3,200 / 50,000
When Ian was twelve, his mother had forgotten to pick him up from a school function. Two hours after she’d been supposed to show up, Gabe had come out of band practice, taken one look at Ian, and said "She’s forgotten about you, hasn’t she," in almost exactly the same tone he was using now.
Three blocks over, two down, and ten minutes later, Ian stood in front of an apartment building on the edge of being uninhabitable, wondering why he was there. The street-lights were dimmer, and served only to make the night darker, providing just enough contrast to show how deep the night was.
The stairs in this building appeared to be in worse shape than then ones where Ian lived, but they were steadier beneath his feet, and the banister was featureless when he felt it–chipped paint on old metal.
He knocked on the door of 8-B, and leaned against the dingy wall to wait. The building’s silence was more patient than that of his father, but he could still feel it pressing upon him. Like the gaze of some old cat, waiting for a particularly slow child to realize what has to be done.
"Ian? What are you doing here?" Gabe sounded tired, and slightly exasperated, but that was normal. Which seemed wrong, somehow. Nothing should be normal anymore. "Ian?"
"Mm?" Ian didn’t look up from the piece of carpet he was examining, head down and shoulders braced against the wall. He wasn’t sure why he’d come here, and now that he was faced with Gabe, he wasn’t sure if he could endure his cousin’s pity. The carpet was safe, offering neither compassion nor censure. Scattered holes offered a view of the underlying floorboards, antique wood contrasting with faded burnt orange. It might have been as old as the building–or older, the remnant of some other place.
"You okay?" That was worry, which he didn’t want. Reluctantly, he looked up and forced a smile.
"Yeah, just tired–real tired." Which was true enough, despite being incomplete. Exhaustion dragged at him, wrapping steely fingers around his bones, fogging his thoughts. His smile felt crooked.
"Well–" Gabe leaned against the doorframe. "We could stay out here, I suppose, but I think my furniture’s slightly more hygienic than that bit of carpet you’re so enamored of."
"True," Ian admitted, and felt his smile right itself. Perhaps there was something to be said for normalcy in the face of inescapable change.
Gabe’s apartment smelled of dust and hot water, with the faintest hint of geraniums. Ian collapsed gracelessly onto the coach and began studying the ceiling. Keeping his eyes busy made it easier to ignore the catastrophe which his life had become, so that he could almost pretend that this visit was no different from any other.
"You want something to drink?"A box of tea held a half-inch from his nose interrupted his study of the various water-stains covering the ceiling. "I’ve got tea, hot chocolate, milk . . . more tea–" Ian snorted and batted the box away.
"No thanks. I happen to know how old that stuff is. It’s got to be just about undrinkable by now." It smelled more of dust than tea, and Ian had to resist the urge to sneeze. "Why don’t you get rid of it?" Gabe grinned at him, a quick flash of teeth; gone almost before it could be seen, like so many things about him.
"Dad drinks it, if I put enough sugar in. But I’m starting to feel a little guilty about it." He flipped the box open and frowned at the contents. "Still twelve left."
"Fine," Ian sighed. "Make me a cup. Just be sure to put in enough milk and sugar that I can’t actually taste the tea." Something inside him eased when Gabe flashed him a second smile.
From the kitchen came the clatter of mugs and the hiss of a kettle being filled. Gabe whistled quietly as he rattled the knobs on his ancient stove to get it to turn on. Listening to them was comforting, like the sag in the couch, familiar as an old friend’s embrace. No one but Gabe ever made him tea, and that small kindness was as soothing as the actual tea–perhaps more so. Tea had never been a great favorite of his and he rarely drank it except in Gabe’s company.
It felt a little like home, he realized as he mentally mapped the ceiling’s continents. Certainly more than his own apartment–perhaps even more than his family’s home. Here he didn’t have his father waiting to–
Cutting that thought off, he flung an arm over his eyes and simply listened. That squeak was the refrigerator being opened, and the hiss was the kettle trying and failing to whistle. There was the slosh of water being poured into mugs, and the chime of Gabe’s antique timer being set. Five minutes until the tea was finished steeping and could provide Ian with an excuse not to talk. Not that Gabe seemed to be in a particularly talkative mood either, being apparently content to whistle by himself in the kitchen and allow Ian as much space as he needed.
His shirt-sleeve smelled of home, of laundry soap and lavender, and when he finally removed his arm from across his eyes, it had a couple of freshly-damp patches. Apparently shirts were not safe, but carpets and ceilings and tea were. He could remember that.
"Tea’s ready." The mug Gabe held temptingly above Ian smelled of honey and far-off places, and was enough to drive away the ghosts of home. Ian accepted it gratefully, and was pleased to find that it tasted nothing like dust. "I’m out of sugar, so I gave you the last of the honey instead. I hope you don’t mind."
"It’s perfect," Ian assured him, and it was. Even when it burned his tongue.
They sat for awhile, in companionable silence so settled that it shattered almost visibly when the phone rang. Gabe answered it with more far equanimity than Ian could have managed, jarred as he was by the sudden intrusion of the outside world.
"Yes, this is– No, no, it’s fine, no bother–" The person called must have been nearly frantic with anxiety, their voice loud enough for Ian to almost make out from across the room what they were saying. Whoever it was sounded familiar, and Ian frowned at the remnants of his tea as he tried to place their voice.
"He’s fine, Thomas. He’s sitting on my sofa, drinking very bad tea and being polite about it." Ian opened his mouth to protest the comment about the tea, and then realized who Gabe was talking to–Thomas, Ian’s roommate. Who had seen him go out rather late and was checking to see if he was still alive. His concern should have been comforting, but it wasn’t.
"Yes, I’ll be sure to do that. No, I don’t think that’s necessary. He’s survived this long, I think he can take care of himself." And Gabe really had no reason to look so amused by the situation or to grin back unrepentantly when Ian glared at him. "That’s quite all right. Goodbye, Thomas." The force with which he hung up the phone mollified Ian slightly–Thomas really could be a bit much at times.
"He’s worried about you." When Ian was twelve, his mother had forgotten to pick him up from a school function. Two hours after she’d been supposed to show up, Gabe had come out of band practice, taken one look at Ian, and said "She’s forgotten about you, hasn’t she," in almost exactly the same tone he was using now.
"Thomas worries too much, sometimes." Gabe’s mom had arrived before Ian’d had a chance to deny his own mother’s lapse, and had taken them both home with her. The whole trip back, Gabe had looked at Ian as if something terrible had happened, like he was waiting for cracks to appear on Ian’s face. Then, as now, Ian had looked away, unable to bear watching Gabe watch him. "I’m fine." And that wasn’t quite a lie. Here, for the moment, he was fine. As long as he didn’t have to deal with what his father had said and done, he would be absolutely fine.
"You sure? You don’t look or sound fine." All the warmth was gone from Ian’s empty mug now, and no matter how hard he clutched at it, he couldn’t find any remnants of it. "When I opened the door twenty minutes ago, it looked like the only things keeping you upright were the wall and how hard you were staring at the carpet." Gabe’s fingers felt almost hot when he reclaimed Ian’s mug. " So tell me. What’s Thomas have to be worried about?"
Had it been anyone but Gabe asking the question, he probably would have lied, spinning some tale of insomnia and killer pop-quizzes. Every time he’d lied to Gabe in the past, he’d ended up regretting it, although Gabe always forgave him without protest. It was better, he’d decided, to simply not bother.
"I–" He hesitated, aware that putting it into words would make it too real to ignore. "I called home this evening–I don’t know why. Felt guilty for not staying in touch this year, I suppose. There wasn’t anything I particularly wanted to talk to them about." Or anyone he’d particularly wanted to talk to, although he couldn’t quite bring himself to admit that. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his family, but that he really had nothing in common with them except blood. "One of the pipsqueaks answered the phone, and we insulted each other for a while, which was fine. And then Dad claimed the phone, and. . . ." And it really shouldn’t have been so hard to speak simple fact.
"You had a fight?" Gabe said it so he wouldn’t have to, and Ian wondered briefly how much he had already guessed.
"Yeah. . . ." He could leave it there, the recounting unfinished and safe, but that would be the worst kind of lie. "It was–pretty bad, for a bit. My grades weren’t good enough, I was ungrateful, I don’t understand how the real world works. . . ." The words came easier than he had expected, but the last bit, the punch-line of the story, still hurt almost to much to bear. "He’s cut me off, Gabe. No more money, no more classes, nowhere to live. I can still visit, I suppose, but–" He couldn’t finish the thought, instead curling up against the comforting familiarity of the couch. The upholstery was paisley, but marred by enough patches so as to be nearly unrecognizable.
A clock began chiming, and Ian was shocked to realize that it was midnight and he needed to leave. He started to get up, only to frown when nothing much happened.
"Gabe–" Flailing didn’t seem to do any more good than a concerted effort, his limbs being more interested in indulging gravity than working against it. "You put something in the tea, didn’t you?" Where earlier exhaustion had simply hampered his actions, he now seemed to be enmeshed in it, so that each motion had to be fought for and hard won. It couldn’t be natural–he had grown used to being weary, and never had it been so unshakable. He could feel control of his body sliding away from him, and the harder he clutched after it the faster it went.
"Just a couple of things to help you sleep." At least Gabe had the decency to sound vaguely guilty when he said it.
"I thought you promised never to do that again." Ian’s eyes had slid shut at some point, and stayed so, no matter how frantically he attempted to force them open.
"I was fifteen when I said that, and you had just spent a half hour making friends with the toilet. At that point, I would have promised you the moon if I’d thought it would make you happy." That had been a memorable experience, unfortunately, although it had taught them the importance of following instructions.
"In other words, you lied."
And with that settled, Ian fell asleep.