Meltdown

Author's Notes- Sorry about the slightly massive delay- I accidentally left my flash drive behind when visiting some relatives and spent quite a few weeks worrying this was gone for good, along with a lot of other stuff. The last chapter should be uploaded soonish too.

After finishing this chapter, I realised my dates were slightly out. I've mentioned use of electroconvulsive therapy- if I've worked it out right, Tsuzuki probably died in the 1920s while ECT was only properly introduced in the 1930s. I've left it in, since if Muraki's grandfather was slightly ahead of his time, it's not completely implausible that a doctor may have tried it a few years before it was a well-known technique.

Disclaimer- I don't own any of the recognisable characters or concepts. No profit is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.

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Tsuzuki didn't go back to the Judgment Bureau. He knew very well what Tatsumi and Watari would say if they knew where he had been, and perhaps they were right. He was no psychologist, but Tsuzuki knew the last thing someone in this state needed was more stress to send the fragile remains of their mind crumpled uselessly inwards. Perhaps he was just driving Hisoka irreversibly into his own memories. But Tsuzuki didn't think he could stop now, even if he wanted to, and part of him did. This was not the easy option. Tsuzuki had been on the run for days now, knowing that as soon as he slowed down, the events from Kyoto would catch up with him. And then, he didn't quite know what would happen.

Tsuzuki didn't stop until Hisoka's home was well out of sight. He glanced back from time to time, watching it retreat into the distance, and sincerely hoped that neither of them would ever have to see it again. They shifted in spirit form to the nearest large town, and paused in a sunlit street, a world away from the cellar and whatever had dragged itself from the pain-soaked walls there. The living streamed by unaware of their presence, the air heavy with the soft noises of traffic and voices gone limp and drowsy with heat. And in the middle of it all, they were there, streaked with dried blood and cellar dirt, Hisoka watching distantly with the shadowed, old/young eyes of a war child.

"Where do we go from here?" Tsuzuki asked, not expecting any answer. He wasn't an empath, but even he felt drained by whatever Hisoka had left behind in the cellar all those years ago. He paused, wondering whether they should wait until the morning. Hisoka's eyes were closed now, the lids bluish with exhaustion, and Tsuzuki frowned over the fragility of the moment, how easily he could slip away like a butterfly taking flight, or a candle snuffed out.

"We can't stop now, right?" he asked, and continued walking, no destination in mind.

Hisoka followed docilely. It felt deeply wrong. Usually, Hisoka was the one striding ahead, map in hand, snapping at Tsuzuki as he dawdled behind, distracted by street vendors and shop windows. Tsuzuki gave a small, tired smile. He'd existed for almost a century, and only now he realised how much he'd sought guidance from his younger partner sometimes.

"I've been thinking about it. There's two places left," Tsuzuki said, more to himself than anything. "You already went back to the cherry blossom, didn't you?" He paused, and wondered again if this was one of Muraki's games.

"So, I think it's probably the hospital, and the laboratory," Tsuzuki continued. "You made this very difficult, you know? You were- you're always so good at keeping everything locked up. But you're not as good as you think you are. Whenever you talk about your death, I can see how painful it must have been. And the laboratory is where it all began."

"I don't know if it's enough," Tsuzuki spoke up again, after a minute or two's reflection. "It's frightening how little we know about each other. I don't know what else happened to you, if maybe the other children bullied you, or if you were in an accident, or-" He shrugged helplessly. "Well, I suppose that'll have to change, whether you like it or not. You know my secrets." He paused to check a road sign, still talking to himself. "I spent eight years lost in insanity. It's not a good place to be."

There was one large, private hospital nearby. That had to be it. Near enough for Hisoka's parents to travel to, far enough away that the local villagers wouldn't work there and carry back gossip, expensive enough for the son of a long lineage. Tsuzuki paused in the hospital foyer, completely lost. The living streamed past, oblivious to their presence.

Hisoka walked past him. Tsuzuki reached out and caught his shoulder, only to be shrugged off as Hisoka turned into one of the corridors. It grew quieter and cooler the further they went, from the busy children's wards, into a sudden hush deep inside the hospital. Tsuzuki felt a slight prickle as they went through a ward there. There were shapes under the thin white blankets, but there was no sound except the mild beeping of machines and he sensed no-one there at all.

The room could have been occupied. No, it should have been occupied. It shouldn't have been left empty, the door open, the bed made and a vase of flowers left by the bedside. Not flowers, Tsuzuki saw, as they approached the bed. It was just a branch of cherry blossom that had been broken off, so recently there was a tacky bead of sap still bleeding fresh at the tip. Cherry blossom wasn't even in season, not here in the world of the living.

Tsuzuki's own hand tightened around Hisoka's as he remembered. It would be so easy to come back to a place like this, one day. Some things had changed. He remembered a wooden-framed bed, and now this one was sleek and metal, adjusting position and height at the touch of a button. There was machinery besides the bed that he had never seen before, and a slim TV screen swung down from the wall. But they were the same places, in the end.

Most of the memories there were fragmented, little bits and pieces of reality small enough to slip through the fire and smoke that choked up his dreams, except they probably weren't called dreams when your eyes were wide open and they still played on. He remembered small insignificant things, the taste of barbiturates melting to bitter sludge down his throat, or the distant sting of a hypodermic needle that seemed further away than the tiny pinpricks of stars. Electroconvulsive therapy, a sudden sizzle of white lightning searing away everything for one blissful moment, filling his mind with the raw fire of a sun going supernova. He'd always wished it would consume everything, leave behind nothing to ever wake up again. But the fire always burned out and left him behind with nothing but the far-away ache of knotted pain up and down his spine, wrists stripped skinless from the leather straps that held him down, a faint ironwater taste from a mouth full of blood and chipped teeth.

Tsuzuki reached out to Hisoka. As his fingers brushed the shinigami's shoulder, there was a sudden sense of falling, of something invisible melting softly away, of bright ghosts rising from the walls and the murmur of voices in the small room.

What happened, doctor?
Your son is very sick. Some sort of autoimmune disorder, perhaps. We've called specialists in-

The voices were remote and somehow flattened, like a cheap tinny radio playing too far away to care about. Hisoka watches blurred shapes swim before his eyes, shapeless, faceless patches of whites and greens that might have been people, once. He tries to raise his head enough to see, but the message is left sizzling down nerves that don't respond any more. Each small movement he manages is followed by great arthritic jags of pain. They want to know what happened, and he can't tell them, can't remember anything before waking up, sick and cold in morning dew.

Now the chill has turned to fever, stoked fires turning over slowly up and down his bones. The air in the room is cool, but it can't touch fire like this. This isn't combustion, it's inflammation, something infected deep inside breaking him down into hot rolling ruin. He arches his back slowly, soft overwashed cotton grating on raw nerves wherever it touches, as though it might scrape away tiny pieces of himself with it. When the tears finally come, there's no relief there either. They roll up syrupy-warm, leave blazing tar trails in their wake wherever they touch.

Doesn't he know we're here?
He's on quite high doses of morphine. It's unlikely that he's really aware of anything.
His eyes are open. Why won't he-
Catatonia, maybe.
-we thought perhaps ..autism when he was younger. He was a strange boy-
We suspect some sort of neurodegenerative disorder. They're very rare at his age, but not unheard of

Neurodegeneration
Hisoka turns the word over, the syllables fracturing and slipping away from him each time the headaches come, in great shuddering waves of pain that sweep over him like a red sea. Sometimes they carry him away into oblivion, and sometimes it breaks over his head in dazzles of pain that splinter his world into shards and splinters.

Whenever he manages to catch that thought and ride it out, long enough for the headache to subside, the same uneasy images come to mind. Dementia. Hisoka isn't old enough to grasp the mechanisms behind it, but he can picture the grooves in his brain opening up like cracks in the parched earth, tissue shrinking to dried-up flaky grey sponge, the holes that will appear as his mind is slowly eaten away to nothing but sputtering, tangled neurons.

Is there any cure, doctor?
I'm sorry. I'm afraid no-one really knows.
He doesn't even know we're here. Come on-.

There's nothing else to watch in the room, and so he watches the roses, dim and distant and blurred like underwater creatures. Just close enough for him to make out the outlines of the heavy blossoms and see that they're red and white roses, red on white on red over and over again. He doesn't know if they're from his parents, but there's no-one else to send him flowers. And they're certainly lush and expensive enough, a nice gesture for some nurse to admire. Red roses are for passion. White roses are for purity. It's not something a parent would give to their sick son, but Hisoka wouldn't be surprised if they simply picked the first expensive arrangement they saw. Red on white on red on white-

Something stirs in his mind, something red and white over and over again, but he can't find the answer amongst the puzzle of thorns and velvet plush petals.

Helpmehelpmehelpmehelpme

He listens to the last incoherent thoughts flung out from patients brought in from car accidents and house fires, thrown out wildly for anyone to hear. A hospital is a bad place for an empath.

Hisoka comes to know some of them, and perhaps that's all that keeps him from going insane, trapped there in the falling-apart husk of flesh and bone. Sometimes there is even brief respite. There's screaming red pain from the maternity wards, but it's tempered with the serene wash of relief moments later, and a sudden wave of overwhelming protectiveness so fierce it almost hits him harder than the pain. Alongside that, there's the puzzled, mewling mind of something awakening, forced from the safe, pulsing world it knew. The harsh coldness of air hits it like water, searing its new lungs until it keeps breathing so long the air becomes a part of it. Hisoka knows now that birth is a little like drowning.

Sometimes, they welcome death, like the stillness that hangs over the geriatric ward. He feels the shame, from a war veteran, who can no longer make it to the bathroom alone, a former beauty watching herself decay. Hisoka is almost glad for those whose minds begin to fall softly apart, sparing them some of the aching loneliness of dying old and alone. At least, until their memories are lost forever and a woman who raised six children stares blankly at these middle-aged strangers who bring her flowers.

Near his own ward, there's peaceful, blank nothingness from those trapped in a coma. It's not so bad when he can pretend there's nothing left there any more, at least until he feels the struggling of a mind trying to break free, beating like a butterfly in its own cage. Further down, and there's the childrens' ward. Some of them are already half-eaten by cancers, but their thoughts are bright amongst the rest, still young enough to appreciate ice-cream or a visit from a magician. The youngest fear death the least. He listens to the echoing of their thoughts, the matter-of-fact voice of a young girl telling another that she doesn't care if she wasn't invited to someone's birthday party, she'd be dead by Christmas anyway.

Further away from that, and a girl is dying some floors below him. The burns ward. He can feel the raw agony each and every time they change her bandages, and she could live with the pain from gauze sticking to tacky flesh and dead skin stripped from open wounds that will never heal. It's the fleeting traces of revulsion that she can't stand, the look on the nurse's faces that she can't avoid when they remove the damp tissue from her eyes, can't look away because the eyelids were the first part of her face to burn away.

What nice flowers, Hisoka! I'll just bring some fresh water-

The nurses think they're talking to themselves, but they carry on anyway. They think its for his sake, but Hisoka knows better. They talk to fill the bleak silence in the rooms of the terminally ill. He listens to their commentary anyway, not in any position to take or leave their pity, and sometimes it's the only way he knows that anyone is there at all. He can feel their faint sadness as they gently turn him over, and change the morphine that does nothing to cool the slow burn at his core. They feel for him, but there are really too many patients for them to ever care so much about the strange dying boy locked away in his private room.

Hisoka's eyes open, sticky and blurred, the muscles around them near-paralysed. He thinks of rusty windows racheting open. He can tell by the tightening of the nurse's face that his eyes look as vacant as a doll's.

He doesn't even know we're here.

No one replaced the flowers. He watches the scarlet fade from lush, candyapple red to the faint brown of old bloodstains, the last spot of colour in the room gone. The white discolours to a nostalgic tea-stain yellow, until there's nothing but a tissue-dry, corpse husk. When a nurse moves them the next day, they crumble, and then there's nothing but the spicy, dry withered scent of things fallen apart to paper. No one came back.

Unidentified adolescent-onset neurodegeneration. Cause unknown.
Ataxia has progressed. Complete quadiplegia observed.
Irreversible catatonia suspected

The roses are long gone, but there's cherry blossom besides the bed one day. Not a formal arrangement, just a branch someone's snapped off and bound with red ribbon, bound over and over again like bandages, as if they could ever fix the wounded limb. The scarlet swims blurred before his eyes, fractured by white petals. His eyes have gone too dim to make out any more, and the faint scent of blossom is lost under the antiseptic and clean laundry smell of hospital air.

Three years..
you'll die beautiful, I promise

A hand touched his forehead lightly, impersonally. He thought of a kiss of sparks from steel on steel, and then a second later the pain came exploding forth, as though an invisible network of heated wires was suddenly drawn tight. The sting of a needle sliding into the crook of his elbow was lost against it. A series of images flashed through Hisoka's mind- pain bursting, fireworks blossoming, spilling out scarlet into skies, white skies, and it would be red on white on red. That's right. That night, the moon-

The moon bled for me.

It was impossibly low, almost low enough to reach out and touch it, if he could move. And if he touched it, his fingers would sink right in, a moon ripe and swollen like a rotten strawberry, about to burst and spill sticky syrupy rot over the cherry blossom branches that fractured the skies above. It had pulsed in time with the waves of wet warmth that had broke over him. A heart, a womb, a tumour, an eye, and none of those at all. There had been nothing and no-one else there to watch him die that night, just the glazed-over eyes of a dead girl and the red moon-

??? What moon ???
You can scream if you like. No one can hear you.

The pain subsided, black waves of it rolling back uneasily to slip below the surface of the inexorable burn that he feels every day. And now Hisoka knows it was there all along, waiting, only ever needing a word to bring it back out. The last fragmented images begin to break up and slip away again. The voice slips into his mind, smooth and cool like oil over still waters, and he doesn't want it to end. He doesn't even care what happened between them underneath the bleeding moon, not when he's drowning in here and this is the only person to ever reach him. The voice fades away, brushing against his fevered mind like cool silk.

Absence of cerebrally modulated motor responses to pain in all extremities.
Electroencephalogram reveals total loss of activity outside brain stem.
Patient is considered to be in a permanent vegetative status

I died that night

Hisoka was fourteen when he accepted that he was already dead. He took longer to accept it than some of the children on the ward below him, less time than some of the adults who went on denying it until their last breath. Perhaps he'd have held out longer if there had been something to keep on living for. He didn't care for much any more, just wanted the pain to stop, and if he couldn't rise out of it, then he didn't care if he would sink into it instead. Keep on sinking into the heart of the bonfire, until it had flayed away everything and there would be nothing left to feel pain any more.

There wasn't so much of Hisoka left now. He sometimes listened, dimly, to far-away voices that broke over his head like a wave and disintegrated into meaningless foam. He knew a physiotherapist came and manipulated his limbs like a doll, but he felt nothing save a dull racketing ache, joints snapping and creaking like wood in a bonfire. The outside world was fading away as the fever rose up, stoked fires eating away at him. Towards the end, he treasured every last feeling that still crept through. The cool dab of a cloth wiping his sticky, matted eyelashes, the brush of clean cotton as he was lifted, even the dull tugging as an IV was changed.

Total loss of functional brain stem activity.
Patient was declared clinically brain-dead at three am.

Not much longer now, Hisoka supposed. He didn't even breath for himself any more. He couldn't see the machine that kept him alive, but sometimes he'd hear the distant hiss of it, feel the corresponding rise and fall of his own chest, lungs that threatened to collapse together like gluey tissue paper if the air wasn't forced into them. Air that kept fanning the fever, but soon there would be nothing left but fire and ashes. Hisoka didn't fear death any more. This was how being buried alive must feel.

Ventilator and drug support withdrawn at family request.
Cardiac death declared at seven pm.

Tsuzuki didn't realise his own breath had slowed and stopped altogether, the world turning sticky and red and formless around him. The hospital room they had entered was back, but lost behind the fog blackening out his vision. He blinked frantically, a sudden jolt of adrenaline hitting him as air wouldn't come, his chest constricting and slowly clamping down to trap his struggling mind in an airless cage shutting down around it. Then it finally came, cool antiseptic air flooding his lungs as he broke the surface like a drowning man.

Another deep breath, to steady himself. "They took you off life support."

And Tsuzuki wasn't sure if it was Hisoka answering, if he'd filled in the blanks himself or if it was the last fading traces of whatever memory drifted forever in this room, tethered by fire and pain, but the answer came anyway and it didn't matter who had gave it voice.

I was already dead