fic: Corbel & Squinch, part 7

Er, here's some more of Ian and Gabe. I am still writing this, even if it doesn't look like it.

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Summary: "What’s going on is that your father has abandoned you in the middle of your senior year at college, and your cousin, out of the vast goodness of his heart, is going to house you." Gabe said rather flatly, like it was the answer to a too-easy question. "Should you want him to." Ian let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and the room seemed to revert to its proper temperature.

"You really shouldn’t worry about these sorts of things," Gabe added after a moment.


Being curled up took most of the impact out of Ian’s shrug. "If that’s what it takes. It won’t be much of a sacrifice." He was a little disappointed to see Gabe look almost surprised by his easy acceptance of how things must be.

"Can’t say I’m sorry to hear you say that," Gabe said at last. "But I did think you were more attached to your social life."

And Ian could almost understand what wasn’t being said. I thought that was the reason you ignored me, or perhaps If that wasn’t the reason you ignored me, than what was? Seldom had he felt so much guilt over perfectly innocent behavior.

"It was getting boring," he said, and pretended it was the whole truth instead of a partial lie. Lying to Gabe was one of those bad things that he didn’t do anymore, like buying fake ID’s or slipping out of the house at night when his father wasn’t home. But different–he’d stopped doing those things because he no longer had need to. He’d stopped lying to Gabe for very different reasons.

The look Gabe gave him suggested that he had more than a vague idea of what Ian was thinking. "Well, now you have an excuse not to go to all the cool parties."

That cut a lot closer to the truth than Ian wanted to admit, so he squirmed around to stare at the ceiling again. If he closed his left eye and tilted his head a little, the one water-stain looked a little like New Holland. Or was it the African Colony?

"Right, then." The floorboards creaked, and Gabe’s head eclipsed New Holland. "Move over. It’s my couch, and I want to use it." Ian squirmed around a little more, creating just enough room by his feet for Gabe to squeeze in, which he did.

They stayed that way for a while, Ian a featureless ball in his blanket, quite content to continue putting names to the spots on the ceiling, and Gabe half-sitting on his feet, motionless. If Ian’s right foot hadn’t begun to go numb, they might have remained like that until hunger drove them into the kitchen.

"My foot’s gone to sleep," Ian said eventually, when efforts to extract it had proven unsuccessful.

"Sorry," Gabe said unrepentantly and didn’t move. Something in Ian’s knee cracked as he tried to lever Gabe off himself, so he stopped before he could inflict further damage on himself.

"Don’t you have homework to do or something?"

"Well, yes," Gabe admitted. "But it’s not due until Tuesday. And you didn’t want me to make dinner yet." He turned, releasing Ian’s foot–finally–and leaned over until he was staring into Ian’s face. "Don’t you have homework? I’ve heard Leander is an absolute fiend for giving impossibly long assignments."

"Yes," Ian said irritably, swiping at him. "Back off. You’re blocking my view of the ceiling." Gabe snorted at that, but obeyed without protest. "Anyway, I’ve already done most of it–" he waved his free hand in the general direction of the table with its chalk dust and scraps of brown paper, "–and he likes me. So it doesn’t matter if I get things in a little late. Especially if I explain what’s going on."

"And what is going on?" Gabe asked, as if he didn’t know.

The stain in the corner above the telephone was China, and the two over by the book cases were Switzerland and Egypt, and if he squinted, the one by the door looked sort of like the profile of President Walling–

"Why don’t you tell me," Ian said at last. To actually spell out what he hoped was happening would be to invite disaster. Things had gone wrong on him once already–he couldn’t face the possibility of another flat-out rejection. Not that Gabe would, but Ian didn’t dare assume.

The lack of an immediate answer was chilling enough that not even the blanket or the warmth of Gabe’s proximity could counteract it. When Gabe finally spoke, Ian was almost shivering, even though he knew that the room temperature hadn’t actually dropped.

"What’s going on is that your father has abandoned you in the middle of your senior year at college, and your cousin, out of the vast goodness of his heart, is going to house you." Gabe said rather flatly, like it was the answer to a too-easy question. "Should you want him to." Ian let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and the room seemed to revert to its proper temperature.

"You really shouldn’t worry about these sorts of things," Gabe added after a moment.

"Easy for you to say," Ian grumbled, but was comforted anyway. Things were settled in a way they hadn’t been before, and they were settled the way he had wanted them to be. Thomas, for all his merits–and if required to, Ian was sure he could come up with some–would have been worse than no help when it came to navigating the world of the working man. His father, like Ian’s until last night, was paying for everything, and Thomas had no desire to break out on his own. Should their positions have been reversed, he almost certainly would have said "Sure, Dad," and taken the job without a second’s hesitation.

Ian wasn’t sure if he could have stood having Thomas around as a reminder of how his life had been altered. With Gabe, it was possible to do as he had been doing–to simply revert to their easy comfort with each other, to pretend that nothing of any real importance had changed, because he wasn’t sure it had. Questions of finance didn’t seem to matter much around Gabe, despite the sometimes terrifying practicality he tended to unleash on things.

"I don’t suppose you’d mind shifting over a little," Gabe asked almost plaintively, interrupting Ian’s introspection, "but your knee is sort of in the same place as my ribs."

"You’re the one who decided to sit on top of me," Ian protested, but did as asked without further complaint. There were worse ways to spend an afternoon than squabbling with Gabe over who had rights to sit where.

Brighton Featherly’s least known work is probably
Black Ashes Painted, which was his final completed novel. The story is centered around two boys, Jim and Llew, as they grow up in the outskirts of a dying city, although it also features some of Featherly’s more original minor characters, such as Mama Blithely and Charles Killian, the bookbinder. Jim is the son of the local fire chief, and Llew an orphan living with his aunt and uncle. They meet in an empty lot, becoming friends almost accidentally, and remain friends over the years despite various circumstances which would have separated them. The title refers to the fire which killed Llew’s parents, a tragedy for which Jim’s father holds himself responsible, and Llew’s self-appointed task of hand-painting each of the ashes which were saved from the destroyed building.

Despite this, the novel somehow manages not to be neither grim nor tragic.

Featherly, Brighton, Corbel & Squinch’s Universal Compendium of Everything, second edition

That evening, Gabe called home. Ian, who’d gotten off the couch in order to help make and consume dinner, was back in his position of curled-up ceiling-surveying, but without the blanket, which he told himself was probably a good sign of something. He knew it wasn’t normal for him to feel so attached to an undeniably ratty piece of furniture, but for the moment he’d allow himself this small comfort.

"Hey, Da. Just your favorite child calling to say hello." Ian couldn’t keep from flinching at Gabe’s casual words. He supposed that someday it wouldn’t hurt like this, but at the moment, witnessing the easy assurance which Gabe had with his father was rather like watching people run after having had his own legs amputated.

It was only phantom pain, but that didn’t make it easier to ignore.

"I’m fine, thanks." Sometimes it seemed like Gabe was always fine, no matter the situation. "Look, remember that talk we had the other night?"

Evidently Gabe’s dad did, because he went on for a while because Gabe interrupted him.

"Yes, well, it turns out Ian’s in a bit of a bind now." And if that wasn’t an understatement, Ian didn’t know what was. "He’s had a bit of a row with his dad, and now he needs somewhere to crash for a while."

Crash. Yes, that described what Ian was doing pretty completely. He resisted the urge to grab the blanket again, and instead forced himself off the couch. If he was going to crash, he could at least be less obvious about it. It wouldn’t fool Gabe, but it would make Ian feel a little better about the whole mess.

He poked around Gabe’s bookshelves, not quite paying attention to Gabe’s half of the conversation, almost relieved to not hear his name come up again. But that meant little since Gabe was talking quietly and carefully, almost certainly aware that Ian was listening.

What he needed was a distraction, and he began hunting for the copy of Black Ashes Painted which he could have sworn he’d seen earlier. Not that he’d be able to appreciate the book properly, not with his current feeling of being trapped in free-fall, but it would give him something to do besides contemplate how badly Gabe’s apartment needed a new paint job.

When he found it, the book looked oddly familiar, and he flipped through it in an attempt to convince himself that there was nothing special about it. Except there was.

"I though I’d lost this." For some reason, Gabe’s copy of Black Ashes Painted had Ian’s name on the top corner of the first page, in his handwriting from when he was quite a bit younger. "How did you end up with it?" Gabe shrugged.

"Oh, you know, the usual way."

"The usual way," Ian repeated blankly, turning the book over in his hands. He’d almost cried when it had gone missing–mostly because it had been the bad end to a very frustrating day, but also because it had been his favorite book at the time and his father had refused to get him a replacement copy. The cover was on the verge of falling off now, and it looked like Gabe had spilled tea on it at some point. "And that would be how, exactly?"

"Borrowed it," Gabe told him unrepentantly. "I was going to give it back, but then you moved, and there wasn’t any way to get it back to you without being obvious about it."

"You . . . ‘borrowed’ it," Ian said slowly, still slightly stunned by the piece of his childhood he now held. "I don’t suppose it ever occurred to you to let me know? Or at least mail it to me anonymously?"

Gabe shrugged again.

"No, I suppose not," Ian sighed, setting the book back on the shelf where he’d found it. He couldn’t read it, not now. If he tried, he’d end up having to beat back painful memories of being alone in a new place, missing all the things he’d had to leave behind–one of which was currently watching him as if he were the star in a one-man show.

There wasn’t any point in continuing the charade, so Ian gave up and returned to his corner of the couch, even succumbing to the lure of the blanket. Tomorrow he would pull himself together and start functioning like a normal, non-traumatized person. For tonight he would allow himself to continue falling apart.

"If you still want to move in here, Da’s willing to bring the truck down next weekend so we can do it properly and not piecemeal." The couch sagged as Gabe sat down next to him. "Shove over, would you? And I’d like some of that blanket. My feet are cold."

"Well, if you’d just wear socks like everyone else–" Ian protested, but did as asked. It was oddly comforting to share with Gabe–as if they were nine again, and building fortresses out of sheets and sofa cushions. He wouldn’t have minded returning to that time, if he hadn’t known what would come after.

After a couple minutes of squirming and shoving and getting everything arranged just so, Gabe produced a book from somewhere–but not, Ian was relieved to see, Black Ashes Painted. This was marginally more interesting than the ceiling, so Ian switched to watching Gabe turn pages, trying to guess from his expression what was happening in the book.

"What are you going to tell Thomas?" Gabe asked suddenly, just as Ian was about to decide whether the crease between Gabe’s eyebrows meant that the heroine had done something idiotic or that the author had gotten his facts about the Russian revolution wrong.

"About what?" Ian said, startled, and then realized what was meant. "Oh. That." He hadn’t really thought about it yet, just kept telling himself that he would deal with it all tomorrow. "I don’t know, really. That I had a fight with my father, I suppose, and he’s stopped sending me money for the moment. And that I’ll be living with you until I can scrounge up some sort of income."

"Freeloader," Gabe said without heat, and turned the page. "What if he offers to let you stay anyway?"

"I don’t think he will," Ian said, puzzled by this line of questioning. "His dad only pays half the rent–he’ll need to get someone in to cover the rest of it, which I obviously can’t do."

"But if he did?" Gabe persisted, eyes still focused on what he was reading. "If he told you the rent didn’t matter, what would you say?"

"I don’t know," honesty forced Ian to say, although he wanted dearly to lie and say it wouldn’t matter. But while Gabe had been his childhood companion and was still a close friend, Thomas had been Ian’s first friend in college–and Gabe had been invisible, even though Ian had known he was there, somewhere. That silence between the two of them had hurt more than a little, especially since he’d chosen the college because Gabe had already been accepted there. It was why he hadn’t sought Gabe out later, when he’d been more sure of himself. "But I don’t think he will."

The pages stopped turning, the only indication that Gabe cared at all about what Ian hadn’t said. But he kept his head down, still the picture of a focused reader oblivious to the world around him. Even without the testimony of the motionless pages, however the picture would have been patently false; Ian had never known Gabe to be anything but hyper-aware to what was around him.

When Gabe finally spoke, he sounded oddly serene, his tone–as it often was–at odds with his body-language.

"I’m not letting you stay here because no one else is willing, you know. Even if your dad hadn’t abandoned you, I’d be glad to have you move in." He closed the book, one finger between the pages to keep his place, and looked up at Ian. "If you’d wanted, I would’ve gladly shared a place with you since the beginning of freshman year."

"But I asked!" Ian protested. "I put you down as a requested roommate on the form, and everyone else I met who’d done that had gotten who they’d asked for. I figured you’d declined or something."

The book in Gabe’s hand twitched once, but Gabe’s expression didn’t change.

"Ian, I wasn’t in the dorms, freshman year."

"What?" Ian frowned. "But all freshmen live in the dorms. It’s mandatory." He’d tried to get out of it, unsuccessfully–the dorms weren’t worse than some he’d visited in the course of choosing colleges, but they left a lot to be desired. One of the highlights of his sophomore year had been being allowed to move off campus.

"I tried spending the night in one of them when I first considered the college," Gabe explained patiently. "I had to leave the lights on all night, and spent most of the time convincing myself that there really wasn’t anyone else in the room. It was–" he waved his empty hand as if trying to capture the words he was looking for. "It was like being watched, every breath I took, by someone who knew I had no right to be there and was only waiting for an excuse to forcibly eject me from the building. When I decided I wanted to come here anyway, Da went and explained . . . things to the administration, and got me special dispensation."

"Oh. I’d forgotten about . . . that." Ian wasn’t sure whether the explanation–which he probably should have been able to guess on his own–made him feel better or worse about the whole thing. "Why didn’t you let me know?"

"I didn’t know you were here–your dad never told us, and you never said anything."

"Oh," Ian said again numbly, wondering how such a simple lack of communication could have lasted for so long. He hadn’t even known where Gabe lived until partway through sophomore year, and by then he’d been firmly entrenched in a new circle of friends. It wasn’t that he’d been upset or even particularly hurt by Gabe’s seeming abandonment–or at least he’d told himself that at the time. Looking back now, though, he had to wonder if that was why he’d thrown himself so completely into Thomas’ conception of college life, and all the parties and semi-legalities that had involved.

When they were growing up, Gabe had always been the one to rein Ian in, but then Ian’s family had moved and he’d suddenly found himself with no one to balance him. He’d spent most of his senior year in highschool trying to find his footing again. When his mother had let slip that Gabe was considering St. Sebastian’s College, Ian had spent hours perfecting his application in hopes of being reunited with his cousin. Once he’d been accepted, he’d spent more hours imagining all the things he and Gabe would do together.

He hadn’t even once thought of sending Gabe a letter informing him that they’d be going to school together.

"You didn’t miss much, though," Gabe continued, as if they were discussing the latest serial at the corner theater, and not the last three years of their lives. "I wasn’t much fun as a freshman. Spent most of my time in the library, hiding from the feral librarians."

"I can’t see you hiding from anyone," Ian said dubiously, "Even librarians. Although I can imagine you moving into the Slavic literature section."

"Calculus, actually," Gabe corrected him, and grinned at Ian’s expression. "Well, not really. Those librarians are really good at sniffing people out when it hits closing time. I got whispered at very loudly more than once."

And that, Ian could believe.