A/N: This fic is kind of a bet between me and my Creative Writing teacher. "Kind of" because she doesn't know she's betting... ^^; Basically, she's said all year that it's pretty much impossible to write fanfic of "literary merit." I say that, with certain compromises, it can be done. This is the second draft of this "assignment" that I've turned in to her, and she has yet to cotton on (or give me a poor grade for it ;D). Names were changed to protect my grade in Creative Writing. As for the setting...well, pretty much just AU, but I suppose it could fit in any number of places with minimal changes.

(BTW, John Keats was a brilliant Romantic poet who died young...lots of his poems are about death. ;_; I read this one and immediately thought of Yoite. I'd have preferred to write it in his pov but, well, Miharu came out instead. Sorry.)

(Also, long A/N is long! Sorry about that too!)

Tracing Fingerprints ("This Living Hand" by John Keats)

In this cold room there was nothing to look at but hard metal and dull plastic and the slow rise and fall of a thin chest, nothing to listen to except beepings and rustlings, near-silent breathing and muted voices at a great distance. Max kept his eyes as long as he could from the face of the figure in the bed; instead he looked down at the idly twisting fingers of his free hand.

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping,

He clenched the fingers, then released them one by one, watching as they uncurled gently...then his attention was stolen again. Rebelliously he reined his gaze in, allowed it only to travel to the two hands twined on the edge of the bed. His was small and pale and thin, a child's hand. But Joseph's hand...

would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

Joseph's hand was bony and cold and almost white. Not dead, nor numb; every now and then it trembled. But still Max was still afraid to move, afraid to disturb the uneasy peace of these fleeting moments. It was a peace easily shattered by nightmares.

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

They both had nightmares. It was a nightmare that had brought Max here today, a nightmare without logic or explanation; he had resolved before his eyes were fully open that he would spend the entire day today at Joseph's bedside, that he would allow no one to dissuade him from this course of action, because today might be important, horribly important.

It was a nightmare that had brought Joseph here in the first place, Max suspected. Joseph wouldn't tell, no one knew exactly what had gone wrong; but Max suspected that one morning, or one evening, awake or asleep, life had run her claws too deeply down Joseph's sides and some dark, quiet voice at the bottom of his soul had finally said, "Enough."

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

Max didn't know where the line could be drawn between illness and suicide. He didn't trust anyone else's opinion, either. But Joseph bent to the first like a flower to sunshine, flirted with the idea of the second like a harmony to a melody. His eyes were dark and blue and no one could ever guess what he was thinking.

And Max bent to him in the same way, hands stretching and reaching of their own volition yet, somehow, never reaching far enough.

Of course he wished they could trade places. He'd wanted that for so long that he'd forgotten about it, forgotten what it was not to feel it. But that was simply impossible. Sitting there, Max's felt his being flow between the two of them, his motionless body in the chair and Joseph's motionless body under the covers, until he didn't know what he felt – whether it was his own fear that made his heart ache, or a phantom pain he sensed sometimes from the other boy, or even the elusive pain for the future that he hunted for and obsessed over rather than felt. The dark wish prowling in the back of his mind added to it – because somewhere between his thoughts and what he imagined Joseph's to be, he had entertained ideas, accepted possibilities he absolutely didn't want to acknowledge.

So in my veins red life might stream again,

Fingers cool but not cold, a pulse reluctant sometimes, perhaps, but still mostly steady, and breath that still murmured through the lips, if hesitantly. The correct phrase, he supposed, was one foot in the grave, but he found difficulty identifying with the idea – it was much more like Joseph's other hand, the one Max wasn't holding, the one lying opened to the steel-blue sky peeking between the plastic blinds, was reaching out desperately into the darkness. Joseph had always loved the night, and Max had the feeling, on some of the better days, that when he finally went – whenever that might be, Max reminded himself – Joseph's spirit would simply dissolve into the evening wind.

Of course he, Max, had long since forgotten what it was like to smile without shadows behind his eyes. It often felt to Max, as he lay sleepless in a bed that was much too familiar, much too far from where his mind made its uneasy home, that darkness, for all it was enveloping his friend, overshadowed his own life more as he masqueraded in the sunlight. It was enough to make him furious and bitter at the entire world – except when he was in this room. In here there were only cold hands and trepidation.

And thou be conscience-calmed—

Some days Max wished that he had never met Joseph. Days like this when even the sunlight outside was cold and there was nothing but silence and his doubts.

Joseph hadn't woken up yet today.

As Joseph came ever closer to complete calm, over days and weeks and months, Max felt peace slipping farther and farther away from his own trailing hands, replaced with uneasy, reverberating stillness. Peace was approaching and receding, flowing from one to the other in an easy, invisible, inexorable tide as he wished blood could, as he wished life could – as he wished love could.

see here it is—

I hold it towards you.

There were fingers interlaced with his own, but they were unresponsive, clammy, almost completely limp and seeming more transparent the more he stared at them. Hardly capable of anything, really, and even when their owner was awake they grew frailer all the time, losing their resolve, the little color remaining in them seeping into the off-white sheets day by day. Still, he couldn't bring himself to pull away, if only to allow himself the illusion of lending warmth…

Chilled fingers had tightened around his. He jumped, lifted his eyes in a strange reluctance. Dark blue eyes were gazing sightlessly at him, lips twisted in a small, almost pitying smile. He said the same thing he always did when meeting Max for the first time in a day. It was their own private joke, only Max didn't know the reason for it, didn't think it was funny.

"Goodbye," Joseph said.

A/N: Hopefully I got the characters right, even if the backstory was ambiguous and the names were changed...

Anyway, this is my first of what hopefully will be many chapters of NnO fanfic on here! (Though this fic is completed...) I've got at least two, possibly three, stories percolating in my head atm for this fandom (all much more in-depth / closer to canon than this one). Also, to anyone reading my other fics – I haven't given up on them! It's just that my senior year ate my soul pretty much the whole last nine months. I'll be back in just a few weeks, after graduation! :D