fantasy

fic: Corbel & Squinch, part 9

More c&s, although not as much as there should be. Yeesh. It shouldn't be this hard to grind something out, should it? I have the nagging feeling that I haven't lowered my standards enough yet to get the job done on time.

On the other hand, my characters keep doing things I don't expect of them, so that's probably a good thing. Makes it more interesting for me, at least.

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Summary: At some point in the last couple of days, everything seemed to have acquired meaning, and he couldn’t say why–it was horribly distracting.

*****

After the service was over, Gabe left to go baby-sitting, leaving Ian with his keys and orders to be back at the apartment before Gabe. He stood outside the church for a minute, keys biting into his hand, uncertain of what to do with himself. Eventually, spurred into action by the odd looks he’d been getting, he started walking in the general direction of his apartment. It wasn’t where he wanted to go, but what he wanted seemed to have stopped mattering a little while back. Ever since he’d claimed it as his right, he hadn’t known what it was.

The streets were still mostly empty except for the pigeons, which seemed impervious to all things short of direct physical attack. They wandered along in his wake, the flapping of their wings and occasional surreptitious cooing making an oddly comforting counterpoint to his own sounds. The way the tap of his footsteps seemed to twist in the near-silence made him nervous.

Without Gabe around as proof of Ian’s existence, it was easy to question whether he was real. But then he found himself back at his apartment building, and he couldn’t let himself think about such things anymore.

The stairs seemed steadier this time than when he’d left, but that could have been just because he was going up instead of down. As he ascended, he traced with his fingers the banister’s history of use, feeling the exposed grain gradually fade back into the rest of the wood. When he reached his floor, the wood was smooth again, featureless. He ran his thumb across it, and wondered if it meant anything.

Thomas opened the door before Ian had a chance to do more than place his key in the lock. His readily apparent worry surprised Ian, despite his glib words to Gabe two nights prior. Thomas’ anxiety was supposed to be only a joke, something bantered about, not anything substantial.

"Where have you been?" Ian had to stare for a moment before his brain could make sense of the question.

"At Gabe’s," he finally said, somewhat blankly. "I thought you talked with him the other night?"

"I talked to him," Thomas said, like that was supposed to mean something to Ian. "Your cousin wouldn’t let me talk to you. He said you were with him, but he could have just been saying that to get rid of me." He sounded oddly earnest, and Ian blinked at him, wordless, not understanding why he would even think that about Gabe.

"Um, no," he finally managed. "Gabe doesn’t lie to people, generally." He lied to Ian from time to time, but even that was usually only by omission.

"Yes, well," Thomas said darkly, but didn’t finish the thought. "Have you come to your senses, then?"

"About what?" Ian asked, and tried not to notice the crack that started beneath Thomas’ foot and led away from the door. Except for its location, it might have been the same one he’d stared at earlier, when things had started to change irrevocably. Thomas shifted, as if frustrated by Ian’s obtuseness.

"Moving in with your cousin–what else?" He peered at Ian. "Are you sure you’re okay? I wouldn’t trust Gabriel not to slip you something when you weren’t looking. He’s always struck me as a rather shifty sort of fellow."

There wasn’t much Ian could say to that without either confirming Thomas’ suspicious or blatantly lying. And he didn’t feel particularly like doing either, so he just shook his head. "Didn’t he tell you why I’m moving in with him?"

"Yes, well," Thomas said again, making the dismissive hand gesture that had always irritated Ian.

What was most frustrating about Thomas wasn’t that he worried, but that he didn’t do anything with it. He worried, but vaguely, and never about the things he should be worried about. Nearly fifty thousand dollars of tuition? Not a problem. The cousin Ian grew up with, who had volunteered to take Ian in? A shady character who should be avoided.

Sometimes it seemed like Thomas lived in some strange, mirror world to Ian’s.

"I don’t think your father would be very keen on the idea of paying my rent as well as yours, especially not after how upset he was the last time you sprung an added expense on him." Ian pointed out, but Thomas continued to look unconvinced. Which really wasn’t fair, since the last time had involved only a couple of guests for a month or so, even if they had each eaten a ridiculous amount of food while they’d been there. Thomas’ father had thrown a fit when he’d found out, and had threatened to cut Thomas’ allowance to next to nothing.

The next day after that it was just Ian and Thomas again, Thomas’ friends having been apologetically but desperately shown the door.

Ian had no desire to recreate the incident with himself as the one being kicked out. He’d much rather just leave on his own terms and go to the one place where he’d been assured a bed, even if it really was only a slowly-disintegrating couch.

He sighed, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to change Thomas’ mind, and shoved his hands into his pockets. "Look, I’m just here for my textbooks and some clothes." Thomas frowned, leaning against the doorframe as if planted there, and made no motion to allow Ian in. It was almost eerie in the symmetry to Ian’s arrival at Gabe’s place.

But he wasn’t staring at the carpet, this time–not that there was any carpet to be stared at. And he was standing outside of what was technically still his apartment, at least until the end of the month, key still in hand. He put it back into his pocket, next to Gabe’s key.

"Mind letting me in?"

Thomas almost jumped at the question, despite the evenness of it, and hurriedly stepped out of the doorway. "Sorry–"

Ian shrugged, and walked past him. "Don’t worry about it." It had a different meaning than it would’ve it he’d said it to Gabe. "I’m just going to grab some of my stuff, so you can go back to doing whatever–no need to disrupt your day just because I’m here."

"I was just– It’s– Why not?" Thomas sounded hurt. "You’re not just my roommate, Ian. I thought we were friends, too."

"We are," Ian said a little too quickly, stunned by how easily he had almost brushed Thomas off. He had thought they were closer friends than that, and to find himself so disloyal was more than a little frightening. "But Gabe loaned me his keys, and I need to get back so I can return them."

"I see," Thomas said, but Ian couldn’t tell if he actually did.

Packing went quickly–textbooks in one bag, assorted clothes in another–as Ian did his best to not see the space which he’d occupied for two years, which he would soon vacate. There were no water stains on the ceiling, it smelled of boys instead of dust and tea, and he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he’d never really belonged there. It shouldn’t have mattered that their furniture could mostly pass for new, or that Thomas’ half of the bedroom was almost entirely devoid of books.

There wasn’t any tea in the kitchen, either, but he didn’t let himself consider the implications of that. At some point in the last couple of days, everything seemed to have acquired meaning, and he couldn’t say why–it was horribly distracting.

It was as if he’d been going around with his eyes shut, he realized as he picked up the bags to leave. As if, without Gabe’s constant presence and sometimes irritating ability to see more than most people, he’d stopped seeing things as they were, and had only seen what he told himself was there.

Thomas was sitting on the counter when Ian returned to the kitchen, kicking his heels against the cabinet doors, waiting with impatience for something to happen, and Ian didn’t know what it was supposed to be. He should’ve–would’ve, a week or less before. Now he only listened to the instead thunk of shoe on wood, and noticed that the kitchen had been painted not long before they’d moved in. Two years had knocked some chips off the cabinets, but there was still a newness about the place.

He didn’t think about Gabe, and how his bare feet would be nearly silent against the wood, how he would be as patient as the pendulum in a clock. But Gabe wouldn’t sit on the counter in the first place.

"I’d better be going," Ian said, when it became obvious Thomas wasn’t going to do anything but continue to slowly destroy the cabinet’s paint job. "I’ll see you later, okay?" Thomas stopped banging his feet against the cabinet door.

"Look, there’s a party at Benny’s tonight, around nine-thirty, if you want to come." He said it casually, or tried to. Compared to Gabe, he was an open book, with the hard words glossed in the margins. The very thin facade of nonchalance he was projecting did a poor job of hiding a thick layer of anxiety.

Ian considered it. He had class the next day, but not until after lunch time, and he’d already done his homework for it–in chalk and on brown paper, true, but it was all correct. There wasn’t any real reason not to. Although he didn’t feel particularly like partying, it could well be his last chance for a while.

And Thomas was watching him with blatant hope in his face. If he said no, it would seem like Ian was rejecting him for Gabe, which he wasn’t–not really. He didn’t want to simply cast Thomas aside now that he had Gabe back. It wasn’t Thomas’ fault Gabe seemed to have eaten Ian’s brain.

"Sure, why not?" The tightness in his shoulders was because of the bags he was carrying, nothing more. "Should I stop here on the way?"

"Nah," Thomas shook his head, legs swinging again. "I won’t be here–me and Joe and a couple other guys are going out for pizza first." And Ian wasn’t invited. He shifted the bags, letting their weight balance him, and nodded once, the sharpness of the motion doing nothing the ease the disappointment he shouldn’t have been feeling.

"Then I guess I’ll see you at Benny’s."

And that was it. Thomas waved at him and the door closed behind him, and there he was in the hallway again, feeling like his life had been left behind in the apartment with Thomas. Which was ridiculous, so he simply shrugged at his fancy and left.

When he reached Gabe’s apartment, the door was once again opened before he had time to do more than stick the key in the lock.

"Hi," an absurdly short person said.

"Hi," Ian said back, unsure of how else to react. Last he knew of, Gabe hadn’t been planning to suddenly adopt a five year old. "Is Gabe around?"

"Yes," said Gabe, appearing out of the kitchen. "Luce, let Ian in, please." The short person did so, with a mix of enthusiasm and docility that left Ian feeling like he ought to treat it like a puppy. It was with difficulty that he kept himself from patting it on the head.

He dumped his bags in a corner, and turned back to the short person, who was still standing by the open door, watching him. "I–ah–think you can close the door now, Luce." What sort of name was ‘Luce’? It was absolutely no help in determining the gender of the individual now regarding him with all the attentiveness of a puppy presented with a new toy.

"Yes, please, Luce," Gabe agreed when Luce made no motion toward the door. Luce promptly did as told, and then resumed staring at Ian.

"Er," Ian said intelligently after about a minute of that and bolted for the kitchen. Gabe handed him a mug of tea. "Why is there a child in the livingroom?" Ian managed, once half the tea was inside him. "And why is it acting like it’s been possessed or something?" He put the mug down harder than necessary, heedless of the tea that sloshed out onto his knuckles. "And how did you get into the apartment when I’ve still got your key?"

"In order, Luce is here because I’m babysitting–remember?–and it turns out that there was a strictly grownups party going on, Luce is acting that way because I promised the possibility of sugar cookies if everyone behaved themselves, and I picked the lock."

That seemed to cover everything fairly comprehensively.

"Oh," Ian said, and finished his tea.

Luce spent most of the afternoon on the livingroom floor, scribbling on bits of scrap paper produced by Gabe, and making less noise than Ian would have suspected was possible for an individual of its age. Eventually a mother appeared to reclaim it, and sugar cookies magically materialized when Luce’s mother wasn’t looking.

Ian spent most of the afternoon alternately pretending nothing in particular was going to happen that evening, and trying to decide whether Luce was a girl or a boy. Neither endeavor was particularly successful.
Luce is not a child. Luce is a very very small adult. The proper way to react to this little person is not to sit around deciding whether it is a girl or a boy, but to tie huge balloons to it and send it careening around a circus tent.

The doodles on the scrap paper are its calculus homework.

Interesting chapter. Too close to home, unfortunately...

I love you, roomie. You are always invited to everything all the time.

Love,
Me.