John is burning, burning, burning.
Davesprite sleeps in a nest, near the bow of the ship. He sleeps in a collection of discarded knick-knacks and forgotten things, an old faded blue dress entwined with a broken toy train, a soft blue suit covering a torn-out teddy bear. His nest is lumpy and uncomfortable, but he curls his wispy tail around his head and sleeps carefully between broken childhood dreams and abandoned hopes.
John and Jade—mostly John—tell him to sleep in a bed. The golden ship houses stern rooms with cots, soft with linen and pillows without lumps. Every night, John tries to pull him towards a steel room, and every night, Davesprite flaps his wings and pulls his talons away from John’s small, soft hands. He knows why it means so much to John, because he is part bird, now, and he can tell these things. He can see John’s small twisted mouth, his dark eyes staring up at his nest.
But John and Jade belong in beds, tucked away from the nebulous monsters lurking behind the stars, and Davesprite belongs to a nest of lost, forgotten things.
He wakes up with a real weight on his limbs, his ghost bones now heavier things. His talons melt into hard hands, and he wears a pressed white suit with dark pants. John hums a tuneless song above him, his fingers in Dave’s hair, teasing away the cobwebs of grief. When Dave can open his eyes, wider, he can see a sandy beach stretching into infinity, folding within itself, and the sky above them curves, shimmering colors on the dream bubble. Crabs with glass shells crawl past him, and a fish darts into the air.
“You sleep too much,” John says.
“I like being here.”
“But this isn’t real.”
John strokes his hair, and Dave can feel his dark suit underneath his head as he lies on John’s lap. The ocean laps faithfully at the sand, crawling away with a gentle hush. He knows this is a dream, because he dreams when he sleeps. He knows this is a dream because John wears his pea green suit, dark and murky and burnt at the hems, frayed and broken.
Sometimes, when Dave says it bothers him, John will fix his suit. He sculpts fabric from delusions and weaves could-have-beens for elbow patches, but when Dave presses his face into John’s shoulder, he can still smell burnt flesh. The stench clings to the back of his throat, stomach twisting to the strange sweetness lingering in the cloth. The acrid taste stings along his throat and eyes.
“I have to be here,” he tells John.
Because when he is awake, he can see John is burning, burning, burning.
Birds are different than humans.
He knows this, now, because he is part man. His fingers cannot stroke through Jade’s skein of hair, touch John’s thin skin. His hard talons puncture his arms when he grips himself tight, flaying his own skin and he cannot remember how it feels to touch himself. His legs give out beneath themselves into a ghost tail, but he is part bird, and sometimes he thinks if he cries out into the night, he will scream an inhuman caw.
The thought frightens him.
As a game, he sometimes flies away from the golden ship, sailing into the murky atmosphere. The stars run past him and his lungs inhale the impossibly thin air, and he swims through the celestial clusters. His tail beats behind him, and his wings stretch beyond him, and it’s a game. It’s a game because he sees how far he can fly before the golden ship only appears as a speck of dust, until he feels like he is another star. He challenges himself to fly farther, and the end game is when he flies too far to return.
He comes back later and later each time. Jade disapproves with words, worried face smeared with icing and tufts of cat fur sticking to her dark dress. But it is John’s quiet expression that makes Davesprite turn away, defiantly, to comb out his feathers and curl in his nest. John’s expression with his shut, twisted mouth and dark, dark eyes.
“I’m not myself out there,” he tells John in his dream. John-in-his-dream laughs with all his teeth, because his mouth hasn’t twisted. His mouth will never twist, because he is dead, and sitting on the pier. Dave takes off his shoes to dip his feet into the cool water, and watches birds swim through the seaweed.
“But this isn’t real, Dave.” John tilts back his head. “I’m dead. This is a dream bubble.”
“It’s better than being awake.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“I’m human here,” Dave says, stretching out his hands. Five fingers, each, because birds are different than humans.
“But that’s not why you’re here.” John lightly grasps his hand, pulling it towards himself. His cupped fingers chill Dave’s warm flesh, but he grips the slender fingers tight. Beneath him, the water rumbles like an impudent child, and he can feel his feathers sprouting back underneath his pressed, white suit. His hands turn to bumpy talons, his legs buckle in empty weight, but he clutches onto the figment of John-of-his-dreams even as he wakes up with his face indented by a ripped tome.
“You sleep too much,” John tells him during a Ghostbuster session. As if the words would hurt him if he spoke too much, John’s avatar lapses into silence. The pixilated eyes stare hauntingly through the screen, and Dave’s talons hesitate over the computer.
“I don’t,” he types back.
“You do,” and the answer is immediate. “You slept for like all of yesterday. And your team really needed you, those salamanders got totally slaughtered.”
“Holy shit, that’s a huge dicking problem.”
“Yes. Yes it is a huge dicking problem, Dave, because the salamanders could have really used you. Maybe they miss you. Have you ever thought of that? These are sensitive salamander folks.”
“Maybe these salamanders should be more appreciative to the guy who brought their sorry butts back into collective existence and let him sleep when he wants to sleep.”
“Maybe the salamanders are really sick of hearing how they ought to be super thankful! Maybe they are just worried about their weird dicking friend!”
“They’ll probably more worried about the real Dave, how about that.”
Through the screen, John’s avatar stares at him, face blank.
“Then who’s the real John?”
John’s avatar zips out of existence, leaving Davesprite alone on the fake street. He turns away and logs off, quickly, so his shame does not show. He does not have an answer for him, and he’s tired of John wanting his time. His waking hours are filled with the knowledge, pulsating underneath his skin, that John is burning, burning, burning, and so he needs to sleep. But even as he floats into his nest, tucking away his small, stolen things, John’s words trail behind him into his dreams.
“But I’m not burning, Dave.”
“When I’m awake, I get these—visions. That you’re burning.”
Today, they are in Dave’s room. He knows John created it from his own memories without any help, because everything is two-dimensional to the touch. His cement blocks feel too light, his posters blurred against the walls, and outside, he can see the sharp buildings turned into muddy shapes on the orange horizon. John has only seen his room through the camera of the computer and he will never see Dave’s actual room, and something strikes Dave on his hollow heart, because his heart resembles his light-weight feathers.
“I am really not burning,” John says. “When you’re awake, I am usually hanging out with the other Daves, in a totally non-burning way.”
John sits on his bed, swinging his feet. Dave sits next to him, the bed indenting unnaturally, and he can see, outside, the dark shape of crows sitting on wires. They watch him from the open window, against the always-setting sun.
“I wasn’t there,” he says. “When Typheus burned you.”
“You weren’t supposed to be there. That’s the whole offshoot timeline thingymabobber.”
“I should have been there.”
John’s legs stop swinging, and he turns his ghostly eyes towards Dave. His eyes are always white, now, a thin pearly color, like a torn away caul.
“Are you always going to feel guilty for something that was supposed to happen?” John chides childishly, because he will always be a child of thirteen. Dave changes, swelling and drifting, into an adult, and he thinks he will soon be taller than John-of-his-dreams. But John with his white eyes can see through him, and Dave turns away, because he cannot forgive himself.
Davesprite wakes, briefly, to see a hot meal strapped near his nest. Someone has placed a blanket over his wings, which nearly falls wayside to the still space when he sits up. Jade would have more delicacy, but John’s evidence trail around the nest, from where he accidentally has scuffed a shiny rock or stomped on some leaves.
It is John’s quiet apology to him, and he eats the meal in his nest. A chill picks up, soothing his ruffled feathers, and he wraps the blanket around his shoulders. He thinks about the Choice, to the dark behemoth who stood before him, and he thinks about his sword. He thinks of himself as a child of thirteen, standing on the top of his apartment building, and he thinks of how he did nothing while John burned. He thinks about the dark vision that haunts him, where John is burning, burning, burning. He thinks himself into dreams again. Before he slides away into his white-pressed suit and shiny shoes, he sees a blue figure floating near his nest, feel warm fingers press the blanket across his shoulders, and a weight of someone watching him dream.
“I can’t grow up here,” John says, underneath the covers. The dim shapes of the crows have not moved since Dave last came, and they watch them still. But Dave slides his hand over John’s cold skin, staring into the milky eyes, and he wishes for wings to cover him safely.
“I don’t care,” Dave mumbles into his frigid skin, where his veins have turned to ice. “I’ll stay here, too. Stay here forever.”
“You can’t do that.”
“No, Dave, you can’t do that.” John kisses him chastely. “You have to forgive yourself.”
“Can’t. Won’t.” He clutches onto John, even as his stomach kicks against the smell of burnt flesh. John has forgotten to repair his suit again, or perhaps, this time, he intentionally left it broken and burnt. Dave closes his eyes and buries his face into John’s shoulder, inhaling the sweet sick scent.
“I think all choices we make are the Choice,” John says, but his voice sounds like millions of feet, years, and dreams away. “And sometimes, it’s not really important what choice we made, but if we regret it. You have to make the right choice, Dave, you know you have to do that, but you can’t let yourself regret it. If you stay here, you’re going to die, but if you leave, you can live.”
“I don’t want to go.” Dave tried to find mass within John’s flimsy weight. “I have to protect you.”
“I died so we could all live,” John says. “I chose to burn because you could have a future, and other me could have a future, and Rose and Jade could have a future. The trolls could have one, and we could all be happy.”
“But I have to protect you.” The silhouette of the crows stared at him, shadows falling dusky across his vaguely white bedcovers.
“I already burned, Dave. It's okay. You don't have to protect me anymore.” John’s voice dipped quietly, an itching whisper in his ear. "And it's okay if you love him."
“If you love the John on the ship. He’s not jealous of me. I’m not jealous of him. And I know you love me, Dave, and he’s me, too. You can love him.” John spread his frozen fingers across Dave’s heart, and he stared down at the hand touching his white suit. Guilt pulsed along his warm blood, flowing through his heart and into his soles, but John only smiled in a vague, ghastly way.
“I don’t love him,” he tried to say, but John laughs.
“I know, Dave. I know. But, you know, I’m always going to be waiting here. I will always be here, for you, I promise.” For the first time since Dave has seen him, John’s mouth turns on the corners. “I don’t really know what dying means, anyway.”
Dave tries to hold him closer, but John is always cold and transient, like mist in his hands, and the walls are two-dimensional and fake, and his wires run randomly across the floor, and his posters have no faces.
“I think I’ve always been too young to know what it means. I mean, there was always—Nanna, but I never really knew her. To me, she was always just… ashes. In an urn. Maybe that’s all we are, Dave. Just ashes in the wind.” But John smiles again, teeth sticking out. “So I’m glad you weren’t there when I became ashes, because that would have made you really sad. It’s a good thing. So you have to forgive yourself, and you have to live, because it’s the right thing to do.”
“You’re more than just ashes,” Dave says, urgently, but John laughs like he always laughs, and shakes his head.
“It’s not a bad thing,” he whispers, his opaque eyes blinking. “It just means we’re all made of the same kinda stuff. That’s all.”
But Dave can only try to grip his hand, and try to hold him tight, because the visions that linger in his mind still curl in his heart. The treacherous tendrils wind across his rib cage, and spread through his beating wings.
“Were you scared?” Dave mumbles. “Did it hurt?”
He needs to know, because the thoughts draw him back into the dream bubble, over and over again. His failure as a person, his failure as a bird, they became only dust in the stars when he thought about John, alone, in the shale caves. When he closes his eyes, before he can descend into dreams, he imagines John as the flames envelop him. He imagines the suit becoming tatters, skin melting into bones, he imagines John crying and screaming, and the thoughts twist him up on the inside.
His fingers turn into talons, dragging across John’s face, but John says nothing in response, cloudy eyes staring past him.
Davesprite comes down to dinner for the first time in weeks. Jade’s mouth opens in surprise, and John’s tight, twisted mouth, opens into a small smile. He drops into dreamless sleep, now, but he thinks John was right. The old thoughts slowly fall away from him, and he finally begins to live again.
The wind feels fresh on his ruffled collar, and the veins and arteries of his flesh and bone body thrum with a rhythm against his muscles. His talon claws begin to unclench from their fists, and he thinks he is ready to forgive.
John is burning burning burning and Davesprite is screaming screaming screaming—
He falls from the sky, twisting in his white pressed suit, but his white pressed suit becomes dirtied and sullied when he falls into the piles of ashes. The ashes enter into his mouth, and the smell of burnt human lingers sickly in the air, acrid against his nose and leaving vicious trails down his throat, and he’s screaming screaming screaming as he buries his fingers into the ashes and
He hadn’t been seeing the past, he had been seeing the future and he had made the wrong choice, he made the wrong choice, he left John alone again and he’s screaming because his wings flutter across the ashes and his knees twist into a tail but his hands, his rough claws for hands cannot hold all the ashes, and they fall into the ground. He digs through the piles, but he doesn’t know what he seeks, just the smell taut against his breath, and he finds him.
He knows the cluster of thin, sooty ashes, had been John, and he’s screaming, screaming, screaming, and he grips his head between his hands because he had been seeing the future, the dark twisted vision that had haunted him, Typheus played no part, John’s soft expression turned into fear, and it had hurt, it must have hurt, and Davesprite was still alive, he had chosen to live, and he’s screaming, screaming, screaming because he sees, on the back of his eyelids, John’s twisted figure, his torn mouth, his melted flesh against breaking skeleton, his white bones slipping away, ashes, they had all turned to ashes, and he’s screaming, screaming, screaming—
He screams himself awake, and he claws himself out of the nest of lost and abandoned things, and he falls to the ground with a crack. His wings beat once, twice, and he sails through the ship, and he tears down John’s door with his talon hands. John sits up from his cot, eyes bleary but awake, and Davesprite leaps at him, covers him with his wings, and he screams into John’s shoulder. His hard talons rake through John’s hair, and John bleeds, but he doesn’t care, because John is trembling and Davesprite has failed, it had hurt, he had been scared, it had hurt. Davesprite is screaming, screaming, screaming, and he isn’t crying, but the salt fills his mouth.
The nest will remain wrecked, because Davesprite will take a bed. He no longer belongs to the lost, abandoned things, but he does not sleep, either. He will not sleep for weeks, because he knows the sight lying behind his eyelids, the empty wasteland of ashes fluttering in the wind, and he will tremble in his bed. When he does rest, in the short flashes of time, he will see milky eyes staring past him, and he will see them turn to ashes, and he will scream because he is still bone and flesh and failure. He was once a knight of time, but his limbs have become charred wings, and he now only has enough time to lose.
He screams, he screams, he still screams and the sound echoes through the golden ship. And he is frightened, because he is part bird, but the sound he’s choking into John’s hair does not sound like an inhuman caw.
It sounds like a very human cry.