I stared into the face of everything and nothing and made it back alive
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Three months after his partner's disappearance, the first thing Draven Kondraki received was a Foundation Star sent to their residence, and he was scared to death because he had never heard of a living person receiving a Foundation Star before.

But it was okay, they told him, he was just still in evaluation.

What had happened, he asked.

Classified, they answered. But as he held one of them up and asked again in a way more akin to screaming than sentences, "we don't know" was all he got.

Nobody knew, it seemed, except for Researcher James Martin Talloran himself. A few days later Draven learnt that they had found James near death inside a containment cell a kilometer into the ground, lined with exploded reality anchors and guarded by four amnesiac guards. He saved the world, someone with enough empathy and decency finally told him after way too many requests filed. Single-handedly reverted an XK, so he was told.

But that was not what he wanted to hear.

James was alive. But Draven was also fearful and angry, because why did it have to be him, why would James have to face an XK entity alone, and how did it even happen because he was just a Level 3 Researcher transferred to Site-118 and assigned to a completely normal job. But above all, he just wanted to see James again.

A month later, James came home.

He opened the door and James smiled to him, and it was soft and sweet like it always was. He hastily signed a bunch of documents and was given a leave, but as he bid the personnel goodbye and it was just him and James again, Draven started crying. He hugged James, a strong MTF agent in the arms of a nimble researcher, but James patted him on the back and told him it was okay.

And for a while, it was okay. James was in surprisingly good shape and spirit. Aside from a few traces of a large gash on his face, it almost felt like James hadn't disappeared at all.

He was given a month (and he pulled his holiday over and made it double); James had a year or more and a large sum of reward money that came with the Star. James didn't talk about what happened, and it was okay, Draven wasn't about to push it. So they stayed at home, chatted and cooked and even watched TV and did all the things they never had the time or chance to.

But one day, two weeks into their little holiday together, he was sitting by the table and James was cutting some tomatoes in the kitchen. When the cutting stopped, Draven barely noticed it, too engrossed in a book he had gotten from his father's collection. He looked up briefly as James turned to him and walked towards the table, still holding the knife. He raised an eyebrow and was about to ask; but his eyes were met with a blank expression and it horrified him.

Without warning, Researcher James Talloran slashed at Draven with the kitchen knife, with a strange ease that no researcher sitting at desk jobs would have been able to, as if practiced many, many times. Thanks to his training, Draven dodged out of the way and the knife impacted with the table.

For a moment, among the surprise and panic, Draven expected another attack. But James just looked at the knife, then the table it was stuck on, and then the knife again, as if it was the most interesting thing in the world.

"James, put the knife down!" was all he managed to say. James turned to look at him, and obliged. He let go, the knife still stuck on the table.

Draven was scared. But he acted without realizing, removing the knife and put it out of his partner's reach. A few more moments before he regained his composure, and recognized what had happened. His heart was still racing, and his voice cracked: "What, what the fuck was that?"

"It didn't melt," James said.

"What?" he barely squeezed the word out.

"The table didn't melt. The floor didn't collapse. Everything was fine."

"What are you talking about? Tables… don’t do that?"

"Exactly," James smiled softly. "I just have to make sure."

Three days later, Draven was sitting with Head Psychologist Dr. Simon Glass and was regrettably informed that "it is much worse than they thought". Glass told him that they had suspected Researcher Talloran's condition, of course, but a full set of evaluations over, he seemed to have recovered well enough. And Draven had to agree because for two full weeks, everything was fine. He had been extra careful and he knew that James went to see his assigned psychologist every other day. They had been together for… what, a little short of a decade? And he didn't notice anything even slightly wrong.

"It seems that he had somehow faked a stable mental state." Glass looked at him apologetically (and Draven hated that look), "This shouldn't have happened… We used a three man group and applied strict procedures," he paused, and added. "It was almost as if he knew what he would be asked and what to answer…"

As if he had sat through the same evaluation hundreds of times over.

As Dr. Glass continued to explain, laying out the necessary measures to be taken afterwards and apologizing for their supposed oversight, Draven felt numb. The words pounded on his chest and strained his heart while everything else faded.

He faked his mental state. He faked being alright. How? Why would he do that? Why would he need to do that? He hugged him and smiled and patted him on the back and told him everything was alright. But then he attacked him with a knife and told him that the table might melt. He smiled so softly and sweetly but it was not okay.

It was not okay, and he hated it.

When he snapped out of it, he was standing in front of James' temporary cell (for further observation and reevaluation). He fuzzily remembered that Glass had told him that if Talloran was proven to no longer be a danger to himself and others, he would be moved to restricted dormitory area in the site. And Draven would be able to visit and even stay, but no more stays at home and holidays and cooking.

He stared at his partner from across a standard Foundation issued table, only to see James smiling back at him. And Draven suddenly felt very sick. Because how could he look at him with that soft comforting smile when they were in a Foundation holding cell, next to two armed guards? How could he still be like this when everything was not okay?

It was his father all over again.

They talked. Or James talked and nodded, and Draven's voice filled with a bit too much anger.

"Why don't you tell me? Why would you do this? What is wrong? Please, please, let me help you," he asked. He held his hands; the guards didn't stop him.

"I'm sorry. I just want to be sure, you know? Everything is fine. It's all over now,” he answered. The hands were cold.

Draven felt more frustration and anger building up inside him. But James looked at him with a look too loving and he talked with a voice too comforting, and Draven broke under them. He felt the helplessness again, his love right in front of him, but there was nothing he could do. He should have been the one comforting James, not the other way around. The fear and the hollowness and many other things he could not describe gradually piled up and he felt weak.

Eventually, he managed to make himself ask. "What is over? What happened?"

There was suddenly a stern look on James' face. His smile was sadder. A few moments later, he spoke. "You know, I stared into the face of everything and nothing and made it back alive."

Draven opened his mouth, but there were no words. He didn't understand what it meant, and wished he didn't have to.

But then, James looked down at the table and continued. "I just have to make sure I'm really back."

Attempts after attempts, they finally gave Draven what he wanted. Perhaps because he was too persistent or perhaps because there was no improvement on James' condition and they were running out of options. Draven had spent his time between duty visiting James everyday and the rest of those applying for the documentation of SCP-3999, the SCP James had encountered and neutralized during his three missing months.

There were documents to sign and memetic kill agents to bypass, and even after all that, chunks and chunks of information redacted, but Draven sat and read.

Draven was horrified.

In the documents, he was not James, but Researcher Talloran. And Researcher Talloran was to be,

Isolated. Killed. Melted. Eaten. Amnesticized and made someone else. Made to watch his loved ones die. Tortured. Thrown into the end of the world. In the void, with the monster.

Researcher Talloran begged. Cried. Called for help. He died. Killed himself. But he also fought. He didn't give up.

He won.

When he finally put the document down, Draven found himself unable to comprehend all this. Or any of it, really. The words choked him as he realized it was way more than the monsters in the cells or the reality benders he encountered on missions. It was among the things that were hidden deeply behind layers of clearance levels and passwords and kill agents.

James had faced a god.

That night, he couldn't sleep. And when he did, he dreamt of James slitting his throat with the kitchen knife in front of their bed, blood pouring onto his face. He woke up screaming.

The next day, he rushed to where James now was, a bigger and slightly more comfortable cell, and sat across a similar table. No guards this time, only the camera silently recording. He was greeted by that same soft smile but now, the smile was choking him, like the words he read again and again last night.

So he held James' cold, cold hands, and asked him if he wanted to be amnesticized, because this was taking a toll on him and he couldn't just pretend nothing was wrong.

But James screamed.

It was the second time James scared him after the incident, and he briefly flashed back to when he held the kitchen knife. But Draven didn't let go.

"No," James yelled, desperately, his face filled with panic and anger. "I will never forget this, I can't forget this!"

Draven held his hands tighter and knew they were both shaking. Eventually, James stopped shaking. Eventually, he stopped screaming. Eventually, he said: "If I forget, then how can I tell?"

If this is real or not?

"We can't amnesticize him." Dr. Glass said.

"Why the fuck not? Now you're respecting people's wishes?" He had hated Foundation bureaucracy, but this was a slap to the face. He felt the anger burning inside him.

"…Because we did that already."

Draven stared at the doctor in confusion and surprise.

"Every time he was given amnestics, he recovered his memory over the next week. It seems like… he had built up a resistance over them."

Researcher Talloran is to be amnesticized.

Researcher Talloran is to be amnesticized.

Researcher Talloran is to be amnesticized.

"We have never seen anything like this before." The psychologist’s voice seemed distant.

"No." Draven said. His own voice broke.

"I'm sorry," was all Dr. Glass could say.

Things didn't get much better from there. Six months later they moved James to the site dormitory, and Draven went to stay with him. Another three months and he was released from the site because there was a containment breach and James thought reality broke again and nearly stabbed someone with a pen.

They were back to when James first came back again, but this time, Draven knew things were not okay. Because every now and then, James checked if tables melt, if the sky was not there anymore, or if a passerby was actually a talent agent dressing up as the mother with a dog on the back. He bit himself one or two times to make himself certain because Draven took all the sharp objects away.

But he also smiled and talked softly and asked if Draven's work day was okay and Draven's heart ached.

Talk to me. Please just talk to me.

But James wouldn't; instead he talked about the evening news and the TV shows, pretending their life was still normal, which it never was. (They never talked about the TV before; they hardly watched it.)

A year passed and Draven woke up from the same nightmare screaming, and found James in front of him, throat not slit, quietly holding his hand.

The hands were cold, but warmer than his.

And that was the point he broke. He had tried so many times, asking James to talk about it, to believe in him, but it was never effective. This time, the sight of blood all over the bed was still lingering, and it was so much like that other room filled with blood and meat.

Draven collapsed and started to rant incoherently. He cried and begged for James to just talk to him, to just stop pretending it was okay, because it was not, and it was breaking both of them. Because it was all too similar to the night his dad told him it was okay when it was not, and he couldn't afford to let go this time.

He talked about how James stood up against great monsters, and he could never be that brave and persistent himself, and he couldn't really imagine what James was going through. He just wished him to talk even if it seemed all fake and distant. He rambled about their time together even though he knew those wouldn't be able to convince him. He talked about how scared he was during the months he was missing but now he was even more scared. He mentioned his father again and had no idea where he was getting at but he knew he was afraid of losing him like he did his father. He talked about the documents and Dr. Glass' words and many other things he had agreed not to talk about; but he did anyways because he could not think or breathe or stop shaking. He asked him again and again to just, please, talk to him.

Really talk to him.

When his throat finally ran dry and he saw James looking at him, he felt scared and foolish and desperate that he was going to say it was okay again.

But this time, James hugged him and cried as well. With a soft voice, he told him that it was not three months but lifetimes after lifetimes, and he had lived all these so many times before. It was a completely normal interview until the doctor became a wolf and they floated in the void. It was a trip with his family until a containment unit came and shot them all in the head. It was his victory until he went back to a world with faceless people and the monster mocked his futile attempts. So many times he had watched Draven's face melt and his body shatter and all the terrible things come out. So many more times he had believed yet it all melted away. He couldn’t afford to believe it was real.

He was scared. They both were.

Eventually they sat together at the bedside, holding hands together, and stared into the room with no lights turned on. They were still shaking, but for the first time, it felt mildly peaceful. They woke up to each other's cuddle the next morning, and decided to stay a little longer.

James didn't say he would believe him, but he believed him a little more after that. It was not completely okay yet, but James now sometimes talked and cried over his shoulder, and allowed himself to ask Draven if things were real instead of grabbing for a kitchen knife. James stayed at home and worked on some projects unrelated to the Foundation. And they would read and watch TV as they never did before and enjoy each other's company.

It was not okay yet, not really. But things were going to get better.

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