They'd been sitting on the couch for a while. He stared at his hands folded in his lap (human limbs were odd but he would miss their nimble bits), at the stripes on his socks (stripey socks were second only to bow ties among clothing items), at the walls with the clown paintings (why did she even want those back?).
Then the cycle repeated as it always did.
He no longer had to look to see her, though. They had been engaged in this little evening ritual for several weeks now, and the choreography was always the same. She read his detailed reports and suggestions in focused silence. He waited for her to absorb it all and maybe ask questions. Some paragraphs were harder to swallow than others but she forbade any sugarcoating and never complained. If their session stretched long enough, he would begin tapping his foot and she would automatically place a steadying hand on his knee. He never noticed he was doing it but it happened like clockwork. And she reached out again. This time he also felt a light caress and a gentle squeeze (that was all new) but before he could even think of thinking of a way to react, she pulled her hand back and flipped to the next page.
His thoughts wandered on as well.
Even at her lowest, she made a better Fake Good Place Architect than he ever did. The realization should have stung but all he felt was relief (and maybe a little competitiveness every now and then but she seemed to enjoy that - he did, too). Another flipped page rustled softly and her thigh brushed against his as she shifted on the couch. There came more hunching followed by a roll of shoulders, a frown, frustrated nose rubbing, a curling and uncurling of fingers, then a quiet sigh. He didn't look but he saw it all in exquisite detail.
He took a deep breath and held it in. The sticky scent of raw pain no longer lingered around her, which was a good thing, he figured. And they always sat close but always with an odd-shaped void between them. Every evening, peculiar tension currents swept lazily across the room, birthing kaleidoscopic eddies that illuminated tiny, ever-repeating fractals. They were pulsing and swirling like confetti in the wind. It was her unique imprint on multidimensional space and he usually found the effect borderline hypnotic. There was even a new shape forming among them but he felt distracted and kept losing track of it.
She rarely asked for clarifications and never looked at him when she did. Those moments were always the loneliest. He often fought the urge to leave an embarrassing typo or an untranslated sentence, anything to make her grin or mock - to break them out of the cycle -, but he knew she would see through it and might even reprimand him for not taking the experiment seriously. He couldn't bear that, so his reports remained dry and flawless. Another page rustling, another shift on the couch - this time away, not toward - and he saw his odd human hand twitch with an embarrassing need to touch.
Was this mourning? This impossibly stretched moment in which everything and nothing was forever happening all at once? like a dumb black hole swallowing them both. Or something equally unpleasant. Humans were better at finding words for these things. Poets especially. He made a mental note to bring his own reading material next time. He noticed that his legs began feeling decidedly heavier by the second, then feeling itself started leaking out of them as if he was gradually losing his body. He'd stopped breathing, too, (what was the point if he wasn't speaking?) and his frustrated, mildly panicked discomfort suddenly sparked into anger.
Anger switched to fear, fear turned to shame, shame transformed back to anger. All mute and invisible. Or so he thought. He felt eyes on him then.
She finally spoke. "What's wrong?"
He finally looked. "Nothing."
She tilted her head, thoroughly unconvinced. "You just clawed a hole into the cushion, bud."
He flashed a weak grin on the off-chance that it was just a turn of phrase, but when he followed her gaze and glanced down, he saw that he was indeed holding a fistful of filling material and torn fabric strips. He felt betrayed by his own body. It was shame's turn again. He tried to stuff everything back to where it had been but bits kept sticking to his second skin. Apparently, he'd began sweating, too.
He let out a hmm but refused to look at her and kept at his hopeless task. Janet. Yes. He needed Janet and it would all be fixed, but somehow the name refused to leave his lips.
He heard the thin file land on the coffee table with a soft flick, and the mangled cushion dipped under Eleanor's weight as she turned toward him. He'd been craving her attention and now he had it, so why was it... stinging so bad? His fingers curled into the hole they'd made. "This... this is not me," he said at last, lifting his eyes to meet hers, "you know that, right?" Sometimes it was difficult to remember everything she had forgotten.
Her brows knitted together. "What do you mean?"
He had to think about that. "This," he said and fuzzy, colorful bits of cushion filling flew off his hand as he gestured at himself. "This is... a costume."
"Yeah, to get you guys in the t-zone. I remember." It was his turn to signal confusion and it apparently worked because she gave it another go: "It helps with all the torture-y stuff. I know, you told us." She smiled then (if she wanted the creepy clowns, maybe there was a corner set aside just for him, too) and it nudged something loose inside him. He swallowed hard and could feel wetness trickle down his left temple. She seemed worried now. "Is... there something wrong with your body?"
Everything was wrong with his body. He remembered reading about the human fight-or-flight response once. He seemed to have only one half of it but that half was in overdrive again. It was not the right time to have this conversation with her anyway. She reached out but he shrank from the contact. "I have to go."
He got up but the second he tried moving, he could feel something was very wrong. He heard her say his name again but his knees buckled. Betrayed by the fragile human suit once more. The floor came rushing up and made swift contact with the entire length of his frame. It was a hard full-body slap, an unexpectedly sobering encounter, but he could not bring himself to move after it. It was an absolute low point, the lowest. A dramatic exit without the relief that came from actually exiting.
She was there in an instant and helped him roll on his back. Humiliation: complete. After checking his face for cuts (thankfully, his glasses did not shatter), she pulled his tie apart and undid his shirt collar. "Better?"
He only managed a nod.
"Just breathe, okay?"
He obeyed. Her hand was a small, pleasant weight, rising and falling with his chest. And when she started rubbing it, the gentle, circular motions began draining the tension from his body.
"You gotta start talking to me, buddy, 'cause I'm kinda scared now."
He knew the feeling. He closed his eyes and was quiet for the longest moment, then: "I'm being un-bodied."
"You are what now?"
His legs twitched. "Are there scorpions, too? Because I feel scorpions. Can you get them off, please."
"Are you high?" His eyes flew open in surprise and when he looked at her, he found her looking back at him with puzzled amusement. "Did you accept an edible from Jason again?"
"No," he denied vehemently as his leg twitched again. The burning stinging was a new development and it was worse than not feeling at all.
"Are you sure?"
"Well, there are no scorpions here, dude. Look."
He propped himself up on his elbows and did as he was told. His legs were still there, which was fortunate. No scorpions, though, not even the invisible ones, which was unfortunate because it still felt like being stung by an army of them, and Eleanor was still looking at him as if he was completely nuts.
"Well, I can feel them," he said, feeling a bit defensive.
"Pins and needles," she concluded her diagnosis.
"You're not being tortured, dummy, your legs just fell asleep." He looked at them, then back at her. "You've never had this before?"
She laughed then. It started with quiet huffs, then something finally gave way and it just burst out of her. She was bent over, her face now buried in his chest, and he could feel the warm vibrations of her muffled laughter coursing through him. She was undone in seconds and it was... beautiful. She was. He lifted a hand but didn't touch her. He didn't want to disturb the moment, so he just let her have it. Pins and needles. The phrase conjured up a tangled mess of sensations and images. Pins. Pin. Eleanor. Everything you've ever wanted. Needles. Vicky. Vicky wearing his face. You are disgusting.
Suddenly, he felt being pulled under by an icy current of fear, sinking lower and lower into an inky vacuum.
"Hey, are you still with me?"
Her voice yanked him back and her face swam into focus. "Yeah."
"Sorry I laughed," she said, wiping her eyes, "but... you're kinda like that puppy that got spooked by his own hiccups. You know, in that video?" No, he did not know and he did not like the comparison. "Come on, it's cute. Cute's good."
"Cute," he repeated in a sullen tone, pushing himself into a sitting position, then turned to rest his back against the couch. "That's not 'good' for a being like me and it's not gonna get us anywhere."
She scooted closer and settled in next to him on the floor. Apparently, she refused to let this go. "It's enough."
"No, it's not, Eleanor. I... I have responsibilities, you are my responsibility, but I am just..." he trailed off. His gaze landed back on the wall and his shoulders sagged with the weight of a realization. "I am a clown who gets scared by his own stupid costume," he said, gesturing vaguely and defeatedly at those ridiculous paintings.
"Clowns can be scary. And sometimes my body freaks me out, too."
He mulled that over. "Yeah, human bodies are weird."
"They are, it's normal." He sighed and leaned back, staring at the ceiling for a change. "And I hate to break it to you but responsibility flows both ways between friends." She waited until he looked back at her. "You are my responsibility, too, cutie pie," she said, nudging him teasingly with her foot, and a grin tugged at the corner of his mouth despite all the effort he made to stifle it. "Which means that we get to take turns lying on this floor and also wiping it with the Bad Place crew because we are both pathetic and awesome like that. Together."
He didn't know how but she always managed to say just the right words to make sense of things and bring him a small measure of comfort. "So... you're not mad at me?"
"Why would I be mad at you?"
"Because of everything... that happened," he said, "and un-happened... and... Chidi."
"This was his decision." She glanced at the file on the table. "And he is happy. With someone else, which is kind of a bummer, but... you know..."
"I do." This seemed to surprise her, so he felt the need to explain further. "You are also happy because he is. Sad-happy. Third most annoying emotion if you ask me. It's like a Mealg."
"Yeah, now you lost me."
Sometimes he forgot she was a human. "Oh, a Mealg is like... it's like a power cube." She was still not getting it. "It has this bittersweet aftertaste and it's very nutritious, but it remains alive inside you for a long time, so it also pokes and itches but you can't scratch. You just have to wait for it to do its thing and gradually dissolve." It drew a surprised look. "What?"
"Nothing," she shrugged, "it's just... you speak like someone with experience."
"Oh, I've eaten many. One got me through my apprenticeship, another our old neighborhood experiment. In fact, I am due for the next one soon."
"Yeah, I meant experience with the... you know, sad-happy."
"Right." Not saying more felt like the safest course of action, so he didn't.
Her gaze shifted back on the file again, and he stared at the strip of floor separating them.
"So it goes into your body, it's alive for a bit, pumps you full of nutrients, and then it just disappears," she summarized almost to herself, then an idea occurred to her. "Sounds like a reverse pregnancy." It quickly triggered another thought, one he could practically feel coming, and was already clenching his jaw in preparation. "Do you eat babies?"
He sighed. "The Mealg are not babies. They are... they are like sacks of energy." She wasn't convinced. "They have more in common with batteries than babies." She was still giving him the look. "I don't eat babies, Eleanor, so lower those eyebrows, please."
"This isn't the first time I accused you of that, is it?"
"Or the second," he said. "Or the 20th."
"Fine, you eat batteries." She snorted. "You know, one of my exes did that, too."
He snorted too. He knew. "Spencer."
"Yeah. Did not agree with him long-term, though." She looked at him.
"Indeed." He didn't understand. "Go Mealg."
"Fun fact: they don't move until they are inside you."
"Fun fact: I also had an ex like that. Ed... Fred?"
"That was your neighbor's childhood pet."
"Oh yes." She briefly got lost in a good memory. "Good old Bingo. She always tried to hump the mailman."
"I should have assigned her as your fake soulmate."
She laughed, then quieted. Their silence went on but it felt different now. "You know," she began her assessment, "there's something deeply unsettling about having someone know every single detail about you." He felt panic rise inside him but she was not done yet, so he did his best to clamp down on the jitters. "But having someone who knows all that stuff and still sticks by you no matter what? It's... also the most comforting thing in the universe." His relief was instant. They looked at each other and as the moment stretched, he felt something shift. The flight reflex kicked in and he pushed some words into the oddly charged space between them:
"Fun fact: I did try assigning a dog as a soulmate once and it was one of the longest running reboots."
"Fun fact: I don't need edibles anymore because a late night conversation with you produces the same effect."
He grinned and they slipped into a different, comfortable kind of silence - who knew there were so many? - that he soon broke. "I missed talking to you."
"What do you mean? We talk every day."
"Yes, about work. Reports and strategy. Sometimes barely even that. You do fun stuff with the others, you eat together, you laugh with them, but we just... sit." He shifted and rubbed his palms on his thighs. The last thing he wanted was to sound whiny or clingy but now it was pouring out and he couldn't really stop it: "I was just worried that... that we are not friends anymore, that I messed this up, too."
When no response came, his worry began to grow anew. But soon he felt her fingers curl around his. "Those battery babies got you through some tough times, right?
"They are not..." he sighed. "Never mind." She was still waiting for an answer. "Yes. They did."
"Do you know what got me through this month?"
Was that a tick question? Should he even try to answer? He glanced at her, thinking. "Those adult channels Janet hooked you up with?"
"Well, yeah... okay, those help, but not exactly."
He was out of ideas.
"It was you sitting here with me every evening. Not asking constantly if I was okay, not walking on eggshells, not looking at me with pity, not trying desperately to cheer me up but just... showing up evening after evening, willing to do one of the hardest, scariest things in the universe."
"Absolutely nothing. That's what's been recharging me. I don't remember much of those 300 years but... maybe it doesn't matter because I'm sure I've never loved you more than I do right now. And I really need you to know that, okay? You will always be my friend."
They sat in silence for a while, his grip tightening and her thumb gently rubbing the back of his hand. Technically, he didn't have a human heart but he felt something breaking all the same. It was time. She deserved to know even if she was bound to forget again. "Shawn made another me." Her thumb stilled. Everything did.
"He uh... replicated my human suit. He thinks this experiment's gonna fail and when it does, he wants to punish us by using other-me to torture you. To make you believe I betrayed you again."
He saw a flash of anger in her eyes. Felt it, too. "Not gonna happen."
"We haven't exactly made much progress."
"We still have time and even if this all fails, we are gonna know it's not you and find a way out like we always do."
"Not if Shawn takes the memory of me telling you. You don't know what they do in the torture pits, Eleanor. What... what I used to do... what other-me is gonna do to you. Without remembering this, a few seconds of... that is gonna be enough for you to reconsider our friendship, trust me."
"Then we just have to find a way for me to remember. Just in case." He nodded but remained quiet, watching the proverbial wheels turn in her mind, hoping she had something. "You said memories can get tangled, right?"
"That's it. We will tangle this with other memories. We will talk about it every day, with the others, everybody. We can leave clues in random conversations so Shawn cannot get rid of it."
"Humans have selective memory by design, Eleanor. You won't notice missing bits of random conversations. You forget about that stuff on your own all the time and more." She shot him a look and he shot one right back. "And even if Shawn misses some clues, those are gonna be meaningless without a touchstone."
"Touchstone," she mused, tapping her lips with her index finger. "So we need to wrap this - well, you - up in something that can't be erased without my brain throwing up a red flag." A dangerous smile curved her mouth as the idea presented itself to her. He knew that look. "How do you feel about kissing?"
"I feel... no."
"Have you actually tried it?"
His silence was instant and telling.
Her smile grew hungry, making him feel like a Mealg about to be swallowed whole. "Oh man... First Times is a very special bundle that ashhole's never gonna be able to erase without me knowing part of my soul is legit missing."
His mind was in free-fall and grabbed at the least dangerous bit in an attempt to stall. "First Times? How many can you possible have?"
"Says the guy with 800 reboots under his belt." He did walk - well, crawl - into that one. "You can be many people's first," she said, flipping the perspective for him. "Or beings'." Even he could tell that was an offer. They were still holding hands and he was suddenly hyper-aware of that single point of skin-to-skin suit contact.
"You wanna... kiss me?"
"Yes and you are welcome." He was vaguely aware that he was staring at her mouth but couldn't stop. "I didn't die completely unaccomplished, you know. I did invent a new kind of heavy petting."
He said nothing for the longest moment but he must have been leaning because her face had somehow drifted closer. He nervously tugged on his earlobe, trying to do a quick rundown of her proposal and failing miserably. "How uh... h-how would... that," he said, gesturing at her mouth, "mix with what I just told you about Shawn's plan?"
"It's been on my mind most of the evening - kissing you." She gave a lazy half-shrug. "So I guess it's kinda already in there somewhere."
"Oh..." was all he could manage on such short notice. There was nothing harmless in the primal grin that came to her lips, and somehow every passing millisecond mixed more and more morbid anticipation into his uncertainty.
She shifted closer and he watched the strip of floor between them disappear. It felt like trespassing, what they were doing. She ran a steady, gentle hand up his chest."If you wanna stop, just say stop," she whispered. When he said nothing, she lightly kissed the shell of his ear. The banality of that act violently conflicted with the effect it was having on him. Pleasant chills surged through him and his shoulder twitched. Then came a tremor in his hands and a faint echo of a threat from the back of his mind: Have fun, Michael. Enjoy everything that is about to overwhelm you.
Something ripped free in him then. His hand slipped up to her elbow - wanting, pulling, guiding her even closer. She moved and straddled him, all purpose and practice, crowding him against the couch. The air began to taste like her and within seconds he felt borderline drunk on it. Some words still managed to penetrate that haze and she stilled when she noticed how he was looking at her.
"What's wrong?" she asked quietly.
"You don't think I'm disgusting?" he asked, instantly terrified of what the answer might be.
She relaxed at once. Wordlessly, she took his hands and placed them around her waist, then leaned in. "Who said you were?"
"Vicky... wearing my human suit."
"Now there's an idea," she said, pressing into him even more. "But Vicky-you is a liar." Her hands came up to frame his face and the last thing he saw before his eyes fluttered close was how her pupils dilated.
Very slowly, very lightly, she kissed him. First he tensed, then a low hum escaped him. She broke the kiss but stayed close, holding his gaze. Instinct kicked in and he licked his lips to taste. She liked that and he liked that she liked it.
"How was it?"
He needed a moment but the closest he could come to describing it was, "Tingly."
"Not your legs again?"
He smiled. "No." His fingertips gently swept across the small of her back. "Here."
This time he closed the distance between them. He was clumsy but no longer afraid. Noses bumped and teeth clinked - human heads had never felt so crowded or sensitive before - but she guided him and he felt her grin when they finally found the right angle. Her hands cradled the back of his head, nails scraping across his scalp, and his fingers dig into her a little deeper.
The first kiss was quick and tender. The second was... progress indeed - it was longing, loneliness, and defiance forming a new sense of connection that reverberated across billions of nerve endings. As it deepened, a dizzying swirl of images, sensations, scents, and sounds began to wash over him. Memories - his, hers, theirs. He started to feel how she was feeling, thinking what she was thinking, wanting what she was wanting, and remembering her life not as a file he'd read a billion times over but as if he had lived it himself. It was a hot and heady cocktail. Dangerous, too.
Lazily, the answer floated across the surface of his mind: absorption.
A warm moan broke from her lips, the primal kind one could not control. It stirred something in him, too, and her name began to slip off his lips but it was greedily swallowed. They were both hungry, but the creature inside him had been starved for much longer. Uncontrolled, absorption flowed both ways, too, and it wasn't safe, especially if there was no equilibrium between the partners.
She shifted in his lap - kissing, grinding, fingers already tugging at shirt buttons. He was hazily aware of where this was headed and that it should and could not go there. Not now, maybe not ever. Love required too many acts of letting go, he'd found, but severing this connection took a surprising amount of willpower. His palms slipped from around her waist, then swept up along her sides. She shuddered and it sent a jolt of satisfaction through him, making what had to be done even more difficult. But it had to be done.
He gently grabbed her shoulders, then pushed, breaking the kiss. Her displeasure at the loss of contact was clear and vocal. She groaned and leaned back in, resting her forehead against his. It took them a few moments to sober up a little.
"Wow," she whispered. "That was..." She sucked in her lower lip and her thumb brushed over his. Then she leaned back to look at him. "What was that?"
"I think... we just absorbed some thoughts and feelings from each other."
"Right," she said as if that explanation made all the sense in the world, then she began fiddling with his shirt collar. "So... is this like a coupling thing with you guys or...?"
"I didn't know it was. Then again, we don't... I... it's..." He felt just as confused as she looked. "I've seen Janet do something like this once but..." he trailed off again and must have gotten lost in his thoughts because she had to tilt his head up with a finger to get his attention.
"Guess this was a first time for both of us," she said with a playful glint in her eyes. "All the more memorable."
"How much did you...?" he didn't have to finish the question. She understood.
"Not nearly enough," she quipped. "It was just getting good when you hit pause."
"I had to," he said. "It wasn't safe."
"Who knew you needed protection in heaven?"
"We just need some practice," he said, then realized what his words implied. "I mean, if you want to... it's not that I... I don't mean--"
She placed a finger on his lips to silence him. "You were so wrong."
"You will have to be more specific."
She snorted and he grinned. "When you said 'cute' wouldn't get us anywhere."
He tiled his head, genuinely curious. "It will?"
"Oh, yeah. Mostly places with sturdy surfaces," she teased. "And this..." she gestured vaguely between them, "this thing can help us with our other-you problem."
He felt his whole being light up with the idea. "Yes!" Of course. "We could tangle our minds into something that's gonna be an unnavigable mess to everybody else."
"A counselor wrote something like that about me once, and guess who breezed through high school without significant mental scarring?"
Relief and gratitude washed over him. "This might actually work."
"Oh, it's gonna work," she said, straightening his pocket square. "They are not gonna take you from me, too." That was barely a whisper, a near-silent promise, but it hit him like a fist.
He leaned closer, making her look him in the eye. "Chidi is not gone."
"I know." She looked around. "But he isn't here, either, is he?"
He knew what he wanted to say to that but he didn't know what the proper thing to say was. Thankfully, he didn't have to say anything.
"You are, though."
At any given moment, he had a myriad of questions churning in his mind but at this particular moment all were still and quiet except for one. "Am I... enough?"
Her face lit up. "I think I'll let you absorb the answer to that."