fantasy

fic: Corbel & Squinch, part 8

Next bit. Things are beginning to happen, I think. But I did warn at one point that this was likely to be long and rather rambly.

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Summary: In the center aisle, the rector continued reading the story of repentance and forgiveness and love, but neither of them heard it.

*****

The fool placed a slender finger against Edgar’s wrist, tilting it so that the finally-scabbing wounds were obvious.

"You really were Tom, weren’t you," he said almost wonderingly. Edgar jerked his hand back, pulling his sleeve down protectively, inexplicably uncomfortable with exposing his self-inflicted injuries. At the time, they’d been necessary, a piece of the identity he’d created for himself, and he’d barely felt them. Now, though, he couldn’t seem to escape them.

"Yes," he said, and wished he hadn’t. Tom was supposed to be dead, but Edgar was still wearing his scars, and he didn’t know what that meant.

Perhaps the fool understood this. In any case, he said nothing more on the subject and fell back into telling increasingly filthy stories. Edgar let him, pretending to laugh when he was supposed to, but it fooled neither of them.

Tom O’Bedlam, Corbel & Squinch’s Universal Compendium of Everything, unpublished entry


Gabe watched Ian watch him, watched later that evening when he finally made himself call Thomas and explain the current state of affairs. He watched him pretend so very hard and so very well that he was fine, and wondered again, as he had so many times, where and why Ian had learned that trick.

It could be useful, but the ease with which Ian did it was more than a little worrying.

When Ian finally admitted to being tired, Gabe dug out a set of sheets nearly transparent with wear, and didn’t let his relief show. They were both good at hiding what they truly thought, although they seldom did so with each other. But it was good to be back with Ian again, old scars bared and accepted, despite the distance that was still between them.

Most of the scars were Ian’s, although neither would admit it. Gabe simply was what he was, and always had been; Ian had become himself, always growing in ways affected by his father. No benevolent neglect for him.

One of the things Gabe didn’t let himself think about was how things might have been different if Ian had grown up with Gabe’s parents. Instead, he made up the couch with the sheets and some old blankets, and made increasingly idiotic conversation with Ian.

And then he retreated to his room and did the homework he’d been ignoring, allowing himself to get lost in the tangles of words forming definitions of the soul and life and whatever happiness was.

A gray dawn woke him the next morning, noisy with the sounds of pigeons fighting on his windowsill. Ian was still asleep, so Gabe padded around on silent, sockless feet, collecting clothes for each of them, grateful that they wore roughly the same sizes of everything. They would have to go over to Ian’s apartment soon to collect his things, but they could do so when Ian was ready, and not simply because he was pressured to do so by necessity.

Except that Ian’s school things were there too. Gabe frowned at the realization, but continued pulling things out of drawers.

When Ian finally woke, two minutes before Gabe would have forcibly dragged him off the couch, the kitchen smelled of warm oatmeal and brown sugar, scents which had always smelled to Gabe of Sunday. He had bowls and cups ready by the time Ian was up and moving in a somewhat coordinated fashion, and tea steeping in the off-hand chance that Ian willing to grant him that trust again.

It wasn’t until halfway through his bowl of oatmeal that Gabe realized how different the apartment felt with someone else in it, or how even the couch seemed somehow more real, more itself. The patches were still there, but they didn’t seem to matter anymore.

The effect was odd, but not worrying.

He listened to the apartment while Ian ate in silence with sleep-blurred focus, felt the reassuring, not-quite icebox hum which always meant home to him. It sounded brighter than usual, but it was still there. Obviously, whatever Ian’s presence was doing it wasn’t bad–merely unexpected. Like white bread instead of brown.

"You’re coming to church with me," he told Ian firmly when the food and tea were gone and cleaned up after and Ian looked liable to curl up again in his cocoon of sheets and blankets. Made even more amenable than usual by much sleep and warm food, Ian accepted this fact without protest, even when warned that they’d be walking there despite the dying year’s chill.

At least, Gabe hoped it was only sleep and warm food–where Gabe would slide out from under his troubles, Ian had the tendency to bow beneath them. He wouldn’t break–couldn’t break, Gabe wouldn’t let him–but he would grow stoop-shouldered under them, allow himself to be driven to his knees.

It was a miracle he had stood up to his father at all, his refusal a testimony to a hidden spine of steel, buried beneath a life’s-worth of unseen constraints. Like a bonsai showing the tree it could become, if allowed.

But now the steel had disappeared again, and the tree seemed to have shrunk back upon itself, no longer testing the limitations of its container. Gabe refused to let this worry him, and instead chivvied Ian out the door, unwilling to allow him to continue lying dormant on the couch.

Walking in the cold air seemed to bring Ian back into a state of self-direction, and he turned to Gabe as they were waiting to cross an intersection a few blocks from the apartment building. Here, in the open, he seemed more solid, although his face still looked tight, as though he were still waiting for some promised pain or were remembering that of times past.

"Where are we going, exactly?" If Gabe hadn’t seen his unguarded face, he never would have suspected that anything might have been wrong.

"Church," he answered shortly, as much to test Ian’s response as to hide his own thoughts.

"Oh," Ian said, thoughtfully, like he was tasting the implications of the response. As reactions went, it was encouraging, although not exactly as Gabe had hoped. But he didn’t show his small disappointment. "Right. Which church?"

"Mine," Gabe told him, and smiled to see him frown in exasperation.

"I sort of gathered that. But which one’s yours?" There were many ways Gabe could have answered that, but most of them would have only served to further Ian’s irritation. And it was Sunday, and the world was new again, so he closed his mouth on what he might have said, and instead gave him the information he wanted.

"St. Eulalia’s." It was a small church for the city it was in, but beautiful, and full of sweet grace. Entering into it was like stepping into the sunlight after a cloudy day. He had nearly wept, the first time, so sick had he been of the grunge which seemed to coat every building he entered, each object he touched. The city was old, and had years of grudging tolerance and less than kind usage to share with him.

Sometimes he wondered why he ever left his apartment.

"I’ve seen it," Ian said, showing the first signs of something like enthusiasm. "I almost went there, a couple of times."

The street finally cleared, and they crossed, sole pedestrians of the morning. Only the pigeons were out, undaunted by the cold. Gabe could feel his breath against his skin as they strode down the sidewalk, for once able to walk without care.

"Why ‘almost’?" he asked after another block or so. When he glanced over, Ian was studying the bricks as he walked over them, the cracks beneath his feet breaking his mother’s back a thousand times if once.

"Thomas didn’t ever want to," Ian explained a few dozen strides later, hands fisted and shoved into his pockets against the biting November air. "And it felt wrong to go all alone."

"You’re only alone if you don’t go," Gabe pointed out, but left it there. No need to add guilt to the rest of Ian’s burdens.

Somewhere, across the city, a church bell began to toll its deep-sounding call to those listening. Almost unconsciously, Gabe lengthened his stride. They had time, but he hated being late and the last couple of blocks were always longer than they should be.

Stepping through the doorway into the sanctuary, he almost forgot that Ian was behind him, almost forgot that there was anything but the feeling of light. He let himself be guided to one of the pews, welcoming the feel of well-worn wood beneath him and of pages turned by countless hands over untold years. Simply to touch the prayer-book was a lesson in how to pray.

Beside him, Ian sat stiffly, not quite uncomfortable in his surroundings. If he hadn’t been so full of the unseen glories of the place, Gabe would have wondered how long it had been since Ian had worshiped, and under what circumstances.

Eventually the choir and celebrants processed in, crosses and candles shining in their various ways. If Gabe closed his eyes, he could trace the progress of the procession by the way the crosses drew at him, so that if asked, he could point them out, even blindfolded and spun as for pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. He had always been terrible at it, but only because in each game everything was new, and therefore featureless.

Handed anything old, he knew it, knew its age, how it had been lost and found so many times over the years, knew what sort of people had owned and used it. But the newer something was, the less–personality, for lack of a better word–that object had. A poster from the local five and dime felt enough like nothing at all that unless he could see or touch it, he couldn’t tell the difference.

Here, at St. Eulalia’s, everything was so old, and real, that sight seemed almost superfluous.

But he kept his eyes open, and watched Ian instead of the procession, going through the hymns and responses by rote. He couldn’t feel people the way he could feel things, but he could see the way Ian almost winced at times for no discernible reason. Only the psalm seemed to bring some peace, and that was worrying, since it was about abandonment.

Gabe began to consider leaving the service early. He didn’t want to, but it was beginning to look like it was doing more harm than good. And then the rector read, "But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son;"’" and Ian went white.

"No," hissed Gabe, not caring that they were in the middle of a service, and grabbed Ian’s wrist. "Don’t you dare think that."

In the center aisle, the rector continued reading the story of repentance and forgiveness and love, but neither of them heard it. Ian’s hands were fisted so tightly that Gabe could almost see the bone under the skin. But he unclenched them as the reading was finished and the gospel returned in silence to the front of the sanctuary.

"I wasn’t thinking that, actually," he murmured in Gabe’s ear as they sat. "I was thinking that I won’t ever be able to do it. There’s no going back, for me. Not unless he comes to me first."

"Oh," said Gabe, and spent the rest of the service wondering if he really didn’t know Ian at all.

After the service was over, he abandoned Ian to enjoy the postlude by himself, and went to go do something he didn’t want to. He’d been avoiding it for a very long time, but somewhere in the back of his mind he’d known he would have to give in eventually. They were going to need money, and no matter what aid the college gave or what jobs Ian was able to find, it wouldn't be enough. Gabe would have to do something to fill in the gaps.

"Mr. Leary," he said when he finally found the man he was looking for. "I don’t suppose that job you mentioned to me a while back is still open."