The first time Sandy feels the black tendrils brush his mind, they’re heavy with a fear so thick it almost chokes him.
He doesn’t understand, at first, why this brightly-lit, bare hallway has suddenly become so mind-numbingly terrifying. He doesn’t understand until the agent in the sober dark suit punches a code into the keypad beside the door, and the door slides aside with a hydraulic hiss.
The moment he sees Pitch, he knows that the other isn’t human. It’s not just the fact that he’s far taller than anyone has any right to be (with spidery legs that seem to go on forever, Sandy notices absently, and then hurriedly pushes the thought away), it isn’t just that he looks like he’s been abruptly plucked from a black-and-white movie, it isn’t really anything about Pitch’s looks at all. There’s something in his oddly-shifting eyes when they meet Sandy’s, something that Sandy can only describe as different.
The agent continues unperturbed, as though he’s seen this all before. “That’s the most interest Subject 627 has shown in anyone so far. Hope it’s a good sign.”
“S-Subject 627?” Sandy stammers, before quickly pulling himself together. He can’t take his eyes from the quicksilver ones locked on his.
“Yes, that’s its designation. We haven’t yet been able to communicate to ask its name. Or species. Or planet of origin. That’s where you come in.”
His name is Pitch Sandy wants to say, but he bites his tongue instead and wishes he knew how he knows.
Sandy’s studied all kinds of neurological disorders, ones that baffle the medical community beyond any hope of understanding. People have sought him out specifically for his expertise; he’s solved medical mysteries that put the ones on those sensationalized doctor shows to shame. He knows everything about the inner workings of the human brain, how it thinks and communicates and how that communication can break down.
That turns out to be a problem.
Pitch isn’t human.
It takes only half a session of trying out the same speech therapies that helped Sandy conquer his once-insurmountable stutter to realise that the problem isn’t that Pitch can’t speak. No, Pitch has a lovely, mellifluous voice, smooth as silk and rich as butter, that almost leaves Sandy breathless with jealousy. But all Pitch utters are phrases that Sandy’s said, repeating them back without even the slightest flicker of understanding. He’s trying, Sandy can tell, but the words mean nothing, and any attempt to discover if Pitch has a language of his own are met with blank and haughty stares.
Sandy wracks his brains for anything he might have missed, spends hours and hours researching pheromone communication and body language, combing through every journal he can find and turning up enormous, frustrating amounts of nothing. He reads studies of people who speak in clicks and shrieks, people who speak in sign language, people who speak to bees. He flips through casefiles he hasn’t touched in decades, bizarre neurological disorders that lead to senses of unreality, an inability to recognize loved ones, fugue states that make people wander off and start over. There is nothing – nothing – that gives him even the slightest clue of how to communicate with someone who doesn’t even use something as fundamental as language.
That night, Sandy dreams of black and gold streaming sinuous across a moonless sky. He wakes to find himself tangled in blankets, drenched in sweat, his heart pounding as though he’s just run a marathon. And, to his embarrassment and confusion, more aroused than he can remember ever being.
He tries to shake it off, but his cold shower rapidly turns into a quick and furious encounter between himself and his right hand. He leans back against the cool tile of the shower wall once he’s finished, feeling no wiser than when he began and a little surprised at himself. Where had that come from? He’s not exactly a teenager anymore; it’s been years since he’s felt this kind of greedy urgency. He lets the water pour down around him for a few more minutes, before turning it up as hot as it will go, and scrubs himself off as quickly as he can. At this rate, he’ll be late for work.
Sandy’s clearance is elevated, to allow him to come in to visit Pitch whenever he feels he needs to. Thanks to one slip on Sandy’s part, one casual mention of Pitch’s name in debriefing, whoever is in charge of this...whatever this is, seems to have decided that Sandy’s making progress. It worries Sandy, that perhaps he really can’t deliver and he’ll be taken off the case and someone else will get to try to figure Pitch out, someone who might not be as gentle as Sandy is. (He doesn’t acknowledge the little seed of hot and heavy nausea that settles in the pit of his generous stomach at the thought of someone else spending time with Pitch, figuring Pitch out, getting to see what’s going on behind those enigmatic eyes. Or if he does, he tells himself that it’s professional jealousy. Nothing more.)
But the upgrade does ensure that Sandy gets to stick around (for now), to see Pitch, to try out his different theories and approaches. Nothing works, of course, and Sandy still finds himself massively frustrated at every turn. He takes to simply sitting in Pitch’s room, reading through files or, on occasion, a good novel. He finds that Pitch seems most interested when Sandy’s absorbed in an ill-chosen Stephen King novel forced on him by a dear friend, and tries, despite the nervous tension that both book and public speech fill him with, to read aloud. But between Sandy’s still-present stutter and Pitch’s apparent incomprehension it just seems easier and better all around for Sandy to simply read silently.
Still, he could swear that somehow, Pitch is listening.
The second time he feels the dark tendrils brush his mind, Sandy is sure he’s dreaming. And maybe he is. He hasn’t been sleeping much lately, not since his dreams have turned...strange. Not exactly nightmares, but not exactly normal, either. And given his aversion to caffeinated beverages, a last-ditch effort to improve his paltry height, it was surely only a matter of time before he fell asleep on the job.
Then again, the way the letters of the book dance and jumble could merely be caused by sleep deprivation, the fact that he reads the same paragraph four times without taking in any of the information contained therein attributed to his unwillingness to continue reading just in case something horrible happens in the next paragraph. For a moment, Sandy wonders if this is how Pitch feels whenever he talks, before he sets the book aside with a sigh. Perhaps it’s time to try something else, even just to walk around for a bit and –
Perhaps he should read a little more. Find out what happens next. After all, the monster is approaching the little girl’s camp and he really wants to see what it’s going to do to her –
It’s then that Sandy realizes these thoughts can’t be his. His head snaps up, and he stares at the room’s other occupant, leaning forward with an unusually unguarded expression on his angular face. The moment Sandy meets Pitch’s eyes, he knows that he is not alone in his own head. The knowledge is almost overwhelming; Sandy feels flayed, exposed, laid bare in the most impossible and intimate way.
He snaps the book shut and jumps up, ignoring the way that Pitch recoils, returning to his usual impassive look. Sandy can almost feel the soft slither of retreating consciousness.
Well. That explains why he hasn’t been able to get through to Pitch through more conventional means.
“I’m d-done for the day,” he says aloud, more for the benefit of the cameras and microphones that he knows dot the room than for his patient. He turns on his heel, gathers up his things, trying to ignore how badly his hands are shaking.
He leaves without looking back.
That night, his dreams are golden.
He dreams a bathtub seashore, a leviathan stirring in vasty deeps, sticky golden sand between his toes, sun hot on his face and moon cool, an impossible castle of filigree and lickety-splits and handstands doing battle with a clipboard larger than the sky and greyer than Pitch’s fine soft skin (Sandy could just run his hands down that lean chest what does his muscular structure look like does he have two hearts does he have anything inside but shadows)
there’s a vast golden leviathan stirring
Sandy wakes to find that a dream-Kraken isn’t the only thing stirring.
He doesn’t go back that day. He sits in his small apartment (which feels too large and too empty, now, without a companion to share the space) and fills out reports he’s been neglecting, responds to emails he’s been sent, returns phone calls, apologises a thousand times. No, there’s this project he’s been caught up in. Yes, he’s quite sorry, really, but it will keep him occupied for the near foreseeable future. No, he can’t talk about it, good day.
He looks out the window every few minutes, at the drizzle and the dreary grey sky, and tries not to think about bare grey skin and how it might feel under his fingers or, heaven forbid, his tongue (like clouds? like sharkskin? like nothing more or less than flesh?). He tries not to think about the heavy presence of dark tendrils moving through his thoughts.
He tries very, very hard not to think.
On the second night of Sandy’s self-imposed exile, Pitch shows up in his dreams.
At first, Sandy finds himself lost in the woods, an impenetrable forest that is somehow simultaneously the woods in his book, the facility at the base, and a hall in a palace long since turned to stardust. The ground between the – trees? pillars? cells? – is crawling with thick, hissing shadows. Sandy steps into one by accident, and it clings to him like tar. He shakes it off with some difficulty, but two more take its place, and the distant horizon slowly disappears into a morass of dark. Chitterings and whisperings emanate from it, lamplike eyes glint, and Sandy knows without knowing how that something is approaching. Frozen to the spot with dread, he can’t say if it will be the monster or the king in his heavy black crown or the specimen being studied.
But when the low and rolling laugh echoes out of the dark, Sandy knows that the answer lies somewhere in between. The boiling shadows curl around him like limbs, a grinning jagged mouth sprouts just below the gleaming eyes, the laughter continues dark and rich and wicked and Sandy wakes up panting and terrified and almost painfully hard.
He doesn’t bother trying to make it to the bathroom. It only takes two quick strokes, imagining longer, slenderer fingers in place of his own rather chubby ones, before orgasm slams into him like a meteor strike. In the aftermath, Sandy clings to his bed as if trying to keep from falling upwards, breathless and boneless and beyond trying to understand.
He drifts off, eventually, dreaming ordinary, silly things, before shaking himself awake again. He takes a short shower, dresses, and throws his sheets into the wash. The chugging of the washer only seems to underscore the lonely quiet of the apartment, though, and Sandy gets through only half of a journal article on Jungian archetypes and the shared subconscious before he gives up. He can’t stand to be here alone, but he can’t imagine going back to the facility now.
Finally, frustrated, he flops down in front of the television, flipping through the channels in search of something mindless to absorb his interest and turn his brain off to for a few hours. He ends up turning the set off in disgust after the eighth ‘reality’ program about awful people being catty to each other. Sandy turns to his bookshelves, intending to pick one of the books he hasn’t yet read, gifts from well-meaning friends and acquaintances. Instead, he finds himself choosing an old favourite, the tale of a star who falls to Earth and a boy who falls in love.
Sandy had remembered the story as a sweet, fantastical romance, but on rereading it strikes him just how lonely and afraid the star is, lost in a world of politics she doesn’t understand and people who want to steal her away and cut out her heart. Sandy can’t help but think of his first day on the base, the terror lying thick in the air, and when the boy in the book leaves the star to cross back out of fantasy, Sandy has to put the book aside.
He makes himself a mug of chamomile tea, and his hands hardly shake at all.
He is looking down on a small, blue-green planet, whorled with spirals of white. For some reason it is egg-shaped, but Sandy knows this is only the dream talking. It’s his Earth, he knows as surely as he knows himself to be made of stardust.
And he is stardust. He turns, and a long thread of sparkling gold trails from his shoulders and his arms and the tips of his fingers, brilliant against the infinite dark. He laughs, soundless, and spins, feeling as though light is bubbling through him and out in endless, shimmering streamers. The stars around him laugh, too, chiming of crystal and china and fine champagne.
Then one of them dies.
The planet is no longer his, turned to a place of shadows and vast halls and deep pools of carefully-stored moonlight, a place which dies instantly in the blinding brilliance of its star’s last flare. The supernova-blast flings razor-edged memories at him in jumbled, fragmented images; a roomful of amorphous dancers, a thousand shades of dark flickering and shimmering in illusory grandeur; a building hewn from the top of a mountain; the dull reddish light of a dying sun, drunk in by glorious leaden armour; a storm of glittering butterfly-wings in a thousand shades of midnight; a smile.
The last memory strikes him in the heart and he falls, wildly, uncontrollably, hurtling down towards the egg-shape of the Earth he both knows and doesn’t, tarnished gold spiraling out in a long comet-trail behind him. The dark rises up to meet him, catches him, cradles him, slows his fall, until once again he’s suspended above a planet that seems to have rejected uniform roundness. Dark curls round him, tenderly, tentatively, threads through his golden streamers with a gentle touch that makes him shiver right down to his toes. Dark presses close and warm against him and cards through his hair, leaving little drops of unapologetic but conciliatory comfort in its wake.
It dawns on him with the speed of sleep that he knows this dark, that this is not the first time he’s felt its silken touch, and he’s not surprised when he turns to face it and sees glinting quicksilver eyes, a grin that opens as a jagged gash in shadow to reveal deeper dark and strange, unfamiliar stars. It would be a terrifying visage to anyone else and under any other circumstances and yet, here and now, Sandy can’t think of a face he’d be gladder to see.
He cradles Pitch’s cheeks (or what he decides must be cheeks) between two small golden hands and, with the confidence born of knowing this is a dream, leans in and plants a kiss on the shadowy being, just above the largest two of his multitudinous eyes. The dark feels warm and soft and insubstantial, and the tendrils caressing him freeze at the contact, before pulling Sandy in close, smothering him in comfortable warmth and blotting out the stars.
Sandy wakes to find he’s somehow cocooned himself completely in blankets. It takes several minutes’ struggling to free himself. When he staggers into the bathroom and stares blearily at himself in the mirror, he is mildly surprised to find no golden dust lingering in his hair or on his shoulders.
There are, however, the dried-up trails of tears on his cheeks.
He has to go back.
Much as it scares him, Sandy can’t deny it. And so, he dons a cardigan with all the solemnity of a general arming for battle, and leaves the apartment for the first time in two days.
The guard on the gate seems surprised to see him. “Dr. Mansnoozie? It says here that you aren’t expected back until Monday.”
“Changed my mind,” Sandy answers, silently willing his voice to stay steady. “I had some new ideas while I was at home.”
The guard shrugs, checks his pass, and raises the gate for him.
Nervous anticipation dogs his heels all the way through the facility, and Sandy has to stop to collect himself when he reaches Pitch’s room. He stands outside the door fidgeting with his collar for a few long moments, wishing he knew what to expect. Finally, he squares his shoulders, and keys his code into the pad by the door before he can change his mind and turn back.
Pitch looks up when Sandy enters, and for a split second Sandy’s heart leaps into his throat. And then Pitch’s brow furrows and he looks away. It’s the clearest, simplest, most elegantly effective dismissal that Sandy’s ever been given. He can feel his heart sink, a leaden weight in his chest.
“Hello,” he says anyway. They’ve come to the point where Pitch will parrot Sandy’s greetings, and Sandy suspects Pitch is starting to understand how they’re meant to open and close interactions. His suspicion is confirmed when Pitch responds with nothing but a haughty glare and a turned back, but the victory is hollow.
Sandy stands in the entry, awkwardly, unsure of whether to leave or stay or what to do with his hands. He worries the hem of his cardigan between his fingers, feeling utterly wretched. After all, hasn’t the entire point of this endeavour been to get Pitch to communicate with him? And what did Sandy do when Pitch did exactly as he’d wanted? Panicked, run off and left him alone.
But the wretchedness quickly gives way to determination. So Pitch doesn’t want to talk to Sandy? Fine. Then Sandy won’t talk to him.
Sandy marches over to his usual chair, and spins it so it no longer faces Pitch, who still refuses to acknowledge Sandy’s presence beyond the occasional glower. Sandy settles himself into the chair, making certain he’s comfortable, and then reaches into his bag for his book. He still doesn’t know what the monster did to the little girl when it finally caught her. If it caught her at all. She’s had so many narrow escapes already.
He’s about a chapter in when he feels the grudgingly-curious tickle of dark at the back of his mind. Sandy smiles, even though he knows that Pitch can’t see it, and turns obligingly back to the start of the chapter.
There isn’t much of the book left, but that only means that the game of cat and mouse between the terrified girl and the unseen monster is tearing towards its inevitable conclusion. Despite himself, Sandy gets drawn into the world between the words, losing himself right alongside the girl. He stumbles slipshod through a sweltering summer forest towards the tantalizing roar of a highway, tears in his eyes as he looks back for the monster in pursuit.
So softly that he barely notices, he’s reminded of a dream, the forest dissolving around him into lofty, gloomy halls and skittering shadows that swell between the pillars. Sandy only realizes he’s stopped reading when Pitch’s thoughts tense, slicing through Sandy’s fog of fear and hazy memory like a taut steel wire. The recognition in them is hot and sharp and bright with pain, and Sandy drops the book to clap both hands to his temples against the sudden stabbing. Across the room, Pitch whirls to face him, and the look on his face is as open as a wound.
The dark is demanding, ravaging, thrashing around through Sandy’s mind as though rifling carelessly through a chest of drawers. Where had Sandy seen that? How did he know it? Why is Sandy dragging Pitch back through the halls of a palace that was lost along with everything else that had ever mattered?
“Ow, ow, ow, I don’t know, I don’t know,” Sandy begs, wishing he could stop the invasion. The dark is no longer soft and inviting, but sharp and jagged, like glass arrows driven through every one of his thoughts. When he can think, he wonders at the idea that Pitch hadn’t meant to turn up in these strangest of his dreams.
He realizes his mistake only when the dark seizes on the thought of those dreams and dumps them out unceremoniously, spilling their contents all over the forefront of Sandy’s mind. Desolate forests, the far reaches of space, glittering midnight wings, luminous eyes, black and gold twining together against a backdrop of stars –
you weren’t supposed to see that
Sandy reaches hurriedly for the next fragment of dreamstuff. It turns out to be the smile that struck him from the sky, and to his surprise, it’s only at the sight of this that Pitch stops his rampage. A face begins to coalesce around the smile, a face which is amorphous and shadow and bright quicksilver eyes, but a face that Sandy is somehow certain is not the one that once, in a dream, he dared to kiss just above its gleaming eyes.
It takes him a moment to realise that the door sliding open is not inside his head.
“Dr. Mansnoozie! Are you hurt? What did it do to you?”
Sandy uncurls, blinks his eyes open and winces at the sudden brightness. “Don’t hurt him,” he protests. “It’s not P-Pitch, just a migraine, I g-g-get them all the t-time.” His voice shakes so badly that he’s surprised anyone can even tell there are words under the stutter.
The orderlies exchange a dubious look, but the one who had been advancing on Pitch turns back, and helps his partner help Sandy back to his feet.
“I’m s-sorry,” Sandy stammers, his thoughts moving faster than his words ever could, just like always. “I t-took a week because I w-wasn’t feeling well, b-b-b-” He stops, takes a deep breath, runs at the sentence from another angle. “I thought I was b-better. It seems I w-wasn’t. I’m sorry.” He doesn’t speak another word, just lets the orderlies escort him from the room.
Sandy looks back once, to see that Pitch is still frozen in place, eyes blank. One elegant, spidery hand reaches up to touch a spot just above his eyes.
The door slides shut.
Sandy takes an enforced vacation. After being chewed out for possibly exposing a valuable specimen to potentially-devastating germs, and explaining for the thousandth time that migraines are not transmittable diseases, he’s thoroughly debriefed and sent back home for a week to recuperate.
It’s the most agonizing week of his life.
He exhausts his whole backlog of case files in the first two days, spends the third drinking chamomile tea and complaining about daytime television to thin air even as he continues to watch it, and on the fourth digs out the boxes of comic books he’s had buried in the back of his closet since he moved. There’s something almost comforting about falling back into an unsettling world of dreams within dreams and impossibly tall, inhuman figures in shades of black and white.
He spends the fifth day looking for recommendations of horror novels online, eventually ordering nearly thirty books even though horror makes his stomach turn and leaves him starting at shadows for days. On the sixth day, he drags himself out of bed at seven o’clock and goes to see the doctor on base, who declares him to be in perfect health. He returns to the facility with a signed note and an iron will.
It turns out he doesn’t need it. The doctor they’ve assigned to take his place in the interim is only too glad to let Sandy take over again, the frustration and exhaustion clear in her eyes as she shakes her head.
“I don’t know how you do it. He gives me the creeps,” she mutters, and Sandy nods as though he understands. And he does understand, in a distant sort of way. Pitch is awesome, terrifying, cold and strange and foreign as the dark side of the moon. To Sandy, his pull is magnetic, but he can see how it might push others away. At least this doctor doesn’t call Pitch an ‘it’.
Pitch looks up the instant Sandy walks in, and this time, doesn’t turn away. Not for the first time, Sandy finds himself at a loss. He has a million questions and no idea how to ask them, or even whether he should.
“Hello,” he says, at last, for something to say more than out of any real idea of where this conversation might go. Pitch’s lips quirk up into a small and sardonic grin, and he echoes Sandy in that wine-and-dark-chocolate voice.
Sandy smiles, his biggest and brightest, and apologises for his absence without saying a word.
He quickly realizes that saying isn’t the problem here. Sandy's forgotten that it isn’t just speech that seems to mean nothing to Pitch. It’s language. All of Sandy’s attempts to project a message, to restore whatever connection had somehow opened between him and Pitch the last time he was here, fail miserably. Sandy can’t understand it. Pitch had seemed to understand the book well enough –
The book. Which Sandy still hasn’t finished.
Pitch, who has been looking decidedly bored with the proceedings, perks up when Sandy ducks down into his bag, and smiles slow and sinuous when Sandy pulls out the little green book. For the briefest of brushes, Sandy gets a flicker of crashing branches and pounding heartbeat and impending doom, before Pitch settles back into what Sandy has come to think of as a cozy armchair in his mind, watching the story flicker past.
It’s just when the girl beans the monster in the head with a perfect throw that Sandy realizes what his poor attempts at communication have been missing. He’s been thinking words at Pitch, words in a language that the other couldn’t possibly understand, when all along they’ve been talking in images. Feelings. Memories. Dreams, even. The rigid structure of words is only getting in the way.
This might end up being harder than he thought.
The first time Sandy tries to talk in pictures, Pitch laughs.
It’s a lovely sound, low and dark and rolling and rather beautiful even though the echoes of where he heard it last send a little thrill of terror down Sandy’s spine. If he’s perfectly honest with himself, it’s not all terror, but being perfectly honest with himself when he’s not alone in his head does not seem to be a very good idea.
It takes several frustrating minutes for Sandy to figure out how to convey that he’s asking why without using a single English word or symbol, minutes during which Pitch simply watches him with an awfully smug grin on his angular face. Sandy feels the tips of his ears burning in embarrassment, and finally fires a question mark in Pitch’s direction, trying to ladle all of his confusion and frustration, as well as indignation at being laughed at, into the one tiny symbol. He’s rewarded with another velvety laugh and the sudden understanding of how he looks from the other side, like a child first learning to speak, with pictures swirling in bright gold over his head.
Sandy doesn’t sulk about it. He absolutely does not sulk about it. Even so, it isn’t until Pitch pulls up memories of the weeks and weeks of trying to make sense of sentences that Sandy softens. After all, in terms of learning this he really is a child, only just beginning.
He should try to force it less. He’s doing so well, really. He’s always been more open than the others, even from the moment Pitch first laid eyes on him. That’s the only reason they’ve been able to speak like this at all. All Sandy needs to do is – dream? Dream, what a funny concept – his way in, just as he’s done before.
He’s so pretty when he does, all brilliant and warm and golden even though there’s something about that shell that looks so soft so inviting what would it be like to touch
Sandy’s head snaps up, and he sees his own startled expression mirrored on Pitch’s face. That must not have been meant to slip through.
He can’t help a small smile and a sour thought of the cameras positioned around the room, the agent who must be watching for any sign of trouble or any breakthrough. And he reaches out and brushes his fingers, just lightly, across the back of Pitch’s hand.
Sandy’s not sure if he’s dreaming.
The palace is in ruins around him. (At the same time, it’s ever-shifting, growing and dying in every second, more like a living creature than a building of – sand? Sand.) The grandeur of its halls is fragmented (organic), massive pillars and ornate arches toppled beside crags of living stone (towers sprouting and withering away as new wings open up and old ones close themselves off). The only light that does not beam golden from his stardust is dim and red and leaks down from somewhere far above (the halls pulse and glow with a soft inner light the same gold as the sweetest, warmest evening of summer).
He wanders familiar unfamiliar halls following a sound a little like the sobs that someone has never let out, unruffled by the two palaces that seem to be trying to take up the same space and time. It doesn’t matter. It never has.
The first few shadows that don’t recoil from his light tell him he has found what he searches for (the shadows laid along the edges of this hall couldn’t be cast by anything, not with light pouring from the walls), and he follows their trail without a moment’s hesitation. The hollow sounds made by unshed tears grow louder with every step he takes, even as the jagged ruins grow more glorious and more broken (the golden light dims to the faint silvery glow of twilight and the ceaseless shifting of the sands grows sluggish and slow).
He finds Pitch as a shadow in a hall as tall as the sky and filled with frames that once held tarnished mirrors, their shards glittering with his reflected light as he approaches (he finds Pitch as a shadow in a room that could be chapel or crypt, gold filigree glittering on silvered walls that hold their shape for more than seconds at a time). There’s a portrait, another shadow not moving but painted, hanging high out of reach in a silver frame, and Pitch is contemplating it without eyes.
He reaches out towards the little shadow, and as soon as his light brushes over that darkness Pitch turns, blinks open brilliant eyes in the pitch dark of his shapeless body. The air around them wells up with something thick and heavy and grey as despair, love and loss and a grief so deep that even if there were words they would not be enough to hold it.
Sandy glances up at the portrait, and knows that it isn’t just a girl (and how can he tell when all she is is a shadow but somehow he knows she is dear and lost and gone) but a whole world in a single image. (The name on the tomb is unreadable but the images that leak out from under its lid are dark and warm and well-loved.) A memory of a memory, the ghost of a smile, imposes itself on the portrait’s face, and Pitch shivers. A face builds itself around the smile, a face curiously human, though grey as rainy skies and angled like one Sandy knows too well for words. Her dark hair haloes out around her before the supernova light that shines through it flows out to consume her.
This time, Sandy reaches out for the dark.
Even as stardust, he cannot imagine himself as anything other than small and round, but here his edges are limitless and he can catch and cradle his little shadow, envelop Pitch completely in the warmth and the light and the comfort that is all he has to give. (There is more, there is so much more, but now is not the time or the place and the grieving father pressing himself against Sandy’s welcoming softness does not need the weight of any more expectations placed upon his shoulders.) He wraps Pitch up in gold, cocoons him in the best dream he can imagine.
The hall dissolves into a storm of glittering twilight (golden) butterflies.
Sandy can’t quite face himself in the mirror. When he realizes he’s avoiding his own eyes, he forces himself to stop, to stand facing the silvered glass, to take in every pore and every freckle and every flaw of plump and peachy cheeks, stubby nose, brown eyes and tawny hair that refuses to lay flat.
“This is you,” he says, taking in every imperfection, every line, every roll. Every last pound of heavy humanity. “This is you. This is all you are.”
He doesn’t quite know why his throat suddenly feels tight. Or perhaps he does, and simply doesn’t want to.
He turns away from the mirror.
It’s as though an invisible barrier has come down between them. Before, they would dance around each other, stuck in orbit, a moth and a flame, never touching for fear of burning. Now, though, they touch, and touch, and touch, as though their hands are starving and the other’s skin is the only thing to sate that hunger.
Cameras are a concept, like language, that Sandy simply cannot turn far enough around to fit into Pitch’s view of the world; the idea that someone could observe without being watched in turn is simply laughable. Still, their brushes of skin on skin are innocent, at first.
It starts with fingers twined together in a silent and inscrutable gesture when Sandy returns the morning after he comforts a grieving father in the depths of an impossible palace. Sandy squeezes once, reassuring; I’m here, I’m still here, I’ll always be here. Pitch’s fingers are cool and oddly dry, textured a little like snakeskin, and Sandy tries very hard not to imagine how they might feel trailing down his chest, cupping his face, tangled in his hair…
He finds out the next time they speak. Sandy’s in the middle of trying to explain something, he doesn’t remember what, when he’s interrupted by a rush of curiosity and a cool thumb brushed across his cheek. Sandy’s mind stutters to a halt, consumed entirely by the slight pressure of Pitch’s elegant hand along his jaw, the silky glide of skin on his skin. He hears Pitch’s wonderment at the fact that his freckles don’t come off for only an instant, before the muddle in Sandy’s thoughts breaks through and a slow and lazy grin crosses Pitch’s face.
He looks – and feels – like a cat who has just learned how to operate a can opener, and Sandy’s not surprised in the slightest when he strokes his thumb along Sandy’s cheek again, more slowly this time, dragging out the moment of contact. Sandy does his best not to react, but he’s sure there are golden mental fireworks going off above his head.
After that, Pitch seems to take a perverse delight in trying to wring that response out of Sandy again, touching whenever – and wherever – he can. He toys with Sandy’s unmanageable hair, curls impossibly long fingers over Sandy’s shoulders, catches Sandy’s hands in his and refuses to release them. The fact that Sandy never reciprocates only seems to egg him on, and eventually Sandy finds himself grabbed the moment he walks through the door and pulled flush against Pitch’s chest.
For the second time, Sandy stumbles over his own thoughts, the sheer heady closeness drowning out any objection that tries to make itself heard. He’s reminded abruptly just how much taller Pitch is than him when he finds his face nearly pressed into that lovely lean stomach, and frantically tries to pull himself together, thinking desperately of cameras and microphones and angry agents with guns and –
And his mind goes completely blank when Pitch leans down and softly – ever so softly, as though he might break something – presses cool and satiny lips to Sandy’s forehead, just above his eyes.
Sandy can’t seem to remember how to breathe.
Pitch draws back, his ever-shifting eyes stuck on gold and locked on Sandy’s, and a thousand warnings burst to screaming life in the back of Sandy’s thoughts. No matter what else Pitch might be, he is first and foremost a client. He’s lost and alone and deep in mourning (losing a world and a daughter who meant more than the world will do that to a man) and he’s placed his trust in Sandy. And what has Sandy done with that valuable, fragile trust?
He’s breached so many rules of professional and ethical conduct that the only thing to do now is to stop this before it can go any farther. To write his reports, hand over all of the information he’s gathered, and bow out gracefully. He’s got to be realistic. He’s been living in a dream for the past month, but it’s time to wake up.
He thinks of a star falling on the other side of a wall between fantasy and reality, of shadows and stardust, and he reaches out and hauls Pitch back down to press their lips together.
It isn’t so much a kiss as it is a clash, lips mashed together more enthusiastically than skillfully. The angle is awkward, their noses can’t quite seem to align, and it ends abruptly when their teeth smash together and they both recoil.
It’s the best kiss Sandy’s ever had.
Pitch is all confusion and a little anger, pushing and prodding at Sandy to explain why this assault, and why mouths, and how could Sandy possibly have enjoyed that when it was so clumsy and slightly painful and –
This time, Sandy gets the kiss right, and for once, Pitch doesn’t need any further explanation.
He tastes lightning and ozone, the smell of the earth after rain. Sandy nips at Pitch’s bottom lip and smiles at the moment of dawning realization that oh, this is why mouths. He takes advantage of Pitch’s surprise to press in deeper, searching out Pitch’s tongue with his own, and suddenly finds the tables turned. Slender hands grip Sandy’s shoulders with surprising force, thrust him back against the wall with unexpected ferocity as Pitch delves into Sandy’s mouth as though determined to explore every inch of it. One hand glides whisper-smooth up Sandy’s neck to fist in his hair, and Sandy responds by flinging his arms around Pitch’s graceful neck and pulling him in closer. After denying himself for so long, Sandy wants nothing more than to run greedy hands – and greedier tongue - over every line and angle and razor’s-edge curve that make up the elegant figure he – loves?
Loves, Sandy decides, breaking off the kiss to press a line of little butterfly kisses down the column of Pitch’s throat. He bites, lightly, just above the collarbone, and is rewarded with a gasp and a sudden flood of unbridled, confused, and dizzy desire. Sandy smiles into Pitch’s shoulder and echoes the wish that he knew what he was doing. They’ll just have to muddle it out together.
He doesn’t remember undressing, doesn’t remember much in the dreamlike haze of all-consuming heat that sparks between them. All he knows is the gentle rasp of snakeskin-satin hands touching, teasing, caressing, the taste of thunderstorms as he licks long stripes along the canvas of exposed skin, the shivering feedback loop of two minds singing each other’s rapture in perfect harmony. It seems the most natural thing in the world when a bruising kiss pressed just above his heart leaves a shimmering golden mark, spreading ever outward in hairline cracks; when the tongue curling around and into his ear becomes a tendril of inquisitive shadow while a busy mouth maps his most sensitive places; when silver fingers card stardust out of his hair. They are their bodies and they are more than their bodies, tangled together in more ways than one, and when it finally becomes too much to handle Sandy tips over the edge and explodes into a thousand golden fireworks.
He wakes up shivering and sweating and certain of two things: one, that what just happened was definitely not just a dream, or at least not just his dream; and two, that he is going to have to wash his sheets again.
Sandy stops looking in mirrors.
It ends, as all dreams must.
The bubble pops when Sandy is pulled into a meeting to discuss his progress. He’d somehow managed to forget the world outside of his head, forget who he’s writing and filing reports for, forget who watches the camera feeds and listens to every word he says, every word he coaxes out of Pitch. He’d lost himself in long deep dreaming and he’d managed to forget what brought him here in the first place.
The meeting brings it all crashing back down on him.
It begins badly, and only gets worse. Sandy’s dragged away literally in the middle of a conversation with Pitch (which, to be fair, must have looked to whoever was observing like Sandy very intently reading a book about a fallen star), and after that abrupt shake back to reality, all conversation feels too harsh. Spoken words ring around his head like shouts and he tries not to wince when he’s led into a room full of people, all talking at and over each other at once.
“We’re on a deadline here. If we don’t get some kind of intelligence soon -”
“- biggest breakthrough of our century, if it we could just get it to talk to us -”
“- it’s not only highly improbable but incredibly impractical to have an entire species that looks and acts so much like humans on a planet with an environment that could not possibly duplicate that of Earth -”
“- never know if we’re being attacked until they show up on our doorstep!”
They all fall silent at the sight of Sandy, apart from the woman at the head of the table, whose face breaks into a broad and white and utterly insincere grin. “Ah, there he is! Dr. Mansnoozie, the man of the hour. We’ve all been eagerly awaiting your report.”
Under the careful scrutiny of six pairs of eyes, Sandy suddenly feels very small indeed.
He shuffles the handful of papers he’s brought with him, clears his throat in a vain attempt to stall long enough to think of something intelligent to say.
“Well, spit it out!” says the woman with the insincere smile. “Tell us what to expect from our E.T.”
“I – I – I -” Sandy swallows hard, draws himself up to his full, rather inconsequential height. “I have b-been unable to establish verbal c-communication -”
“Then what use are you?” the uniformed man with the graying buzzcut barks, and Sandy flinches. “We pay some absurd sum for this little twerp to come and ignore the alien for eight hours a day -”
“I’m sure Doctor Mansnoozie would be glad to explain his methods, if you would only give him a chance to -”
“Don’t interrupt me, Dixon, I made you and I can break you.” The woman with the insincere smile drops it when she hears that. “We can’t keep pussyfooting around. The longer we wait, the more vulnerable we are to invasion. I say it’s time to make our little green man talk. By any means necessary.”
“He’s not an invader!” Sandy blurts. “P-Pitch is a refugee.”
The room falls silent. Six pairs of eyes fix on Sandy, who realizes his mistake too late.
“How do you know that?” the man who had been expounding the implausibility of Pitch’s existence asks sharply, and Sandy feels sick.
If it keeps Pitch safe, he tells himself, and begins from the beginning.
They revoke Sandy’s clearance.
After a brief and awkwardly-stuttered explanation, followed by what feels like agonizing hours of debriefing, they decide that he is simply too emotionally compromised to continue working objectively and professionally on the case. Sandy can’t say he blames them.
He only looks back once as he’s escorted from the compound, feeling strangely hollow. He doesn’t regret the deception, didn’t regret beginning it and does not now regret unraveling it, but he does regret that it has led to the exact outcome he began it to prevent. If it keeps Pitch safe, he repeats, like a mantra, and knows with each repetition that he means it.
The world seems a little smaller now, a little shabbier, the colours duller, and Sandy can’t help but wonder if this is how Dorothy felt when she woke up and found herself back in sepia-tones after seeing Oz in Technicolour. Probably not, he decides. After all, everyone she loved was right there in Kansas with her.
Trudging through his apartment is like slogging through quicksand. He doesn’t make it as far as the bedroom before exhaustion drags him down, flopping instead onto the couch and idly tracing patterns in the cracks on the ceiling. He wonders what happens now. There’s no way they’d let him just go back to everyday life, not knowing what he knows. Even if they would, he doesn’t think he could.
Sandy doesn’t even notice when he slips into a dark and dreamless sleep.
He’s woken several disorienting hours later by a banging on his door. Once he gets his bearings and shakes the cobwebs from his head, he stumbles over to the door and opens it just enough to peek out.
There’s a man and a woman on his doorstep, each in dark suits. When Sandy opens the door they both flash badges with familiar black lettering. They’ve come to collect Sandy’s case notes, his journals, and anything else that might contain what is now classified information. Sandy follows them around the apartment, feeling like an invader in his own space, silently tallying every item they confiscate.
The dark-haired agent seems eager to hear all about Pitch and telepathy and the base, peppering Sandy with questions to which Sandy either doesn’t know the answer or isn’t legally allowed to answer. His redheaded partner seems less than convinced, making the occasional deadpan comment or disbelievingly echoing the more outlandish of her partner’s theories when Sandy is less than forthcoming. They must not have been to the base itself, Sandy decides; if either of them had ever seen Pitch, she’d be less skeptical, and he wouldn’t be asking some of the more glaringly obvious questions.
It’s late in the afternoon by the time the agents finish. They carry out three file boxes of journals and notes. Sandy can’t quite seem to believe that that’s all it boils down to in the end.
The man stops in the doorway as they leave, letting his partner walk ahead. “Was it all true?” he asks Sandy. It’s not exactly a surprising question, but it makes Sandy stop and think. It’s not that he doubts Pitch’s existence; no, far from it. But – Sandy has to face the fact that he is a smallish, roundish, lonely man for whom ‘middle-aged’ is quickly becoming a compliment. How easy would it have been to build up a grand romance in his head, especially when so much of it has happened there in the first place?
The marks of remembered kisses burn just above his eyes and just above his heart.
“Yes,” Sandy answers, and his voice doesn’t shake. “All of it.”
The agent nods. “Thank you,” he says, quietly. His partner has stopped halfway down the hall, and she fixes them both with a look that could cut glass.
“Are you coming, or are you two going to spend all day swapping UFO stories?”
The dark-haired agent gives Sandy a smile and a shrug before starting after her. Sandy can hear them bantering all the way down the hall.
“Telepaths. What’s next, calling up the psychic hotline?”
“You know, there’s scientific evidence that mirror neurons let us experience other people’s emotions. Why not their thoughts?”
“Provided they have any."
The building door shuts behind them, and just like that, it’s over.
Sandy spends the remainder of the day packing away the things the agents left out during their search. He finds the boxes of horror novels he’d ordered, and spends long minutes debating whether to unpack them and arrange them on the shelf with his other books, or pack them up and send them back. In the end, he does neither, shoving them into the back of his closet and retreating to the couch. Reality television may be banal and sensational, but at least it doesn’t make him think.
That night, he dreams himself into the inn from his book, which sprung out of seemingly nowhere when he most needed it. He’s lying on a soft bed as the innkeeper’s wife approaches the door. He can hear her voice, low and warm, and it should be reassuring. The whole scene should be relaxing, soothing. Instead, it is heavy with choking terror, the unswayable certainty that something awful looms on the horizon. Menace leers from every light and shivers through the shadows on the bedclothes.
“After what it did to the last psychologist? No, there can’t be any chance of that happening again,” the innkeeper’s wife says, her voice still low but less than comforting. “Dr Mansnoozie’s notes are thorough enough. It’s well past time we moved on, opened it up and had a look.”
The walls are white, the bed is steel, and a witch in white robes raises an obsidian knife to cut out his heart –
Sandy wakes himself with his own screaming.
It’s early in the morning when he pulls up to the gates, a chill still hanging over the desert, turned grey and ghostly in the early dawn light. The guard at the gates is dozy, but unfortunately still awake enough to know that Sandy doesn’t belong there. After a futile attempt to argue that some of his necessary patient files have been taken along with the ones dealing with Pitch, Sandy’s told to leave, or face arrest. Eventually, Sandy sighs, and nods, and backs out of the gatepost.
He doesn’t know for sure what seizes him in that moment. He’s no action hero, no tall and muscle-bound badass with a script and stunt doubles and special effects on his side. There’s no reason to believe that this would ever work.
But he still stomps the gas pedal into the floor, and rams the gates at sixty miles an hour.
As it turns out, they have interrogation cells on the base.
Sandy memorizes every corner and every crack of the one they lock him up in. He tests the cuffs that keep him chained to the steel table, finds them lacking any convenient weakness. He counts the cameras, their pinhole eyes glittering, and holds a staring contest with the two-way mirror, trying to make out the faces on the other side. All he sees is his own face looking back, what he had thought a steely and stubborn glare looking foolish on its sweet features.
It’s nearly an hour before anyone sets foot in the room, nearly an hour of alternately cursing himself for his stupidity and worrying. When the door finally opens, Sandy bites his bottom lip and resolves to remain calm.
He ignores all of the agent’s attempts to bait him into talking, staring resolutely at the table’s dented surface instead. It’s only when the man asks, “So what was so important that it was worth attacking a U.S. Air Force base for?” that Sandy looks up.
“Am I under arrest?”
The agent frowns, eyes Sandy’s cuffs. “What do you think?”
“I think I haven’t been formally p-placed under arrest or read my r-rights.” Sandy’s surprised to find he barely stutters at all. “Until I get a l-lawyer and a f-formal charge, I’m not talking.”
“You know,” the agent says thoughtfully, “what you did could be considered an act of terrorism. We don’t have to charge you with anything to hold you. In fact, you’re lucky we’re not shipping you off to Gitmo right now…”
Sandy tunes him out.
He will not speak.
They don’t get a word out of him. Not even when the speakers turn on and suddenly there’s a hushed conversation being broadcast into the room.
“- worried about something like this happening. I’d really thought that cutting it into bits might have broken whatever hold it’s got over him, but -”
“Ma’am, I think your microphone is on.”
There’s a squeal, and the speakers go dead.
It’s a trick. Nothing is an accident in an interrogation. It has to be a trick.
He won’t fall for it. He will not worry. He will not fear.
And he will not speak.
Sandy nearly cries at the sudden familiar tickle of dark at the back of his mind.
He wasn’t afraid, he tells himself, so there’s no reason for this relief. And yet it’s there, easing out the tension in his shoulders and the scowl on his face, a shared, grateful oh, there you are. The cell, the cuffs, the whole dull dreadful world melts away like candyfloss in the rain.
Sandy curls back into the soft and soothing presence in his thoughts, tendrils that wrap warmly and possessively around him and shut out his fears of the worst. Pitch lingers over the memory of driving into the gate, and Sandy has to distract him with a stardust kiss before he can start to gloat. Yes, perhaps Sandy is enraptured. It’s not as though Pitch isn’t as well.
He can’t keep the memory of the words that struck that fear into his heart entirely at bay, though, and it isn’t long before Pitch is prodding at them and demanding explanation. Sandy offers up his dream, knives and hearts, bodies bloodied and lifeless, and manages to make himself so upset that it doesn’t occur to him for far too long that Pitch is laughing. Did Sandy really think that a body was that important?
Sandy scowls down at the steel table, the cuffs holding him in place.
They don’t have to, he knows, with sudden unshakeable certainty. None of this can hold him. Shed his skin, as Pitch has done, and be free of here with all its heaviness and its dullness and its sadness. It was only worth being here so long as Sandy was, after all.
Sandy shakes his head, curls his fingers into fists so tightly that his fingernails dig into his palms. The pain is real. He can’t escape it that easily. He’s not like Pitch seems to be; his thoughts are made up of neurons and electricity, not stardust and dreamstuff.
Dark fingers comb through his hair, shaking free a fine haze of golden glimmer. Lips press surprisingly gentle kisses down his neck and across his shoulders, and the question appears unbidden: how could this be if Sandy himself were not more?
He wants to believe it. He wants it more than anything he has ever wanted before.
Sandy shuts his eyes, and the world disappears in black and gold.
By the time the agents watching from behind the mirror realise something’s wrong, Dr Mansnoozie’s heart has already stopped. Their best efforts to revive him prove futile, and Dr Sanderson Mansnoozie is declared dead at three forty-six PM.
Sandy barely notices, and can’t bring himself to care. His gold and Pitch’s black are as beautiful together as he could ever have dreamed, and the stars are so much brighter above the atmosphere.
Sometimes Sandy dreams himself back into his body.
Not the one lying under the ground, slowly disappearing back into earth. But the one he remembers, the one that was home for nearly half a century. He knows it so well that he can slip back into its familiar rhythms without a thought. And sometimes, he does just that.
Pitch, who has never been tethered inextricably to a bundle of nerve and bone and blood, who does not know the seductive music of a heartbeat, doesn’t quite understand. He wears bodies lightly, tries them on and discards them like ill-fitting suits. It baffles him that Sandy falls back on one familiar shape, and Sandy can’t quite seem to explain how even though the freedom of incorporeality is intoxicating, no matter how much he cherishes the meeting of their minds, he still sometimes longs for a simple touch.
Tonight, the lure is especially strong, and Sandy can no more resist the ache to slip back into skin than the tide can resist the pull of the moon. He can feel Pitch’s impatience and disapproval, but the urge to look at the stars with actual eyes is stronger than his desire to see the directors of the base, the would-be architects of their destruction, sweating and screaming through their nightmares. So he is here instead, on an unnamed roof, as alone as he ever is (which is never truly alone, or at least not ever lonely), surveying the constellations.
His form, still smallish and roundish, has only grown more exaggerated the more his tether to the memory of flesh decays, and Sandy wonders vaguely if he will someday reach for ‘human’ and wind up spherical instead. The possibility seems very dim and far away and hardly alarming at all. Besides, he can’t bring himself to worry about much of anything when he can actually feel the cool night wind ruffling his golden hair and brushing butterfly-soft against his cheeks.
He’s missed this. Even if he can’t explain it, it’s enough just to be able to experience it. Sandy wouldn’t take any of it back, not ever, but he never realizes how much he misses sensation until he takes form and is blown away all over again.
One of the feathery brushes of wind proves not to be wind at all, but rather a passing thought, darkness tickling through the thousands of particles and dreams that make up the limitless Sandy. On the rooftop, Sandy smiles with his remembered face and the glow of his trailing stardust, trying to spin an idea of night terrors into a question.
He receives the telepathic equivalent of a derogatory shrug in response. It’s no fun without Sandy there.
Sandy laughs at that, soundless and bright. His voice is nothing but a memory now, his new insubstantial self lacking lungs or tongue to form words, but he finds he doesn’t miss it. It had never been anything but a burden to him, anyway.
Just as he himself is nothing more than a burden in the service of causing nightmares, he reflects. Though he’s proven himself quite capable of winkling out strange combinations of thoughts in a sleeping mind, he hasn’t been able to put together a truly frightening one yet. Pitch knows that, of course; he only wants to see Sandy’s reaction to his own masterpieces.
If it’s a reaction he wants, Sandy muses, he might have better luck in getting one by indulging Sandy’s craving for touch.
It’s difficult to hide things from someone in tune with one’s thoughts, but usually Pitch is better at it than Sandy, having countless years more practice. Still, even he can’t hide his sudden flush of interest at the suggestion.
Sandy, almost casually, lets his mind wander back to that first contact, the memory of fingers brushed carefully, hesitantly, over the back of Pitch’s hand; the simple stroke of a thumb across Sandy’s cheek that had set into motion the chain of events that brings them here. (Or had it all begun earlier, too early to tell? Had their course been set, irrevocable and inevitable, from the instant that their eyes had met?)
By now, Pitch has tangled himself so thoroughly into and around and through the glimmering gold that is all of Sandy’s substance that Sandy can’t quite tell if it is Pitch or he himself or both who carry that memory through to its conclusion. Hands, no longer hesitant, greedy and deliberate; tongues bold and adventurous; the press and slide of skin against skin and, finally, the firework-burst of gold that had woken Sandy, back before his dreams became too big for the confines of his head. It is definitely Sandy, however, in whose imagination that that last climactic burst of gold turns to shimmering shades of midnight, a sultry promise that hangs in the cool evening air like perfume.
He’d thought he’d had Pitch’s full attention, but the sudden impression of withdrawing, the fading of darkness from his daydreams, gives a bite to the chill of the wind. Sandy pulls himself closer together, drawing back the long, looping streams of glittering thought he’s let trail out through the night, and slumps forward. His silent exhale is more out of the remembered response of exasperated defeat than any biological necessity.
And then arms, warm against the chill of the night air, curl around him from behind, pulling him in close to a slender, bared chest. A voice like chocolate and black velvet and rich red wine purrs into his ear, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
The phrase, Sandy knows, is lifted wholesale from his fleeting fancy of how this might go; Pitch has no idea how the words he’s saying relate to the language of images and feelings that thrums between them. But Sandy does, and it isn’t just the sensation of warm breath against his neck and the not-at-all-unpleasant thrill that runs down his spine at the sound of that voice that sets his imagined heart racing. This is one promise he thoroughly intends to fulfill, and to enjoy doing so.
He turns just enough to draw the grinning silver face that Pitch has put on just for him down into a fierce and delightful kiss. Perhaps Sandy can’t quite explain just what draws him back to his body, keeps him chasing the elusive memory of touch.
But he can always demonstrate.
I meant to post this addendum here as well as on my tumblr, but somehow forgot. Better late than never?