time rooftop excursions have long since become habit, his own ritual, separate from the Vialists’ paralyzing tenets of Glory. His own little worship, every morning. A different kind of light. By the third day, he’s beginning to wonder if Josh was a dream, a hallucination, an illusion brought about by the angle of the sunlight and Tyler’s lack of sleep.

The sun breaches the horizon, casts its glowing light on Nico’s rooftops - and all at once, the boy is there.

“You,” Josh says, mildly surprised, and it’s like the single pronoun calls Tyler into existence. He’s there in a way he hadn’t been before - not a citizen, not an Unglorified, but somehow, miraculously, himself. Nameless, identityless, but himself.

“Me,” Tyler agrees, the word unfamiliar on his tongue.

“You really can’t get enough of that sunrise, huh?” Josh presses, and Tyler watches the event of dawn happen all over again in the corners of his smile, the way they rise up over his face and light the universe.

He shrugs, squints his eyes in the sun’s light.

“I like the color,” he admits.

Josh’s smile grows brighter, and he lets out a gentle laugh that makes Tyler inexplicably shiver. He doesn’t ask to sit this time, but settles across from Tyler regardless, sinking down until the sun silhouettes him entirely.

“It’s called yellow, you know,” Josh says.

Tyler frowns.

“What is?”

“The color,” Josh smiles. He points to his chest, the neon stripes crossing it. “It’s called yellow. That’s what we call it, anyway. It was my favorite color too when I was in here - even before I knew it had a name.”

“You used to live here?” Tyler blurts.

He’s heard of the outsiders of course, the bandits who make their nomadic home outside of Dema’s walls, but he has never truly bothered to consider the possibility that they’d once been in his position, inside the city. Escape from this place was an impossibility, a reality that he couldn’t wrap his mind around. It simply didn’t exist. And why would it? Dema was simple, safe.

Josh shrugs off his backpack, the same one as last time, and holds it up by way of answer. He unzips the bag, and Tyler glimpses tin cans, scraps of bread wrapped in cloth, and dozens of the small black bottles of water that are issued at every meal.

“How else would I know where to go for supplies?”

Somehow, this act of absolute disobedience and unrest, this total disregard for order, does not surprise Tyler. The rules of the Vialists, he’s learning, have no bearing where Josh is concerned. He’s more interested, he finds, in how Josh can accomplish something that Tyler is sure would have any citizen locked in the central towers and denied Glorification.

It’s like Josh knows what he’s thinking, like he can see behind Tyler’s eyes into the invisible place where he keeps his thoughts.

“Once you learn the Bishops’ patterns,” Josh tells him, leaning forward like he’s recounting a secret, “their rules are meaningless. It’s not so much about breaking the rules as it is about deciding that they don’t apply to you.”

Tyler wraps his arms around his own torso, as if Josh’s disobedience is something contagious that he could protect himself from. And yet, he makes no move to stop him from talking. He wants to know.

“If you can understand their weak points, what they’re afraid of,” Josh goes on, heat in his voice, “you realize that this is less of a prison than you thought. There are ways out of the walls if you try hard enough. If you want badly enough to leave.”

It shows on Josh’s face - he knows Tyler has never allowed such an idea to infiltrate his regimented consciousness.

He’s patient, tolerant of Tyler’s innocence. Tyler is grateful.

The sun crests over the top of Josh’s head, making his eyes flash with warm color; with yellow. If Tyler remembered the word beauty, he wouldn’t hesitate to use it.

*
55 days until Glorification

It’s a week later, Josh casually mentions the word family, and it’s strangely familiar to Tyler in the same way that Josh’s name was. It furrows his brow, narrows his eyes, as the gears in his head churn fervidly.

Josh watches him think for a few seconds, and then speaks, tentative.

“Do you have any family?”

It’s automatic, the way Tyler shakes his head. No one’s ever asked him, but he doesn’t have to think about it.

“I live alone.”

Not everyone in Dema is like him - there are parents, children, siblings, even in his own hallway. But not for Tyler. It’s just him. He’s never known it to be any other way.

“I know that,” Josh says, shaking his head. “That’s not what I mean.”

They’re both leaning on the pipe this time, Josh’s backpack open between them, half as heavy as it was before they opened two cans of peaches and leaned forward to eat them, so the juice could run off their fingers and back into the tins. It’s the exact same food Tyler eats in the canteen every day, but on the roof, in the sunlight, with the rebellious yellow boy, the fruit tastes like a delicacy.

Tyler wipes syrup-sticky fingers on his pants.

“Then what did you mean?”

Josh shrugs, digs for more peaches in his backpack, but emerges with a roll of toilet paper instead. He laughs

“Outside, I guess,” Josh goes on. “Do you remember if you have any family outside? We don’t have to talk about this,” he adds, head tilted at Tyler when he sees his strained expression. But Tyler wants to. It’s on the tip of his tongue.

“I remember someone,” Tyler admits. “A girl.”

Josh nods.

“A sister?”

Tyler thinks of the families in his building.

“I think so,” he says. “She’s my family, I think. I know there are more, but she’s the one I remember.”

He doesn’t tell Josh that he has flashes of other faces in his dreams, as dark and vague and unforgiving.

Tyler shakes off the feeling. “It doesn’t matter anyway, does it? I’m here now.”

Automatically, unthinkingly, he picks at the toilet paper where Josh set it down, shredding a square into tiny white strips that settle on the cement between them like snow. Josh looks fondly at his hands and their pointless, nervous work.

“Family doesn’t have to be your blood, you know? It’s just about who’s important to you. Who you spend time with. I have family out there,” he says, gesturing to the horizon, “folks who I’m not related to, but who I’d die for. You know?”

He wishes he knew. If family simply comprises who he spends the most time with - is Josh family? Is Clancy?

But Clancy’s barely there, always scribbling, never making sense. Tyler doesn’t know anything about him.

Josh, though - it’s like he’s known him in another life, like they’ve been here before. He can’t explain it, can’t even be sure the feeling is real, but it’s there, between them, every time they’re together. He wonders if Josh feels it too, the inexplicable familiarity of their dynamic.

He rationalizes it with the notion that Josh is an outsider. Of course he feels different from everyone else. He doesn’t know how to believe that it could be anything else, or even what anything else would entail.

*

Clancy’s next to him at thirdmeal, and Tyler’s mind is elsewhere. Specifically, it’s back up on the roof.

Clancy’s talking, but Tyler’s seeing yellow.

“They do that on purpose,” he says, pointing a dirty finger at the water bottle that Tyler is holding to his lips. “Black, matte. Opaque. Water is a mirror.”

Tyler frowns, shakes his head, drinks from the black bottle; he marvels at Clancy’s blurred, soft edges, like he’s just half a reality away from everyone else in Dema. Even Josh is more solid than he is, and Tyler has begun to question whether Josh is even made of the same stuff that the rest of them are, whether he’s even human, whether he even could be.

“It’s just a water bottle,” Tyler tells him. “This is what water bottles look like.

“That’s not what they always looked like,” Clancy says gravely, and when Tyler looks up from his peas again, he’s gone. Always coming and going. Tyler wonders where he goes.

*
On a Wednesday, Josh brings him a single yellow flower.

“They grow on the outside,” he tells him, grin as big as the sun.

Tyler’s blush stays on his cheeks long after Josh has disappeared off the roof, over the wall. He makes his way downstairs to his bedroom, and pulls open a drawer to drop the flower inside.

Five yellow flowers, identical to the one in his hand, sit idle there. Tyler doesn’t remember. Tyler doesn’t question it.

*

38 days until Glorification

He marches on.

The Assemblage is in sight. Life is simple for the Unglorifieds - worship, firstmeal, work, secondmeal, more work, thirdmeal, curfew. Abnormalities bookend Tyler’s days - his sunrise ritual in the morning, his vast, dark, dreams, oceanic and forbidden, at night.

Tyler works in maintenance; specifically, he’s a custodian. His work jumpsuit is the same mottled earth color as his other district-issued clothes. He can’t remember how he got there, and every morning, he’s surprised to find how familiar the broom feels in his hands.

Every night, Tyler’s amazed to find that dreams feel more real than reality does. He’s not sure which is which.

*

The first breach happens when Tyler’s hovering in the moments before sleep.

He feels it before he sees or hears it - the rumbling of dozens and dozens of feet hitting pavement, making the glass in his windows vibrate slightly in their frames. He’s heard of breaches, sure - but up until now, they’ve been as fleeting and insubstantial, as hypothetical, as the Banditos were.

The vibrations are followed by voices, and then by the flicker of torchlights. Tyler’s at the window in seconds, all vestiges of sleep wrested from his body the minute he touches the glass. The angle is awkward, strange, but he can see enough to confirm his instincts. They’re here. Josh’s people - they’ve come inside.

Josh.

By the time the fog of his breath fades from the windowpane, Tyler’s gone, out the door and down the hallway, taking the stairs two at a time. It’s far after curfew, but it doesn’t matter - he doubts that the Watchers will be on the lookout for citizens in the uproar outside. They’re after the outlaws.

They’re after Josh.

The night air hits him square on the chest. He doesn’t think it’s ever been this cold inside the walls. The street is quiet at first, eerily so, but he follows another flicker of torchlight around the corner of the neighboring building, and it’s like he’s stepped into another world.

The yellow is the first thing he notices. All of them have it, in strips and stripes, bandanas and belts, like a strange, moving constellation. Like the sun has fallen to earth, and broken on impact. All of them are yellow - and there are more than he can count, huddled in the courtyard that separates Tyler’s building from the three others in Nico’s district.

He wonders if they are here for supplies - but why would they be staying in one place, and why so many? And if they’re here to disrupt the system, to overpower the Bishops, why stay in place like this? It doesn’t make sense to Tyler.

There’s a flutter of movement among the group, and he dares to inch closer, peeking around the corner just in time to see someone bursting out of an alleyway opposite him, into the center of the clearing. He’s so distracted by the way her blonde braids rest against her collar bones, that it takes him several seconds to realize the obvious: she’s not wearing yellow. She’s like him.

The Banditos move quickly, encircling her. For a minute, Tyler’s afraid they’re going to attack - but then one of them is stepping forward - solid looking, feminine, a yellow bandana over a long brown ponytail. She approaches the blonde girl slowly, and then all at once, and Tyler can barely make believe it -

They’re embracing. It’s tight, desperate even, and it makes Tyler’s chest go numb with something he almost dares to call envy.

He doesn’t get a chance to dwell on it. Dozens of faces whip around to stare in his direction, and for a moment he’s sure he’s been spotted - but understanding sets in when he registers the sound of hoofbeats from behind him, and instinct flattens him against the wall.

He can tell which one it is, but he knows a Bishop when he sees one. Red cape flapping, horse snorting, they scatter the idling crowd. Yellow spills into alleyways like rivers of gold, and as quickly as the Banditos appeared, they’re slipping away.

Tyler looks for Josh, but he could be any of them, all of them. He’s nowhere. Tyler thinks he’d know.

Get out.”

Fingers wrap around his wrist, as cold and insubstantial as a ghost, chilling him to the bone.

“Where the fuck did you come from?” Tyler spits at Clancy, and each one of them looks as shocked as the other at Tyler’s profanity.

“Breach,” Clancy says briskly. “Realities are bleeding together. But screw that right now - run.”

Tyler doesn’t think, he just follows. If Josh was here, he’s gone by now. Clancy in front of him, they sprint back down the alley, kicking up pebbles and dust, trying not to look up at the windows of the building around him. He’s afraid he’ll see faces looking back at him, people who would report him to the Watchers without second thought.

They tumble into Tyler’s room like stones.

“They got another,” Clancy says sharply, rushing to peer out the window. Tyler’s out of breath, leaning against the door frame and clutching his side, not sure he’ll ever breathe at a normal speed again - but Clancy seems unaffected, like their sprint had been nothing more than a leisurely stroll.

“Got another?” Tyler pants out. “Another what?”

But he thinks of the girl with the blonde braids, and he already knows the answer.

“Another one of you,” Clancy tells him. “And by the looks of it, they escaped.

“Which Bishop was that?” Tyler wonders, shaking his head, trying to make sense of it all.

“Sacarver,” Clancy says immediately.

Back and forth, Tyler can’t stop shaking. He doesn’t understand. “How do you know?

Clancy shrugs. “I pay attention. I’ve seen that girl around Sacarver’s district before.”

His head is getting waterlogged, oceans of disconnected words and polarized ideas crowding in on his consciousness. He shakes his head, and shakes his head, until he can’t stand it anymore.

“When you grabbed my arm back there,” Tyler blurts. “It didn’t feel right.”

“No,” Clancy replies, coming closer, eyes right on him. He’s so slight, so thin and pale, so much less present than everyone else.

“No?”

Clancy shakes his head vehemently, and Tyler swears, he fucking swears he can see a blurry afterimage every time he moves. “No. Do you not understand by now? What you felt, when I grabbed you - it felt real. You’ve just forgotten what real feels like.”

Tyler wants to scream. He wants to knock down walls.

“This is real,” he insists, gesturing around them, gesturing outside, at the city, at Josh, wherever he is. “How could this not be real?”

Clancy looks almost menacing, but he softens after a moment, tamer.

“I can’t remember,” he admits bitterly. “But I know it’s not.”

Tyler opens his mouth to reply, to demand an explanation - but Clancy is already gone, disappearing before Tyler’s very eyes like an apparition. Like an error of physics, a trick of the light. He’s simply there, and then he’s not.

By the time Tyler’s back in bed, on the verge of watery oblivion, he’s beginning to wonder if it was all a dream.

*

29 days until Glorification

Since following Tyler upstairs after the breach, Clancy’s no longer shy about appearing in his room at all hours. If Tyler didn’t know better, he’d call him a ghost. If not that, then something like an unfriendly dog, always lurking around, wanting attention, but biting when you got too close.

“What are you writing?” Tyler finally spits out, annoyed, in the small hours of one morning when the sound of Clancy’s scratching pulls him out of sleep.

He sees Clancy snap his head up.

“It’s just…” he swallows, and Tyler swears he can see the edges around his body falter and refocus, like his whole person is resetting. “It’s just another attempt.”

He doesn’t ask. Instead, he says:

“How do you know? That this isn’t real?”

Clancy studies him, the haunting light of the Vials making him look even more ghostly than usual. “Let me ask you this. What does Dema mean?”

Tyler blinks. “It’s just the name of the city. It’s just a normal name, like any other.”

But Clancy shakes his head, unsatisfied. “No, no, no,” he repeats, looking like a child the way he wags his head back and forth. “No. Think. What other cities can you think of? What are other cities called?”

Tyler rakes a hand through his hair, wracking his brain, trying to chase a hundred names that keep flying off the tip of his tongue. He can almost see the shape of one word pressing against the back of his eyelids, a crescent moon and then a full one, a string of letters – but it’s gone as soon as it came, nothing more than a blank space left in its place, as if someone had censored the name, stretched tape over it.

He’s starting to cry again, and he hates himself for it. He doesn’t know who he is, but he still manages to hate himself.

“Exactly,” Clancy says. “You can’t think of a single one. They don’t want you to know who you are.”

He stands, hovering over Tyler.

“Real cities don’t have walls, misty-eyes. They’re trying to take who you are.”

Tyler rolls over and pretends Clancy isn’t there.

*
Tyler wakes briefly in the night, long enough only to entertain the jarring possibility that he might not be real.

*
The next morning brings rain, and Tyler stays inside. So does everyone else. Rain is rare here, but when it comes, the Bishops implement a round-the-clock curfew. No one in Dema owns an umbrella – they will never need it.

Tyler hates the rain.

He hates rain for the same reason he loves the sun. There’s something about the artificial light of the Vials - the only light he has available to him at night, and on dark rainy days like this one - with its eerie glow, almost blinding, swallowing up reflections like they’d never existed. He loves the sunrise because it lets him imagine things beyond himself. The rain reminds him that he has no self. No name. No reflection. If Josh and Clancy couldn’t see him, talk to him, Tyler might be convinced that he doesn’t exist.

He finds a can of tuna fish with a tab lid in the cupboard, probably months old. There are no meals served on rain days, but they are rare enough that people are expected to make do with their limited rations, issued sparingly for situations like this one. If you waste your rations, you go hungry on rain days. Tyler has learned this the hard way. He can’t remember the event itself, can’t remember either blowing through the rations or finding himself without food - but even though the events are foggy, the impression has remained. He’s used to it.

Tyler’s so engrossed in his food, so interested in the way the tuna flakes apart at the introduction of his fork, that he misses the knock on the door, misses it again when it comes a second time. He doesn’t register that someone has opened the it until Josh is dripping rainwater onto his floor.

“Wh -” Tyler startles, jumping up and staring at the figure in his entryway.

“Hi,” is Josh’s reply, rivulets of water running down the yellow tape that crosses his clothes, the only place where it isn’t sinking in and darkening the fabric. He chokes out a greeting in response, and Josh’s smile grows.

“You missed the sunrise,” Josh goes on.

“Ha.”

Josh raises an eyebrow, and Tyler realizes that he’s serious.

“I really don’t think there would have been anything to see,” he says slowly, frowning.

Josh shrugs. “The sun still rises, even when it’s hidden by the clouds.”

Tyler’s never heard anyone talk the way he does - in metaphors and layers, seeing beyond what’s right in front of him. Beyond Dema and its precepts and platitudes. He talks about the sun behind the storm as if he’s been there, up above the clouds. Tyler wonders if everyone outside the city’s walls talks and thinks and lives this way.

He’s so caught up in his thoughts that he doesn’t notice Josh moving closer, is taken by surprise when his daydream is broken by a hand on his forearm.

“Come with me,” Josh says, just barely tugging. “There’s something I want to show you.”

Something strong fills Tyler’s throat, and he can’t tell if it’s excitement or dread, or something in between.

“We’re not allowed out in the rain,” he says, feeling stupid for stating the obvious.

“Right,” Josh laughs, “which means the Bishops won’t be out either. Even the Watchers hate the rain. They have you all so entirely under their thumbs, there’s no need to regulate you anymore”

Tyler tries not to think too hard about this.

“It’s wet,” he points out.

“So put on a jacket.”

“I could be smeared.” It’s his last defense.

Something flickers across Josh’s eyes, and it makes his breath hitch in his chest.

“There are worse things,” he tells him, “than being smeared.”

Tyler takes him at his word.

It takes only a few minutes for Tyler to locate the canvas jacket in the sparse contents of his closet. When he slips it on over his gray sweater, he feels almost giddy with the rebelliousness of what he’s about to do. Even though he’s technically been breaking curfew for months now by watching the sunrise, this feels different, less innocuous. He doesn’t know where Josh is taking him, but he also doesn’t care - somewhere along the way, inexplicably, Josh has gained his trust.

The halls of his building are eerily quiet, and they make their escape unnoticed. It’s only once they make it to the entryway that Tyler begins to worry about the possibility of people looking out their windows, wonders whether his neighbors would call for the Watchers if they saw the two of them breaking the rain curfew.

There’s a huge set of Vials in the middle of the lobby, interlocking and looming, and it only takes one glance at them to override Tyler’s fear of the rain. He’d almost rather be smeared than have to spend another moment cooped up insight with that not-quite-light, vivid and soporific, like every second in its presence strips another piece of him away.

Tyler jerks as something brushes against him, and then feels his alarm give way to giddiness as he realizes that Josh has taken his hand. Holding hands. It’s sacrilege, he knows, but it feels far too good for Tyler to care.

“You’re gonna be alright,” Josh promises quietly, voice saturated with something almost like glee.

Tyler nods in response, looking down at their clasped hands, trying not to meet Josh’s eyes. One indulgence at a time is about as much as he can handle.

“Let’s go,” he tells Josh, surprising himself. Tyler doesn’t need to be looking at him to tell he’s grinning.

The first step is like drowning. He doesn’t understand how it can feel familiar, but it does. The way the rain seeps into his hair, runs in drops down the back of his neck - it’s like sense memories are awoken in him with each new experience; yet the rest of the memory is missing - the cognitive part is still blank, censored, stretched over with tape.

Miraculously, the rain begins to let up as they walk. They settle into a lazy pace, walking side by side, and Tyler is torn between the elation of being with Josh like this, so unconfined, and the terror that they’ll be caught at any moment.

He voices this, tentative. “You’re sure no one is watching?”

Josh glances sidelong at him through the drizzle, raindrops clinging to his eyelashes. Tyler thinks he looks like an angel, or maybe a a god. He nods, and droplets fall from his curls.

“Do you know the panopticon theory?” Josh says.

It’s not an answer. Tyler knows the word the same way he knows the words yellow, or family. Like he’s heard them before, but he can’t remember what they mean until someone reminds him. Nevertheless, he shakes his head.

“It’s this philosophical concept, basically, by this ancient guy named - well, I can’t remember his name, but something with a B, I think,” Josh explains. “Basically, imagine a circular prison, with a central watchtower. The inmates’ cells are all in a perimeter around that central room, or tower or wherever, so they can all be seen by the guard at all times.”

“Huh,” Tyler says.

There’s a glint in Josh’s eyes when he turns to him next. “But here’s the idea, though,” he goes on. “The prisoners can’t see when there’s a watchman there, and when there isn’t. They just have to assume there is at all times, to be safe - which means they end up policing themselves, regulating their own behavior. It’s a prison that guards itself.”

Tyler blinks.

“So no one’s watching in the rain.”

“No one’s watching in the rain,” Josh agrees. “They don’t have to.”

And then, out of nowhere, he closes his left hand around Tyler’s right one again, and they’re running, and running, kicking up rain and gravel as they go. He doesn’t know where Josh is taking him, but he decides then and there that it doesn’t matter - he’d let Josh lead him anywhere.

They stop when they reach the wall that separates Nico’s district from Andre’s, and for a terrified moment, Tyler thinks that Josh is going to ask him to scale it. But instead, he points at the ground near the wall, where it dips slightly, inviting rainwater to collect and pool.

“This is what I wanted to show you,” Josh says.

Tyler doesn’t understand.

“Water,” he says. But even as the word is out of his mouth, he realizes that he’s never come across anything like this within the city’s walls. No bathtubs, no water glasses, no stopper in the sink.

Josh tilts his head.

“I’m guessing you can’t remember ever seeing something like this,” he murmurs. “Am I right?”

Tyler has to think about it. He remembers what Clancy said about the black water bottles.

“Right,” he says, bewildered.

His hand in Tyler’s again, Josh coaxes him forward, until they’re both standing at the edge of the water. Josh points, and it takes him a minute to understand, to get what he’s supposed to be looking at.

And then he sees it. It’s blurry, rippling, but it’s the picture in his head. The boy with the fluffy brown hair and the wide brown eyes - his reflection. He’s seeing himself for the first time since coming here, and it’s dreamlike, unreal, coursing through him like an electric charge.

“Is this an ocean?” Tyler asks, the words sounding ten times more foolish once they’re out of his mouth.

Josh tips his head up, a picture of surprise, and then laughter. His eyes almost disappear to make room for his smile.

“No,” he says. “This isn’t even close to an ocean. This is barely even a puddle.”

Tyler shakes his head. Stupid. Oceans are the stuff of dreams.

“Hey.” Josh places a hand on his shoulder blade. “Are you alright? Is this too much?”

It’s like a spark, a current connecting them, and Tyler doesn’t have the words to explain it or even begin to ask for it, but he wants more of Josh’s touch.

“No,” Tyler answers, even though it is - it’s all too much, every single part of it. Josh’s eyes are wide and patient, and Tyler realizes that he’s giving him permission speak, to air his grievances. He has to remind himself that Josh isn’t a Bishop or a Glorified. Tyler is allowed to voice his thoughts. He’s allowed to have thoughts.

“I saw you that night,” Tyler blurts. “Or not you, but your… friends. Your people. The night of the breach. I was in the courtyard.”

The hand slides off his back, and for a moment, Tyler thinks he’s made a monumental mistake. But Josh’s expression isn’t reprimanding or accusatory, like Tyler expects it to be. It’s curious - maybe even concerned. Maybe even excited.

“What did you see?” Josh asks, simply.

Tyler swallows. “Two girls - I saw them hug,” he admits, his voice breaking on the last word, tripping over the blasphemy of it, over the kind of intimacy that brings Bishops on horseback, and makes the vultures swerve.

He watches Josh nod slowly.

“And then they escaped,” Tyler goes on. “I think.”

Another nod, and a grin, this time. “Yeah,” Josh agrees. “She did. And let me tell you - she’s better off now.”

Tyler doesn’t understand anything. He lets out a frustrated noise, and Josh’s hand is back, rubbing in small, slow circles.

“What you’re saying,” he tells Josh, “is impossible. It can’t be that easy. Escaping - it doesn’t work like that. Why would we all be here if it was that easy to escape?”

“It’s not,” Josh says immediately. Even now, fierce, eager, his voice still manages to be soft. “It’s not impossible, Tyler. You are in control.”

It’s raining again, properly, fat droplets flattening Tyler’s bangs against his forehead, mingling with the beginnings of tears on his cheeks.

“I’m in control,” Tyler repeats.

Yeah,” Josh encourages him. “You are. You’re the one who gets to choose which side of the wall you belong on. If you wanna be Glorified and worship the vials and repeat the fucking tenets every morning, or if you want to be free.”

Too much, too much. He has to brace his back against the wall.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Tyler whimpers.

Josh already knows.

“I can show you.” Josh tells him softly, one hand on his waist again. “If you want, I can show you what being free feels like.”

It’s Josh, Tyler reminds himself. It’s just Josh.

He fights through his terror, and nods. “Okay.”

And suddenly, Josh is close. Tyler can barely move - barely wants to move - and yet he’s never felt less trapped.

“There aren’t any rules out there,” Josh breathes into his ear. “No one can get to you, or tell you how to live. It doesn’t matter who you were before. You can be whatever you want to be, do whatever you want to do.” He pauses, and pulls back. “Love whoever you want to love.”

Josh looks at him straight on, eyes piercing, and Tyler feels so light that he’d be hovering up of the ground if Josh’s hands weren’t holding him steady. Josh leans in, and Tyler loses his breath. He doesn’t know how he knows what’s coming, but he knows what’s coming.

“Stop me,” Josh says, breath tickling his chin. “If you want to.”

Tyler doesn’t want to.

Once, in a fitful sleep, Tyler dreamt himself at the edge of the ocean, water lapping at his feet where he stood on the shore. He’d watched a the genesis of a wave at the horizon, growing bigger as it came closer, vast and tremendous, until Tyler was cowering in its shadow. He could have stepped back, could have run - there was nothing holding him in place - and yet, in the dream, Tyler had stood there, motionless, and allowed the wave to crash over him until he was drowning, consumed by water, slack and spineless and free.

When Josh kisses him, that’s how it feels. Tyler drowns all over again in the ocean of his arms.

Josh leads at first, and Tyler’s grateful - it gives him a chance to regain feeling in his limbs. But once he’s back in his body, once he can make himself move, Tyler is leaning into the kiss, winding eager arms around Josh’s neck, forgetting to give even the slightest thought to the Watchers or the Bishops or anything other than the mouth that’s moving against his own, the hands that are gripping his back like they’re tethering him to earth.

If this is what the Vialists don’t want him to know about, then Tyler will never worship again. If this is sin, then he’ll go to hell for it.

Josh pulls back long enough for Tyler to breathe his name against his lips, helpless and reverent. There’s nothing for Josh to breathe back, no name to call him, but he makes up for it by leaning in and pressing his mouth onto Tyler’s again.

He lets Josh press him fully against the wall, shakes and groans at the feeling, and at Josh’s tongue pressing between his lips. It feels foreign to give himself over like this, and at the same time, it feels like home. Tyler can’t get enough.

“Does everything feel like that on the outside?” Tyler asks him when they break apart, chest heaving, eyes glazed.

Josh presses his forehead against Tyler’s. “Nothing has ever felt like that in the whole of human history,” he says.

Tyler believes him. They kiss again, and then again, until they’re drenched and laughing and holding each other up, and he can’t believe this is real, that anything could ever feel so good.

“Come with me,” Josh says out of nowhere, and Tyler stills.

“Where?” he asks, even though he already knows. He’s scared of the answer.

Josh strokes his cheek with both thumbs. “You know where,” he says, seeing right through him. “Leave with me. The others, they’ll help us get out safe.”

Fear seeps back into Tyler’s body like acid, burning him from the inside out.

“Josh,” he says weakly.

Josh kisses his cheek.

“I know,” he says gently. “I know. Just think it over.”

Tyler nods, and feels tears catching on the corners of his lips before he realizes that he’s crying again. Josh just hugs him tighter, guides Tyler’s head into his neck and lets him cry there, silently, without question or interruption.

It happens so quickly that the sound of it tears them apart like an electric shock. They’ve been so engrossed in each other that neither of them has bothered to look up, neither has noticed the row of vultures gathering on the wall until a high, piercing shriek startles them apart.

It’s the first time he’s seen Josh look scared.

“Go,” he hisses, eyes wide, and Tyler doesn’t hesitate. He squeezes Josh’s hand once, forces himself to trust that he knows what he’s doing, and then runs, as fast as he can, back in the direction he came.

Water splashes at his heels, spraying and sloshing as he rounds corners. For a horrifying few seconds, Tyler thinks he hears hoofbeats - but it’s only the sound of his own heart thudding in his ears. Like an indomitable Orpheus, he doesn’t dare look back, doesn’t dare stop running until he’s slamming his front door, and turning to slide down it until he’s panting for breath on the floor.

Terrified, soaked to the bone, Tyler still can’t help but smile. He touches his lips, and feels the tide roll in around him. He’s so, so alive.

*
In the morning, he climbs to the roof to watch the sun rise.

Josh never comes.

Tyler skips worship, and no one notices. He holds his breath for the rest of the day.

*
Josh is missing on the next day too.

Rationally, he knows that he shouldn’t worry. Josh is quick, and smart, and had plenty of time to escape before the Watchers could have summoned a Bishop. Rationally, he knows that Josh only makes supply runs every few days, and that he has no reason to scale the wall unnecessarily.

He worries anyway.

*
On the third day after the rainfall, after the reflection and the kiss and the vultures, someone appears on the roof - but it isn’t Josh.

“Go away,” Tyler tells Clancy, too distracted with worry to care about being polite.

It doesn’t matter - Clancy ignores him.

“You’re breaking curfew,” he tells Tyler, as if Tyler doesn’t know. As if Tyler cares.

“Yeah.”

“And you haven’t been at worship.”

“Yeah,” Tyler agrees. It’s harder to be nonchalant about this. He skipped again, yes, but he’d felt sick about it the whole time, knowing they’d notice eventually.

Clancy sits down next to him, and Tyler is reminded of Josh so much that it hurts.

“How long have you been watching the sunrise?” Clancy asks.

It reminds Tyler of the first thing Clancy ever said to him - how long have you been here? Once again, he doesn’t have an answer, and once again, Clancy doesn’t seem surprised.

“Are you a bandito?” Tyler asks, accusatory. It’s the only explanation he can think of.

But Clancy shakes his head.

“I’m just like you,” he says morosely. “Except I think I’ve been here longer.”

They sit in silence for a few minutes, and Tyler tries not to watch for Josh, but he’s watching for Josh.

“I used to watch the sunrise,” Clancy eventually says, breaking the silence.

Tyler wishes he would go away, but he doesn’t say so. He doesn’t have the energy to stop him.

“When I first got here. I would watch it from my window, though - Keons faces East, so it was easy.”

He has Tyler’s attention now.

“You’re from Keons?” he probes. “But - how are you here? How are you always -“

Clancy just smiles.

“Now you’re getting it,” he says.

But Tyler isn’t.

“Look,” Clancy goes on, pointing over the rooftops, and past the outer wall. “The horizon - that’s how I figured out that something was wrong. There - look closely,” he says sitting up straight, as the first rays of sunlight begin to crest up over the outer wall.

Tyler squints. All he sees is yellow.

“There,” Clancy insists, but it’s clear that whatever it is, Tyler is missing it.

Clancy sighs, and shrugs.

“Let me ask you this,” he tries. “What is it you like about watching the sunrise?”

Tyler stands up, needing to put distance between himself and Clancy if he has any chance of clearing his head. He tries to think of an honest answer.

“It feels more real than night,” he finally says.

Clancy stands up eagerly, nodding. “Yeah,” he agrees. “And why is that?”

Tyler moves to get away from him again, grippin the edge of the rooftop and trying to keep his breath steady. Josh challenging the status quo feels like fire, and flying, and freedom - but when Clancy does it, it makes Tyler want to throw up.

“I don’t know,” Tyler growls, digging his fists into the stone ledge. “I don’t know! What do you want from me?”

Clancy is silent, passive, but Tyler doesn’t stop.

“You talk a big talk, but how are you any different from me?” Tyler insists. “You’re a citizen, same as I am - you worship the Vials, you play by their rules - and yeah, you write down a bunch of rebellious nonsense, but what do you ever do about it?”

He’s in Clancy’s face now, practically spitting.

“There are people out there,” he says, gesturing at the outer wall the same way Clancy had done moments earlier, “who risk their lives to be free from all of this, over and over. And you act like you’re one of them, like you’re this big revolutionary, but when it comes down to it, you’re a fucking coward.”

The force of his outburst winds Tyler, and he sinks down against the ledge, closing his eyes. He’s hoping that Clancy will have disappeared by the time he’s opened them, but he’s still there, standing with his back against the metal pipe, unmoving.

“I’m not a coward,” he tells Tyler calmly. “I just know that it’s impossible to beat them. The Bishops are always going to win in the end.”

“You’re wrong,” Tyler rebukes him. He doesn’t know where his confidence is coming from, but he doesn’t try to resist it.

Clancy sighs sadly.

“I hope that’s true.”

*

When he finishes work that afternoon, delirious and dirty, Tyler skips thirdmeal without a second thought. His singular focus for the last several hours has been Josh, finding Josh, seeing Josh, getting to kiss Josh again, consequences be damned. Something about his altercation with Clancy has fueled a reckless fervor in him, consequences be damned - he’d spend a hundred days and nights locked in Nico’s tower if it meant those lips against his own again, Josh’s hand on the small of his back, Josh’s mouth on his neck, like a poison and its antidote in one.

Clancy hasn’t appeared since this morning, and Tyler’s glad of it. He has a purpose now, can think of nothing but returning home and waiting, no matter how long it takes, for the sun-colored bandit boy to brighten his doorway.

*

Josh is inside his room.

He stands up the minute Tyler pushes open the door, practically jumping out of the chair, like he’s been waiting for hours. He probably has.

“I had no idea if you were okay,” he stays, stock still, like he’s afraid to approach.

Tyler nods, his voice gone.

Josh breathes heavy, silent, like he’s waiting for something - and all at once, it becomes too much for Tyler. He can’t wait another second.

He’s across the room in a heartbeat, and Josh is ready for him, responding immediately to Tyler’s mouth, colliding again and again with his own, in hungry, unashamed, desperation. They almost topple over, stumbling and knocking chairs out of the way - but then Josh gives in, letting himself fall back against the table, Tyler climbing on top of him, never breaking contact with his lips.

It’s everything that got him through the last three days. He puts every ounce of pent-up energy into this kiss, and it’s like fire, like something bigger and holier than anything the Bishops have ever created.

Josh pushes him back just enough to look into his eyes. They’re both panting, and Tyler can’t help but smile, because Josh is right - nothing has ever felt like this.

“I hate that I can’t say your name,” Josh breathes, his voice and eyes pained. “I want to say your name so bad.”

Tyler whines, tangles his hands in his hair, kisses him again, hard.

“Call me yours,” he tells him.

Josh kisses back, once, twice, fast.

“My what?”

“Anything,” Tyler insists. His whole weight is on Josh, pinning him down, but Josh doesn’t seem to mind one bit. On the contrary - he’s holding him there. “Anything - your baby, your boy,” he says. “Your blood.”

“My blood, yeah” Josh repeats, eyes fierce with emotion and loyalty. “You’re my blood.”

It sends a shiver through Tyler, a ripple through the ocean in his chest. He wants to hear it every day.

Without warning, Josh lifts up off the table, scooping Tyler up into his arms. Instinctively, Tyler wraps legs and hands around him, letting Josh carry him towards his bed in the corner of the room, smiling into his neck the whole way. He wants this more than he can remember wanting anything.

Tenderly, Josh sets him on the edge of his bed, and then moves away, heading for the row of windows that overlook Nico’s district.

“What are you doing?” Tyler frowns, impatient, wrecked already.

Josh draws the curtains tightly closed.

“Vultures can fly,” he whispers gravely.

“I thought you said they weren’t really watching,” Tyler protests, standing from the bed and meeting Josh in the middle of the room. “The panopticon-”

“They’re watching now,” Josh interrupts him. His face is pained, and he repeats, quieter. “They’re watching you now.”

Tyler lets out a constricted breath, head falling forward until their foreheads meet, each one pressing against the other. His chest heaves as the full reality of their situation hits them.

“You can’t risk this,” he tells Josh. “Coming here, it’s not worth the risk. You’ll get dragged back here for good.”

Josh shakes his head fiercely, his curls mingling with Tyler’s own hair where their brows meet.

“I’m careful,” he promises.

All Tyler can do is hope it’s enough.

“Kiss me,” he tells Josh, and Josh does, with every bit as much desperation as Tyler showed before. They walk themselves backwards until Josh hits the bed, and Tyler coaxes him to sit on the edge, climbing immediately into his lap, knees straddling either side of Josh’s legs.

They indulge in each other’s mouths, and it’s the easiest thing in the world - his hands in Josh’s hair, and Josh’s on his back, holding him tight against his chest. There’s blood rushing downward, pooling in his groin, and Tyler doesn’t think about right or wrong or purity or sin - instead, takes what he needs from Josh, losing himself in him, grinding hotly against his lap. It pulls a groan from Josh’s lips, and Tyler swallows it whole, unwilling to disconnect for even a single second. Now that he has this, he’s not letting it go.

Unrestrained, unashamed, Tyler is effectively humping on Josh, and Josh is letting him. More than letting him - Josh encourages with his hands, his thighs, pushing upward to meet each of Tyler’s eager thrusts, his mouth an open vessel that Tyler fills with 341 days worth of groans and breaths and sighs that grow louder and deeper when Josh gets a hand under Tyler’s waistband. He reaches down to cup his ass cheeks, squeezes them gently, slips a finger in between them. It’s everything that Tyler wants, and it’s nowhere near enough.

Josh,” Tyler begs, and Josh understands.

There are gentle hands on Tyler’s hips, easing him off.

“Backpack,” Josh explains, hushed, when Tyler protests. “Let me-”

He fumbles at the foot of the bed, and Tyler hears cans and supplies and god knows what shuffling around and knocking into each other, before Josh emerges from his bag with a tiny unmarked bottle. Tyler is amazed.

“Scavenger’s perks,” Josh says; but Tyler’s back on him too quickly for the lightheartedness to last. He’s bold now, curling hands around Josh’s and bringing them back to his waistband, silently asking. Josh complies eagerly. It’s awkward, but their desperation makes up for it, and together, they shift Tyler’s pants and underwear down to his thighs so that Josh can again press keen, lubed fingers to his crease, his perineum, and finally, his entrance - calloused, but somehow, gentle.

The press of Josh’s fingers is like a wake-up call, and it shocks some anxiety back into Tyler’s body, making him tense. He shudders with the immensity of it. It’s enough to make Josh pull back, to look him in the eye, softer than Tyler’s ever seen him before.

“I’ll stop the second you want me to,” he whispers, earnest. “But not because it’s wrong.”

In lieu of a response, Tyler makes a strangled noise. Josh redoubles his hold on him.

“Don’t,” Tyler tells him.

Josh hesitates. “Don’t…”

“Don’t stop,” Tyler hastens. “Please, Josh.”

He doesn’t waste time. Where it was tentative before, Josh’s index finger is persistent now, and Tyler buries his face into Josh’s neck at the feeling of slowly, tenderly, being opened. His nose is so deep in Josh’s skin that he thinks it might break, thinks he might break with the overwhelming emotion of it all, at the ocean of pleasure churning and storming inside him.

Josh is dextrous, like magic. He gets fingers between them, cupping his palm around Tyler and letting him rut helplessly against the heel of his hand. It takes some maneuvering, but he eventually wrestles both of their underwear down, and Tyler pauses everything to lean his forehead against Josh’s shoulder, awestruck, to take in the sight of their dicks - short, stiff, and leaking, pressed up against each other. It flusters him more than he cares to admit.

Together, they’re small enough that Josh can wrap a hand around both of them, and still manage to drag a thumb over their slits, drawing out a shiver that travels through both of their bodies.

Josh is taking him apart from every angle - Josh’s fingertips on his prostate, their dicks sliding together, is unbearable; it sends a tide of pleasure rolling over his whole body, flooding him, until he’s coming over both of their stomachs, and Josh is following, groaning, stilling his fingers.

It takes a heaving, grasping moment for Tyler to remember his voice, but when he does, it’s resolute.

“I’ll go with you,” Tyler tells him, looking him squarely in the eye.

Josh’s smile is full of tears.

Afterwards, blissed out on Josh’s chest, Tyler rests better than he has in a year. And yet, something still bothers him, and he pulls away from Josh to look at him.

“Where did you get that?” he asks quietly, pointing over Josh’s shoulder to the small bottle of lube that he had pulled out earlier, now lying forgotten next to the pillow.

The boy beneath him grins, doesn’t falter. “I have my ways.”

But Tyler isn’t satisfied.

“That can’t be from in here, though,” he says. “Is it from the outside?”

Josh hesitates a moment, and then nods.

“You’d be surprised what you can find out there,” he says. “Trees, rivers - everything.”

He sits up, meeting Tyler’s gaze, something shining in his eyes that hadn’t been there before.

“I’ll show you,” he promises. “I’m gonna show you all of it, baby boy.”

Tyler hums, and whimpers, and lets himself be kissed. He lets himself forget.

*

Josh falls asleep first. It only takes a few soft snores before Clancy is in the corner staring at him.

“They’re hard to resist, aren’t they.”

Tyler wishes he would leave. “Who is?”

He goes on as if Tyler hadn’t spoken, leaning idly on the window sill. “Mine is even harder. You should see him.” He watches Clancy’s face mold into something close to a smile for the first time, tipping his head back and inhaling deeply. “He’s almost worth it.”

Tyler has no idea what he means, but it doesn’t matter.

“Josh is worth everything,” he tells him.

Clancy nods sadly. “Yeah.”

If he had a remote that would turn Clancy off, make him disappear, he’d press the button in a millisecond. Tyler wants Josh, and nothing else.

His head on Josh’s chest again, Tyler falls asleep to the sound of Clancy’s pencil against the paper of his journal, scratching and scrabbling like rats in the walls.

*
“We’ll leave just before sunrise,” Josh tells him. They’re on the rooftop, in the hazy glow of dawn, Tyler’s head resting in the hollow of Josh’s crossed legs. Between planning and fucking and lazily kissing, neither of them have slept. It was Josh who dragged them out of bed and up to the roof. “Some sunlight would do us good,” he’d said.

“Why sunrise?” Tyler wants to know. It doesn’t matter, really - he trusts Josh beyond a shadow of a doubt; the questions, the clarifications, are an excuse for Tyler to watch the way the corners of Josh’s lips form around his words as he speaks them. If trust were a shape, he thinks, it would be Josh’s mouth.

“Because,” Josh says without looking down, and Tyler gets stuck on the swells of soft skin below his bottom lip. “That’s an easy advantage for us.”

Josh’s eyes meet his, and Tyler’s reverie is broken. He wants to listen, he has to.

“We’ll leave Dema through the eastern wall, heading towards the morning sun. If we’re pursued, the Bishops will be blinded.” Josh shifts, squinting in the direction of the horizon. “The Vialists are so attuned to their white light that the sun, even the color of the sun...” he picks at one of the yellow stripes of tape that criss-crosses his jacket. “It’s too much for them. Yeah. That’s our best hope.”

Shifting the material of Josh’s pants as he goes, Tyler nods his head.

“Okay,” he agrees.

He flicks his eyes up, and he’s met with Josh’s gentle gaze. It’s filled with affection, and the spark of resistance. Tyler swallows, and sits up.

“If I tell you I love you,” he says cautiously, “does that make me an idiot?”

Josh shakes his head, face unreadable for a moment, and then smiles. “If that’s the case, then I’m the biggest idiot there is.”

If anyone asks, Tyler would pass off his blush as a trick of the slanted morning light. Josh is smiling, and he’s smiling back.

Indulgent, Tyler allows himself to imagine a reality in which he’s free to lounge on this rooftop indefinitely, sprawled on warm concrete with the love of his long and hopeful life. But here, in the only reality Tyler knows, the sun is sending jets of yellow into the courtyard of Nico and setting the district aglow. It’s getting late.

“I have to worship,” he tells Josh, looking down regretfully. “I mean, I have to pretend.”

Josh leans in, gently touching their lips together.

“Not for much longer,” he promises.

*
Tyler packs his bag at midnight, and when he can’t sleep, he unpacks it and packs it again. The light of the Vials is keeping him for awake for the last time - in a few hours, he’ll be leaving the city, and he’ll be out of their jurisdiction forever.

The sky begins to lighten, and in the blink of an eye, Clancy is there.

“Not right now,” Tyler says firmly, his voice made of acid. “I don’t have time for this right now.”

“You’re leaving with him, aren’t you?” Clancy asks. He’s lingering by the door.

Tyler doesn’t answer.

“Are you going to try and stop me?

Clancy looks almost forlorn, but he shakes his head, stepping away from the door frame.

“No,” he sighs simply. “I’m not.”

And nevertheless, Tyler can’t shake the feeling that Clancy’s daring him to cross the threshold, ready to stand in front of him if he tries. He’s two steps forward, but he stops, shaking his head.

“Who are you, man?” Tyler says.

The other man’s smile is sad and small, ghostly in the vial light.

“I’m just like you,” he says. “I’m exactly like you.”

Tyler studies him, pale and insubstantial as ever. It doesn’t make sense. It never has.

He clears his throat. “Hey, maybe - you know, maybe we can come back for you, some time,” Tyler says. “Once I get out, I’ll ask if we can send people back for you.”

To his surprise, Clancy just laughs. He reaches out to put a hand on Tyler’s shoulder, and Tyler is ready this time, braced for the chilling lack of impact.

“That’s not what I’m worried about,” Clancy smiles. “I’ll see you again.”

*

Backpack over his shoulder, Tyler follows the same route as he did on the night of the Bandito’s last breach. The whole affair had seemed so foreign to him on that night, so illicit; the embrace that he had witnessed, and the escape, had felt a mirage: a vision so impossible that it must have been a dream. Now, it’s a dream that he’s living.

The alley is devoid of signs of life or light, and for a moment, Tyler is struck with the immense fear that no one is coming for him.

And then - there they are. A line of flickering torchlight making its way into the courtyard, through the opposite alley, and even before they get close, Tyler makes out Josh’s figure at the front: solid, confident, and yellow. Shadows dance from behind him, and he turns. They’re everywhere. They’re here for him. He knows some of them, recognizes faces from the breach - but he heads for Josh immediately.

“You came,” Tyler says, and he didn’t realize how much he doubted it until the words are out of his mouth.

Josh wastes no time in kissing him, lunging in and curling a hand into the back of his hair. Everyone is watching, but Tyler reciprocates. It feels right. It feels like control. When they pull away from each other, Josh is grinning.

“Time to run.”

The tunnel Josh leads him through is braced by wood panels, and Tyler revels in how different it is from any of the steely edifices under the Bishops’ reign. This place is rebel-made, and it shows. It hits him, all at once, that he is heading into an utter unknown; Josh has made it effortless for Tyler to think of the outside as a paradise, the antithesis of Dema’s oppressive rule. And yet, he has to remind himself - other than being with Josh, he has no idea what’s coming.

In spite of his resolve not to look back, Tyler can’t help his breath from stuttering, his body from lagging just slightly. But Josh is like a radar, sensing his anxiety even without looking at him, and he reaches back a hand for Tyler to take. He does, relief sinking into his chest at the feeling of Josh giving his hand two firm squeezes. They trudge on.

The end of the tunnel comes quicker than Tyler was expecting. He gripps Josh’s hand twice as hard, and, heart thumping, lets himself be guided into a landscape that is more vast and open than he ever could have imagined.

He turns to Josh, and simultaneously, they grin.

“We’re out,” Josh says.

And then, in an instant, everything changes.

It’s like he’s being blinded, like someone is shining a white light directly in Tyler’s pupils, a thousand times brighter than the sum of every Vial in the city behind him. He claps a hand to his eyes, shouting and swearing in panic, as his ears begin to ring.

He tries to form the word Josh, tries to explain that something is wrong, something must be so, so wrong - but when he forces an eye open, Josh is just standing there, face blank.

The other Banditos file out of the tunnel, surrounding Josh, faces as blank as his, and reality is dissolving in front of Tyler’s eyes. Trench is fading. The whiteness is crowding his vision, overcoming him, everything turning to silence and blurred light -

And Josh stands there.

He just stands there.

*
Tyler jolts awake into an ocean of bright white.

The movement around him is swift, immediate, and dizzying. Everything is a pale blur, voices melting nonsensically into each other, and Tyler doesn’t know who he is. Tyler doesn’t know his name.

Someone with soft hands is touching his arm, and it tugs him slowly into awareness.

He’s been here before.

“Time?” a man’s voice says.

Another voice. “Four minutes.”

“Huh. He held on for awhile this time.”

Tyler’s head swims, and his heartbeat fills his ears. He’s dreaming - this is a dream. He’s drowning, he’s hallucinating, he’ll wake up soon.

He’s been here before.

“Alright, vial seven,” the low voice says again, white figures hovering, shifting in and out of focus in Tyler’s sight line. “Put him back in.”

Tyler tries to move, tries to do anything, but there are hands on his legs, his torso, holding him against the hard uncomfortable surface beneath him. There’s a pinch in his left arm, and Tyler has been here before, and he knows that he has to act quickly. He’s been here before, and he doesn’t want to be here again.

Fighting the haze that’s closing in on his consciousness, Tyler surges upwards, ripping the syringe from the hands of the figure to his left. He doesn’t know how he knows to reach for it, can’t explain any of it with anything except the fact that he’s been here before, he’s been here before. Gritting his teeth, Tyler drags the needle across the first skin he can find, carving, branding, marking his skin with memory. It’s his only shot. They get the syringe from him, shove him back down before he can finish, but it doesn’t matter.

“The Deprogramming Matrix, quickly,” they say, frantic. “Put him back in.”

The white light fades to darkness.

It’s his only shot.

*

365 days until Glorification

There are no mirrors in Tyler’s room. There is no bathtub, and the sink doesn’t have a stopper. Reflections have been outlawed in Dema - vanity is unholy.

He worships every morning with the rest of Nico’s, solemn and pious in the central towers. He repeats the tenets alongside the others:

Doubt is Fear.
Faith is Freedom.
Order is Love.

In his head, there’s an image of a man with fluffy brown hair. He knows he’s the man from his head, he just doesn’t know who that man is. He knows that there’s a stinging, messy letter J carved into his right forearm, a cut that’s healing over day by day, but he doesn’t know what it means, or how it got there.

He is a citizen, a devout Vialist, an inhabitant of Nico’s district – he knows these facts to be incontrovertible.

And yet, Tyler does not know his name.

*

354 days until Glorification

In the canteen, he meets a pale boy with a leather journal, who looks curiously at his arm.

“Where did that come from,” the boy named Clancy says, and Tyler doesn’t know why, but the question makes tears spring into the corners of his eyes.

He shakes his head. “I don’t know.

Clancy follows Tyler home, appears and disappears like a ghost, always puzzling at the J on Tyler’s wrist, always scribbling furiously in his leather-bound book.

At the end of one sleepless night, Tyler finds himself inexplicably drawn to the rooftop of his building - he climbs the eastern stairwell, pushes through the door, and settles against a long metal pipe just as the beginnings of sun are creeping over the city’s outer wall. For the first time since he arrived here, Tyler is comforted with the sense that something bigger than his own consciousness exists, something bigger than Vialism. Something grand, and vast, and familiar.

And then he appears -

A boy the color of the morning light, a boy in a black beanie and green jacket, silhouetted in front of the rising sun, and the force of understanding hits Tyler in the chest, winding him.

The boy comes closer, and Tyler can’t breathe.

“Oh my God,” he says, his hand flying to the pink scar on his wrist. “Oh my God.”

Acting before thinking, driven by sheer instinct and memory, Tyler hurls himself into Josh’s arms, sending him stumbling at the force with which Tyler kisses him, hands against his cheeks, clutching at the beanie on his head. Josh is pliant beneath him, parting his lips for Tyler’s tongue - but something about his stillness, his passivity, makes Tyler pull away.

Josh wears an expression of uncomprehending bemusement that instantly makes Tyler go numb, heart leaping to his throat.

“Josh,” he says insistently, a hundred different moments flooding back to him, so suddenly and vividly that it seems impossible that Tyler ever could have forgotten. “Josh, it’s me, I’m - I’m here,” Tyler presses, gripping his hand. “I’m back.”

He crowds back into Josh’s space, grasping either side of his face and looking him in the eye.

“Josh, I came back, and - God, I don’t think this place is real. I think I’m dreaming, or - or drugged, maybe, and I don’t know why I forgot, but I remember now, I remember you, I’m -”

Tyler breaks off again, forcing himself finally to take in the sight of Josh’s gentle, concerned frown. His voice gets lost in his throat.

“I’m sorry,” Josh says, voice tender as he places fingertips on Tyler’s bicep, wide-eyed and cautious. “But - have we met before?”

A flare of sunlight crosses over Josh’s face as the sun passes behind the central towers, splitting and refracting over the rooftop, and flashing in both of their eyes, and Tyler didn’t notice when tears started rolling down his cheeks, but there are tears rolling down his cheeks - oceans of them, spilling from inside out.

Josh is a stranger, but he holds Tyler anyway. Maybe it’s instinct, maybe it’s just the way he is - but he doesn’t hesitate to comfort Tyler, take him in his arms, soothe him through his paralysis. Tyler can’t breathe, Tyler doesn’t know who he is, Tyler knows he’s been here before.

Somehow, Josh’s arms still feel like home - and yet Tyler feels more alone than ever. Dema isn’t home, it can’t be - but if reality is the white room, if reality is hands and needles and bright artificial light, then he doesn’t want to be there either.

He rests his head in Josh’s lap, and tries not to think about anything else.

*

Clancy is the only thing that keeps him from feeling insane.

It’s raining, and Tyler is grateful for a reprieve from the monotony of worship and work and despair. He tries to tune out the sound of Clancy scratching in his journal at the foot of his bed, but Tyler’s curiosity gets the best of him.

“How many times have I been here?” he finally says.

Clancy shuts his journal. “Funny, I think that’s the first thing I ever asked you. Also, I don’t know. I only started seeing you last time around.”

Tyler frowns, and stares at the rain. He can hear the voice from the white room in his head, clear as day, saying vial seven before everything had disappeared. But he can’t have been here six times before. He can’t have. He’d remember.

“You understand now, about Dema?” Clancy asks, cocking his head. “About the name?”

And even as Tyler shakes his head, another hazy soundbyte returns to him from the deep recesses of his brain.

Tyler swallows. “Dema” he says weakly, repeating the portmanteau. “Deprogramming Matrix.”

Clancy nods gravely. “Yeah.”

Numb, Tyler presses fingers against the glass of the window by his bed, and wonders how it can feel so cold, how Tyler can feel the condensation running down his thumb, if all of this is just a series of ones and zeroes.

“How is it that I’ve never remembered until now?” Tyler asks. “Why this time?” He knows he can’t expect Clancy to have all the answers, but he has no one else to ask.

But Clancy just reaches for his arm, chilled fingers pressing onto the white ridges of the J.

“You made yourself remember,” he says simply. “Guess you’d had enough.”

*

304 days until Glorification

“Run away with me,” Josh whispers into his ear, while they’re fucking in Tyler’s bed. It isn’t real, but Tyler chases the feeling anyway, unable to stay away from Josh’s hands on his waist, his fingertips on his lips and his chest and inside of him, taking him apart. He knows it’s not real, but it feels real. He wants Josh to be real.

“Josh,” Tyler sighs, clinging to him, splayed out on his back. “Josh, it’s not that simple.”

“It is,” Josh reassures him. “The Banditos, we’ll protect you. And once we’re outside, there are no rules, no control - we’ll be outside their jurisdiction. Just us.” He’s so sincere, so genuinely hopeful and passionate, and Tyler’s heart breaks into ten thousand glass pieces.

He distracts Josh with his hands and lips, pushes the thought away with pleasure. Inches away, seven yellow flowers sit untouched inside a drawer.

*

Tyler rises every morning to watch the sunrise. When Josh kisses him, he cries. When Josh asks him to leave the city with him, to renounce Vialism and flee, Tyler agrees.

He doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know what else to do.

Bag packed, resolve steeled, Tyler waits for morning. Tyler lets the Banditos surround him, hand him a torch, smile from behind their disguises, lead him out of the city through a wooden tunnel, Josh’s hand gripping his own.

The light of trench washes over him, before whiteness takes him hostage, blurring his vision, rushing in his ears, forcing him to double down and fall to his knees. It’s aching and blinding and terrible, and he’s been here before, he’s been here before, and again, again, Josh just stands there.

He just stands there.

“Twenty-eight seconds,” the man’s voice says. There’s a pinch in Tyler’s left arm, and he closes his eyes, helpless, before darkness closes in, and he’s forced back into the matrix again.

*
365 days until Glorification

On his eighth time in Dema, Tyler doesn’t give Josh the time to introduce himself. He pulls him downstairs to his bedroom, and lets Josh kiss him, and fuck him, and whisper plans of escape into his ear.

They leave the city together after two days.

“1.8 seconds,” murmur the voices in the white room. “This is going to be a long haul.”

Pinned to the table, Tyler can only cry.

*
365 days until Glorification

On his ninth time around, it takes Tyler a few weeks to realize that something is different.

He avoids the roof, isolates himself in his room, keeps his head down at meals. Somehow, it’s even lonelier than it had been before, and it’s only when he hears a breach happening from his room, sees the torchlight flickering and hoofbeats galloping and watches his own breath fog the window where he stands looking on, that Tyler realizes what it is:

Clancy’s gone.

Never has Tyler known anyone around him in Dema to disappear - the other families in his building, the people at worship, in the canteen, are nameless, yes - but familiar, regular. He’s gotten used to their unchanging faces and their presence around him. And yet, he has to remind himself - Clancy’s never been like the rest of them. Clancy’s different. And now, Clancy’s not here.

He doesn’t understand it any better than he ever understood who Clancy was, or where he came from. He’s starting to doubt whether he understands anything.

Doubt is Fear.
Faith is Freedom.
Order is Love.

Tyler repeats the tenets with everyone else at worship every morning. He thinks he’s starting to believe them.

*

205 days until Glorification

Five months in the matrix, and Tyler still hasn’t been to the roof. The idea of encountering Josh all over again, of having to witness the outright lack of recognition in his eyes, is too much to bear.

Josh, however, is persistent.

One another rain day, a storm, there’s a knock at Tyler’s door. He opens it to the sight of wet brown hair and bright brown eyes, and rain droplets on yellow tape.

“I’m so sorry to intrude,” Josh says. “I know we don’t know each other but - do you mind if I shelter here until the storm is over?”

As Tyler closes the door, he can’t help but wonder if Josh is at door so he could get out of the storm, or if Dema was storming so that Josh could come to his door. Tyler would hate himself, if he thought himself was even a real thing. He’s not sure. He’s not sure, but he’s been here before, he’s been here before.

The next morning, there’s a yellow flower balanced on his doorknob. He adds it to the others in the drawer in silence.

*
He lasts for three more months, but it becomes too much in the end. Aching, tearstained, numb - Tyler follows the eastern staircase up to the rooftop, and is unsurprised to find a sun-colored boy leaning against the metal pipe. Josh is persistent. Josh is made up of ones and zeroes, and Josh is programmed to be persistent.

Josh is made up of ones and zeroes, and Tyler doesn’t care; he runs the last few steps, letting himself collapse into the impossibly solid vessel of Josh’s arms, and when Josh whispers in his ear, when Josh says exactly what he knows Tyler needs him to say, when Josh tempts Tyler with freedom and love and the promise of running away, Tyler tells him no.

“I can’t, Josh,” he says, leaning on Josh’s shoulder. “I can’t,” he says, with his fingers inside of him. “I can’t, I can’t,” he growls, sobbing afterwards at the foot of his bed, and Josh holds Tyler exactly how he likes to be held, tells Tyler exactly what he wants to hear, because that’s Josh’s job. That’s Josh’s entire job.

“Baby, please,” Josh insists, his arms around his waist. “You’ll never be free here.”

Tyler doesn’t turn around, can’t face Josh; if he does, he’ll fall so far in love that he won’t be able to get back up, and he has to get back up. He has to get back out.

“I’m not free out there, either,” he murmurs. “I’m not free anywhere, Josh. Believe me - I’ve tried.”

Josh lays his head on his shoulder, and even though his tears are made of ones and zeroes, they burn wet and hot on Tyler’s neck.

Tyler’s voice breaks, but he speaks anyway. “There’s only one thing left that I can do.”

“What’s that?”

He’s thought about it, had months and months to think about it, and Tyler knows that there’s only one thing left that he hasn’t tried. Only one way out of this hell.

“I have to become Glorified,” Tyler murmurs, and sinks back into Josh’s silent arms.

*
51 days until Glorification

At night, Tyler dreams of oceans. He lets them fill his lungs, and wakes up disappointed to find that he’s still breathing.

*

20 days until Glorification

Tyler stays away from the sunrise. Josh waits outside his building, but Tyler passes him by. His only aim, his only chance, is to make it to the end of the year. Leaving Dema only leads to Dema, and Tyler doesn’t trust himself not to let Josh coax him out of the city.

The Bishops are wrong. Love isn’t order - it’s chaos.

It’s as close as he’s ever gotten to the Annual Assemblage of the Glorified - as far as he can remember - and Tyler is scrambling for a plan. Everything leads to Glorification, and yet, Tyler is lost as to what it means, what will happen. All he knows is that it’s the only thing that he hasn’t tried. Something’s waiting for Tyler at the end of the 365 days, and there’s nothing left except to face Nico head on. It’s time to pull the pin.

Sleepless nights are the norm now. Tyler has taken to pacing his room, circling the Vials, trying to make any kind of sense of where he’s going. It’s like looking into an abyss - he has no point b,no idea what to expect.

He’s almost given up when he finds it, discarded in a shadowy corner that the Vial light doesn’t reach. Tyler doesn’t know how he could have missed it, or how it’s even here, but it’s unmistakable.

Clancy’s journal.

Eagerly, Tyler holds the leather book under the Vial light, rifling through pages upon pages of barely distinguishable scrawl. The language is convoluted, opaque, even poetic, but Tyler is determined. If Clancy doesn’t have answers for him, than no one will.

*
4 days until Glorification

Up at night, in the deathly glow of the Vials, Tyler scours Clancy’s journal for the hundredth time. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for - something, anything, to give him a hope of escape. Tyler is resolute - he can make it to the Assemblage, resist Josh for as long as he has to; it’s his only hope. But that’s where his plan ends. Beyond that, he’s helpless.

For pages and pages of small black scrawl, Clancy laments his imprisonment, sews the seeds of rebellion, details past escapes. But there’s nothing at all, not the slightest hint to indicate that Clancy suffered any other fate than life after life in the panoptic prison of Dema’s walls.

The one thing that Tyler comes back to, over and over, in almost every entry, are mentions of the light - the eerie, unnatural glow of the Vials. It calls back to him the sound of his own voice, with Clancy, on the rooftop -

It feels more real than night.”

He shuts his eyes tighter after that, turns away from the light of the Vials that stands sentinel in the middle of his room. Tyler wakes every morning to the relief of the sun, rising up like fire in the east.

He knows what he has to do.

*
0 days until Glorification

The Bishops come for him at dusk. The Unglorifieds file out of his building like pious drones, marching to the feet of the waiting red horseman in the courtyard. In another lifetime, a hundred other lifetimes, Tyler was meeting Josh and the Banditos on these very stones - but it feels as distant as a dream.

Nico leads them, straight-lined and silent, to the central tower. Tyler is expecting to be ushered in the doors, but instead, Nico dismounts, leading his line of Unglorifieds into the dark entrance of a tunnel that takes them below the central towers. Minutes later, the darkness gives way to a large, dark room - a basement of sorts, Tyler thinks; dank, musty, and smelling of death. Citizens from all nine districts line the stone benches that face the front of the room - an altar of sorts, Tyler realizes, where all nine Bishops congregate. Automatically, he scans the benches for Clancy - it’s fruitless, he knows it is, but he can’t help it.

The assemblage begins, and rain and saltwater churn in his veins; Tyler lets them drown out the frenzied Vialistic rituals unfolding at the altar. If he’s going to pull this off, he can’t let himself be distracted. He has to stay in control.

The Bishops worship. Tyler closes his eyes and swims in an endless black ocean.

All too soon, the end comes. Nico is walking back down the aisle, and reaching out two blackened hands - not for Tyler’s neck, no, but for his own hand. This is for his sake, all of it - he understands.

Keeping his hands to himself, Tyler follows nonetheless, marching down the aisle in what feels like sickening parody of a bridal procession. The metaphor isn’t so far off, he realizes - especially now, as the other eight Bishops bring black hands up to pull back their veils.

Eight, red-cloaked people stand before him in a ring. They aren’t strangers.

Tyler’s voice is like sandpaper drenched in rain.

“Mom,” he chokes. “Dad.”

His parents, grandparents, siblings, smile back at him from underneath blood red hoods. He knows them, now, names unveiling themselves in his mind.

“You’re not real,” Tyler whispers. “None of you are really here.” He has to believe it. It’s his only shot.

His mother is all smiles. “We’re here,” she tells him, tears shining in her eyes. “We’re so proud of you, baby.”

Tyler looks between them, his blood, wearing identical smiles, and anger burns inside his stomach, white hot and incendiary.

“No,” he says firmly, though his voice breaks anyway. “No. No.”

He keeps chanting it as they close around him, chants it as Nico approaches him, his blackened hands outstretched. It’s his last chance, and he knows it. He’s waited 365 days for this. He’s waited nine years.

He does it in the split second before Nico’s hands make contact. In one swift motion, Tyler makes a grab for Nico’s torch, still lit with blue flame, and slashes it across the line of Bishops in front of him. They ignite immediately. There’s screaming behind him, scrambling, and panicked voices as the other Unglorifieds trip over each other in their attempts to get out. He hopes they do. He really hopes they do.

There are screams in front of him too - voices and faces, consumed in billows of smoke and blinding fire. Not real. Not real.

The flames reach the cuffs of Tyler’s pants, and he lets them lick at his ankles. Catching fire, he can’t feel a thing. He’s motionless, unbreathing, watching everything he has ever cared about turn to ash. Even as flames lap around him, Tyler is reminded of oceans, of puddles and rain, of a sun colored boy pressing him up against the district wall and drowning him in his lips, and Tyler thinks that he’d rather burn in this basement or die in that white room than live in any kind of universe where he isn’t allowed to love Josh.

The last thing he sees, before white silence overtakes him, are Nico’s glowing eyes.

*

The white room materializes around him instantaneously, and there are hands on Tyler, pinning him down, messing with needles and wires. He struggles against them instinctively, still drowning in fire and heat and the adrenaline of escape, and it takes a full minute of resistance before he has to accept it - he’s out. The matrix is gone.

“Calm down, calm down,” a man’s voice comes, laced with aggravation more than concern. “Settle down. It’s alright.”

Tyler tries to speak, but manages only a growl, and it’s met with more sets of hands on his shoulders, his ankles, keeping him in place. And there’s the man’s voice again, laughing out something about how this one is a fighter, about how it’s no wonder that it failed.

Something prickles in the crook of his elbow, and the struggling becomes ten times harder. He’s forced to give up, limp, lifeless on the bed.

The man with the spiteful, steely voice is above him now, looming, peeling off his gloves, talking like Tyler can’t hear him.

“When he’s fully alert, I’ll need to debrief him, regardless. It’s policy.”

The rest of their speech comes thick and muddled, and Tyler does his best to grasp onto it as he starts to slip away.

“Did he … history of mental illness?”

“…family understood the risk, they signed… history of suicidality…”

“…explains the rebellion, then.”

Tyler feels his consciousness leached away slowly, everything fading to dark as he slips into his first real sleep in the past hour. His first real sleep in nine years.

*

When he wakes again, the table has been replaced with a bed, and the one with the soft hands is there.

“Welcome back,” she says, her voice too gentle, too calm. “How are you feeling?”

Tyler checks his hands for burns, his hair for ashes, and finds nothing. He checks the inside of his wrist, and finds a bandage. He pulls it back.

“Hey, hey,” the woman says, grabbing at his other wrist, but he’s too fast for her, pulling the gauze away to reveal a fresh, glistening, bloody letter J on his arm.

Vomit rises in his chest, and then settles again. He doesn’t feel alive.

“You’ll start to feel more like yourself soon,” she reassures him, pulling his right arm away from his left like it’s nothing. “The suppressors take about an hour to wear off, so you’re stuck with us until then, I’m afraid.”

Tyler’s throat clenches and croaks.

“Josh,” is all he can manage.

“Now, now,” the woman reassures him. “All of that is in the past. You’ll forget about it soon - just try to relax for now. “You scratched yourself up pretty bad a few hours ago,” she goes on, pressing another gauze pad to his wound. “It’s understandable. The matrix can be pretty tough on some folks. Don’t be too hard on yourself about it – in six months, you’ll be free to try again, and most uncureds have much better luck with subsequent attempts in the simulation…”

She pauses. Her gentle grin scares him.

“But of course, you must still be in shock. Doctor Bourbaki will be back in soon to debrief you.”

He wants to throw up. He wants to see Josh. He wants to sleep for the rest of his life.

Instead, he lets her prop him up with more pillows.

Some minutes later, the man with the voice like steel walks in. Tyler makes out the name Bourbaki on the badge pinned to his bright white coat.

“Mr. - ah, Joseph,” he says, his voice all business, taking a seat on a rolling stool next to Tyler’s bed. His eyes don’t leave the clipboard in his hand. “On behalf of Vialist Industries, I’m here to debrief you on your purification procedure, which was, unfortunately,” he pauses, eyes emotionless, “unsuccessful.”

He’s going to throw up. He really is.

“Over the course of the last two hours, you have been subjected to a structured and incremental simulation, the goal of which -”

But Tyler doesn’t let him finish. He surges forward, seizing the clipboard out of the man’s grasp, and before he or the woman can respond to his sudden movement, lunges for the opposite side of the room.

He reads as quickly as his exhausted brain allows.

Subject: T. Joseph
Sex: M Age: 29
Date of Procedure: 4.21.18

There are hands on his shoulders, pulling him back, but Tyler crouches down, flipping frantically. He finds scribbled handwriting on page two:

Reason for Procedure: infatuation with member of same sex

Heart in his throat, he turns to the final page. He’s burning all over again, but the flames are inside now, tearing him apart. Tyler’s eyes blur as he reads the last paragraph.

In the highly unlikely event of unsuccessful purification, subject’s family members may request to withdraw all further contact with subject. Signatories should be advised that contact may be re-initiated after a period of six months, at which time subjects of failed procedures will be eligible for administration of further simulation procedures.

Underneath the words are five, clear, crisp signatures.

The hands succeed in turning him around, the clipboard is snatched from his grasp, and Tyler vomits onto the white leather of Doctor Bourbaki’s shoes.

“Mr. Joseph, please,” the woman says sharply, a hand on his back, “if you can just let me help you back to the bed, we can talk you through the counseling options that are available to you -”

But Tyler isn’t listening. Once again, her voice is far away, in another reality, worlds apart from his own. He wrenches himself out of her grasp, pushing past the Doctor and the pile of his own sick. He registers the woman’s sounds of protest as he moves towards the door, but he ignores them. They don’t control him anymore.

Outside the door, finds himself in a hallway, as starkly white as the procedure room. Throwing caution to the wind, with no thought in his mind except escape, Tyler makes a break for a door marked “stairs,” and takes them two at a time. He’s exhausted, feels his lungs aching, and yet running here is easier than in Trench, a hundred times easier. The lower down he goes, the lighter he feels, the weight of the simulation lifting like vapor as reality seeps in. He can almost remember. He almost knows who he is.

The staircase gives way to a bright, high-ceilinged lobby, and Tyler sets his course for the revolving door at the other end, through which filters a strip of intoxicatingly yellow sunlight.

But before he can reach it, something stops him, something - someone - so familiar that he feels his throat tighten in disbelief. He thinks his brain must be betraying him at first, but as he draws closer to the pair by the door, he knows that this is not a hallucination, not a mirage.

“Clancy?” Tyler whispers.

The blonde man turns, and Tyler’s chest constricts. His eyes are blank, devoid of recognition. Devoid of life. He shakes his head, uncomprehending – but Tyler understands perfectly.

He reaches out, and touches Clancy - the real, solid, human Clancy - for the first time.

“We won,” Tyler says quietly, his voice broken but earnest. “I’m sorry you didn’t get out.”

The woman to his left stares at Tyler like he’s just crawled up straight from the pits of hell. She isn’t too far off.

“Come on, sweetheart,” she says, and Clancy lets himself be led away without looking back, without ever looking back.

*
Outside the revolving doors, the sunshine is blinding. Tyler pats the pockets of his jeans, and feels the familiar weight of a cell phone in his pocket. He pulls it out and instinctively holds his thumb to the center button. It lets him in. It’s too bright to see the screen clearly, so he crosses to the shady side of the street. Reality seeps back in with every step he takes, like tape is being pulled away from the censored words and images names in his brain. He knows this city, the crescent moon and the full moon, C, O. Columbus. Home.

He can almost remember his name.

The streets around him are familiar - he recognizes the . When he calls an Uber, the app tells him to watch for a black car, plate number FCE300, nine minutes away. Tyler stares at the dot coming closer on the map until it’s right in front of him, and lets himself be driven away from Vialist headquarters. He doesn’t have to resist the temptation to look back.

There is no temptation.

He can almost remember his name.

He balks for a minute at the sight of the driver, a black hood pulled up over their head, but allows himself to sink into the seats with relief when they pull it down to reveal a long brown braid.

“Hey,” the girl says quizzically, looking in the rear view mirror. “I recognize you! Didn’t I drop you off here, too?”

She did, he realizes, and his head swims with fragments of simulation and reality, visions of darkness and yellow, of two girls embracing in a dim courtyard, and God, he can almost remember his name.

“Yeah,” he chokes. “You did.”

She asks for a destination, and his mouth directs her to Morse Centre Mall before his brain knows why. He doesn’t look back when he leaves the car, for fear he’ll find that none of this is real, either.

Tyler lets his feet propel him forward. It’s like his body remembers more than he does, understands where he needs to go. His mind is slow to catch up. But when he finds himself outside a store front, finds himself walking inside, Tyler is hit with a burst of understanding so immense that it floods him, and he forgets how to come up for air.

He steps through the doors of Guitar Center. The boy behind the counter is wearing yellow, and he’s smiling, wide.

“Hey there,” Josh says. “You’re back!”

Tyler’s mouth is open, and he doesn’t bother to close it.

“Back,” he repeats, voice tiny, heart in his throat.

Another smile. Josh is polite, and maybe something else, too.

“I just mean, you know, you were in here yesterday,” he clarifies. “And last week. Did you ever get that Peavey working?”

Breath rushes back into Tyler, alongside comprehending, strong enough to send him swaying, and he has to grab onto the counter to stay upright.

“Hey, hey,” Josh hums calmly, brow knitted up with concern. It’s an expression Tyler’s seen before, but not here, not when everything looks so real. “Are you okay?”

Tentative, he reaches out to wrap a hand around Tyler’s wrist, and Tyler leaps like he’s been burned. Josh reacts much in the same way, pulling back sharply, eyes wide.

“I’m sorry, hey, I didn’t -” he stammers earnestly, but Tyler just shakes his head.

“No, no, it’s okay,” he promises.

He chances a look up at Josh, who chances a smile back. Tyler doesn’t mean to reciprocate, but he does. The way Josh’s mouth shapes itself around his smile does something to Tyler’s breath.

“Hey, remind me,” Josh says. “I know you come in here all the time, but I’ve been meaning to ask - what’s your name?

He takes a breath. The ocean surges.

“It’s Tyler,” he says, and it’s only after the words are out of his mouth that he knows them to be true.

“I’m Tyler.”