Log:And If I Recover
The Scholar has come back out to the piano to try practicing a bit more. He's avoiding doing it in front of too many others, careful to pick his times when the parlor's quieter. It occurs to him he could try the new multi-purpose doors, at least if what he's heard of them, except he's convinced those rooms create a fictional reality, and while the baby grand in the parlor, indeed the parlor itself might be a fictional reality as well, at least that's still open to speculation. The rooms definitely aren't real. He has other ideas in mind for them, when he feels like not playing piano anymore.
He's moved on to things beyond practice pieces, still not sure where his skill level is (or if he's just riding on Sebastian's memories and has none of his own--and is that a distinction worth making?). Easing himself into this with a simpler solo piano piece made the most since, so he's chosen Bartok, since that was who Sebastian learned a great deal of, and it seems as good a place to start as any. It's a piece that varies between slow, thoughtful passages and quick, bright interludes.
Whenever the Scholar plays the piano, it seems like the Coward shows up, if he wasn't already there. (If anybody else is playing, he'll come by, then wander off.)
He comes along now. A glass of liquor is in his hand as he walks into the parlor. His gait has the gentle waver to it that means he's already drunk. Not speaking, he sinks into a cushioned armchair nearby the piano, and has a swallow of the drink.
The Scholar's eyes flit towards the Coward when he comes in, just for a moment, then back to the sheet music. The song is short, only a few minutes long. When he finishes, he stares down at his hands on the piano keys, particularly his left hand. He sighs, turns on the piano bench and smiles at the Coward. It's not a happy smile of greeting, not one of 'oh it's good to see you'; it's brittle. The kind which means he's trying to be brave.
"How are you holding up?" he asks, eyebrows raised. As therapeutic as their talk with Eilis had been, it had also left the Scholar sore in a way he didn't know he could feel. And if he felt that way, he could only imagine how the Coward did.
The Coward turns over his free hand in a graceful half-wave gesture of 'everything is terrible, but what can be done?'. "Well enough, I suppose," he says. His blue eyes lift to the Scholar's face. That brittle smile is noted. "You're about the same, hm?"
The ice in his glass clinks as he has a swallow.
In response the Scholar watches the glass in the Coward's hand as he drinks. "No. Not really." His tone of voice suggests 'worse', though his expression is that same carefully crafted blank that Sebastian used all the time. He looks down at his pants, picks at imagined lint. He's in another pull-over fleece top, this time heather gray, and black jeans.
"Would you come with me, to one of those," he glances over at the two non-descript doors, "rooms? I wanted to try something."
The Coward follows the Scholar's glance. "Why, sure," he says, gently, with the tone of someone who doesn't know what's wrong but knows something is off. He stands again, stretching all his long limbs. "Lead the way, handsome."
The Scholar eases off the piano bench, offers his hand to the Coward. He gives him a reassuring smile; a real one, unlike before. A smile that reaches his mismatched eyes. He leads him over to the two doors, looks between them, and chooses the left one. "They're supposed to turn into whatever we want," he says, running his free hand down the door's surface. "Let's see if that's true."
He takes a breath, shuts his eyes, lets it out slowly. He opens the door, and there before them sprawls a dry pine forest, high desert territory for sure, with a low, rusty red and black cindercone rising a mile or so distant. The long-dead volcano is little more than a 'low hill' now; it might be a mile to the rim, and appears easily walkable. Black lava rock chunks dot the area around them, evidence of the long-past eruption that formed it.
The Scholar smiles, says, "Arizona," and walks through the door.
The Coward gladly laces his fingers with the Scholar's, returning his smile. "I love to see you smile like that," he murmurs, just for him.
The door opens on Arizona. The Coward hmms, interested. "Felt a shot of nostalgia to the gut. Funny how that happens." He follows, placing his cowboy boots carefully so he doesn't drunkenly turn an ankle on one of the treacherously-sized chunks of rock.
The Scholar leads them through the forest towards the cindercone. It's a lovely, early autumn day; a gentle, cool wind sends talls, billowing white clouds through the deep blue sky, and the air smells fresh with a recent rain shower. It's strangely quiet, though, because there are no animals. No grasshoppers to flit out of their path, no hummingbirds arguing over flowers, no lizards sunning themselves on rocks.
If the Scholar is disappointed by this it doesn't show. "Me too," he admits. "I loved it here." His throat tightens a moment to realize he knows that, but doesn't entirely remember it. He dispels that sentiment with a small shake of his head. Time for that later.
With another glance for the Coward's drink, he says, "I never..." He pauses, sighs. "Sebastian never told Colorado much about his father." He looks askance at the Coward, asking with his eyes if he remembers that right. "Except that he abandonned him and his brother."
The Coward ambles along, pleased by the beauty of the day. He senses the lack of animal life, even decorative animal life to fill out the silence, but he can't put his finger on it. So it just makes him uneasy.
"Loved it too," he says. "Loved living here with you, the boys, Cale and Addie and their kids. We were a weird family. Best kind." He's taking another sip when he clocks that it's the drink Sebastian keeps looking at, and lowers it hesitantly. "You did tell me that much. Nothing more."
"We were." The Scholar smiles, tries to stop resenting how he doesn't get proper memories of that. They'd made something beautiful from the ashes of Prosperity. That it was gone now didn't remove that it had happened to him, that he'd loved and been loved. (He'd told the Coward and Eilis this last night while knowing how hard it would be to own it. Losing something beloved was still painful, in the end.)
His eyes track the lowering of the glass. He doesn't stop walking; the movement helps, keeps him calm. "He had a drinking problem." There's a proper name for it in a time later than he's from, one the Coward might know. All he knows it as is 'drinking enough for it to be bad'. "That's why I didn't drink very often after Eilis had the boys. I didn't think I could trust myself, and I would have rather never drink again than..." He lets the alternative go unsaid. "I don't remember it from my childhood. Not in any real way. He came back, though, at the start of the year I can remember." He pulls a face. "That I remember just fine."
The Coward goes a little pale under his handsome tan. His long face stills, expression fading out to a stunned blankness.
He stops walking long enough to set the glass down in the sandy dirt. Then, straightening, he catches up in a few strides. "You didn't tell me. I didn't know. What happened, when he came back?"
The Scholar pauses after he gets a few steps ahead, stares at the glass in the sand. Once the Coward's caught up he gives him a brief, grateful smile, continues walking. "Nothing to me," he says, shakes his head. "Stacker would have shot him." It hits him for a second, how he hasn't seen his brother and sister (or Olivia) anywhere in this place, and he swallows. Maybe they weren't real at all.
That gets bottled up. Later, later. Think about the people who are gone later. He re-evaluates what he's said, rubs at his eyes. "Nothing physical," he clarifies. "He was just..." 'His usual self' is what he wants to say, because that's what Sebastian remembered it as. Drunk, ranting, occasionally yelling. Seldom able to bring himself to look at the most visibly marked of his three children, and plenty nervous around the other two as well. Never sober, above all else.
"I was hoping to get Gabe to run him out of the mansion," he says, manages a wry smile. "But Aleister wouldn't let me. Then Grandmother sent him and Nahimana packing." It takes him a second to realize he's slipped into talking like he still is Sebastian. He makes a low sound. "It's part of why Sebastian asked to live in one of the out buildings. He knew sooner or later his grandmother would bring Benedict back." It was also, he thinks, why Stacker chose to live in that house too.
Olivia, Addie, the twins, even the damn dog, even Sebastian's pet raven--gone. All gone. The Coward drinks rather than think about it. He almost, almost turns back for the glass he left on the ground. It's close. Very close. But the smile he gets from the Scholar keeps him going.
"He was a miserable bastard," he says, almost suggests, "and you hated him. He ran out on you, and then came back a lush. Worthless to you, even to himself."
The Scholar takes one of the Coward's hands, tips his head back to gaze at the trees around them as they go. The wind in the pines sounds oddly hollow without the chatter of birds and insects. (Sebastian would have tripped on a rock the second he attempted such a thing; the Scholar has no trouble navigating on peripheral vision alone.)
He gives up trying to not talk like he's Sebastian. Maybe for this purpose he is. "He was," the Scholar says. "It's why I was so happy when you wanted me to stay at the Ranch. That Estate was never home. It was just a place to be with my brother and sister." He looks at the Coward now. "You were home."
He falls quiet a bit. Then, "I'm telling you this because you should probably know about it. I know it's from a life I lived before but, like I said last night, it doesn't matter if that life was real or not. It was real to me. Those things happened to someone I was." He sighs, ducks his head. "It's how I know the drinking is hurting you. And it's hurting me too."
The Coward is silent for a long time, following the Scholar through the forest. He lopes along with those long legs, his eyes hopping from the ground in front of him to some motion the wind stirs in the trees. He's not really looking, just reacting.
Eventually he stops, pulling the Scholar's hand to stop him as well. He looks at him, ashamed.
"It's the only way I know," he says, voice dipping. "I can't let myself think too much. We don't have work to do. We don't have animals, or children, or access to any kind of...anything, except this." He waves at their surroundings, beautiful as they are. "I can't think of what to do except try to blot everything out."
The Scholar weathers the silence the same way Sebastian would have, with a meticulously constructed calm. He wonders how he can make the calm real for himself like Sebastian did, but expects that's something his previous self learned when he was young, and so would be a secret lost to the boundaries of his memory. They remember too much, and not nearly enough.
He stops, turns to the Coward and takes both of his hands. The forest's oddly hollow breeze tosses their hair. "I know. It's hard. That's why I started trying to figure out where I am on the piano, so I can learn more. Have something to focus on, something to do. It's why I've been reading so much." He struggles a second, admits, "It's why I left the parlor, the other day." He sounds ashamed of himself too, takes in a shuddering breath. "I didn't want--I couldn't watch you get drunk." 'Again' hovers in the air after that. And there was also what Eilis had said to him, practically dismissing the pain of losing any manner of relationship with Colorado, though that was a wholly different issue (and an equally large one, looming in his mind--but one thing at a time).
He falls quiet, collects his thoughts in the wake of thinking about the previous day. "Maybe we can use these rooms to figure something out. I saw," he raises his eyes a moment, goes back to staring down at their hands, "you have a fiddle case in your room. We could practice, play together again. In here, or in the parlor. Or we could use them to wander around, explore places we always wanted to go." He winces. "I want to help you," he has to stop a second, get hold of himself, "because I know what this turns into in the long run, I've seen it. Lived it. I don't want that to happen to us."
"You've watched me get drunk before," the Coward says, a little defensive if we must be honest. "Plenty of times." Then winces, turning his face away. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'm sorry, I'm..." He pulls away, letting the Scholar go, so he can cringe into his hands. "I know I'm gonna let you down. I just know it. It's coming. I can't bear to look at it, can't bear to think about it. Oh, God. I can't do this, Bastian! I can't!" Then he's weeping, sudden and explosive. "Just--just let me go, get rid of me, let me crawl back in a bottle and I won't have to think about how I'm gonna hurt you anymore!"
"I have," the Scholar agrees, voice trembling. "But you kept drinking earlier, and earlier, and I didn't realize what was happening until yesterday, and you put down that glass, and--" And he was there, in the salon, hearing the sound of his father setting down his glass mid-drunken-rant while they waited for Gabe and Nahi to be tossed out of the family by Grandmother.
But that happened in another life, to another man. As the Coward pulls away the Scholar forces back his own tears, reaches out to stroke the Coward's back, tentative, expecting to be rejected. "I don't think I came back with this ring to abandon you when you need someone most. I don't think you came back with that book to let me down, or to fail me, because you're not a failure. Please believe me when I say that."
He stands there a time, still. He can't hold back the tears anymore, they fall silently. "I can't get through this alone," he says, voice low. "I don't think you can either." Now almost a whisper. "I can't get through this without you."
The Coward is rapidly a mess, his face flushed and wet. He chokes a sob into his hands, his tall frame shaking. Far from rejecting the Scholar, he pushes into him, mashing his face against the other man's neck, grabbing him in a frantic embrace.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, please don't leave me. I didn't mean it." Coward whispers the words fiercely. "I'm so afraid. I'm weak inside, Bastian, I can feel it, I know it. Nothing scares me more than disappointing you. You're everything I could want in a man and ...I think I just ...think you must be too good to be true."
The Scholar's relief is palpable in how he grabs the Coward and holds him tight, like he'd almost just lost him and is determined to not let it happen again. He rocks him back and forth, trembling. "I'm glad you didn't mean it because if you had I might have punched you," he says. That's a little closer to Sebastian, who would have had his own full on meltdown over such a statement. Yelling might have been involved.
He strokes the Coward's hair, takes his time in thinking about what to say. "You could have left me to wake up here alone, lost, no idea of what was going on, and had no interest in me now that our life was over. You weren't beholden to me, you didn't owe me anything. You could have kept me at arm's length." He takes a long slow breath, in and out. "You didn't do those things. You were here for me when I needed you. You made it bearable, to wake up here, to discover what we're going through. So I know you're not going to disappoint me, or fail me. That's not the man you are." He kisses the Coward's head, gently. "Maybe it's not that you're weak inside. Maybe you simply feel these things more acutely. That's not weakness. Painful, and terrifying. But it doesn't make you weak."
He manages a small smile, nuzzles the Coward's hair. "You are, however, a flatterer of the highest order."
"Maybe I deserve punching," the Coward says, laughing in a broken voice. "Knock some sense into me." He grunts, held tight, but doesn't object. No sir, no objections here. He lets himself be rocked, his breath uneven, his eyes closed. "...No, Bastian, I couldn't have done those things. I couldn't have left you alone like that, let you flounder around like I did. I had to take care of you. I had to. I couldn't say I love you, if I didn't. And I do. I love you."
He swallows, Adam's apple sliding up and down, and coughs. A leftover reflex from being Colorado. "Maybe that's so. Maybe. Like the way your body felt different from mine. More sensitive." Finally, he shifts to be able to see the Scholar's face. "Not one word of flattery has passed my lips," he tells him, very seriously. "Only God's honest truth."
The Scholar brushes the Coward's hair away from his face. "You have no idea how it feels every time I hear you say that. I want to quote every poem I can think of, play you the most beautiful piano piece, and take you to bed." His smile is sweet and sad. "And I love you. And, because I do, just as you didn't leave me to my own devices, and took care of me, I want to do the same for you. I don't want to fail you either." He kisses the Coward's forehead, cups his cheek with one hand. "Precisely. You shouldn't judge yourself by others' lives. Your experiences and how they've effected you are your own."
Green and brown eyes on the Coward's blue, he continues, "I don't expect you to simply stop drinking. Sebastian never did." His smile turns wry for a moment at that admission. "I'll help you in whatever way I can, so that you don't need to do it. Find things for you to do, with me or others, or even just for yourself." His eyes shift to the ring on his left hand. and his expression wavers. "This ring represents an agreement that Sebastian and Colorado made, to stand by one another, even when things were ugly. To be there for one another." And oh, had things ever become ugly. "I came back with this ring, so I intend to honor that. In whatever way I can."
He ducks his head, embarrassed, looks away. "I just want to deserve you. I'm...Sebastian was always worried he didn't. Colorado died for him, after all. I can't help but feel I'm never going to...be the kind of man who's worth that."
The Coward strokes down the Scholar's arm, to his hand, to the ring. He thumbs over it, over the carved copper that was once as familiar to Rado as the palm of his own hand. "Bastian could handle it. Not sure I can. When it's that easy, to forget, right there. Suppose we'll have to see." He brushes the backs of his fingers against the Scholar's handsome cheekbones, not quite looking him in the eye. "I always want to be here for you, Bastian. Of course you deserve me. Rado died for you, but not just you. For Isaac and Martin and Sheba, too. For your family. For the entire town. To see those demons driven back to Hell. That's what he died for."
"I think you can handle it." The Scholar's voice is a low murmur between them. "I know it's going to be hard. And I know we'll both make mistakes. So many." He takes the Coward's hand in his, brushes his lips over the back of it. "But I'd rather we make them together, as we try to get one another through this."
One brow arched, he says, "Mmmm, now I need to deserve a man who died for an entire town. That's going to take some work." He might be joking, but he also might not. He sighs, leans his head against the Coward's. "I'm glad that you do. I'm terrified there might come a time when you won't. What this place does to us..." A hard swallow and a shake of his head. "God what I wouldn't give for us to be free."
"I'm terrified of that too," the Coward confesses--not much of a confession from a coward, perhaps. "That we'll just get more and more torn up till..." he trails off. He doesn't want to say it. (Until they're vicious as mad dogs, until all humanity in them has fled.)
"I know. I know, darlin', me too. So long as I have the choice to make, I'll choose to stay with you."
The Scholar grunts in morose agreement with the Coward's unspoken fear. He wonders, absently, if that's not the point, if this is all some grotesque experiment in how much they can take.
He leaves off that line of thought. They can't do anything about it right now, not with so little information. Too much speculation will only drive them to distraction (...or drinking). He brushes his fingers over the Coward's cheek, kisses him delicate and featherlight. "And I choose you. So long as I have that choice to make."
He stays like that for several seconds, watching the Coward, until a quick gust of wind catches his attention by tossing his hair between them. He brushes it back, smothers a frustrated laugh, and nods towards the cinder cone. "I wanted to show you something," he says, and resumes walking, tugging at Colorado's hand.
The Coward wipes at his face. He stands there, close, fighting fear and sorrow like was so familiar as Colorado. Perhaps this is a core part of him, like the love of learning for its own sake is part of the Scholar's.
"You wanted to show me something." He swallows, nodding, and goes along. "Probably not me blubbering."
"You were not blubbering," the Scholar says, firmly and gently, gives the Coward's hand in his a kiss.
The closer they get to the cinder cone the fewer trees there are, until they're walking under the open sky, between patches of shadow cast by the clouds. Thin, delicate, red flowers dot the black lava cinders, lending flashes of brilliant color to the low mountain. The wind's less hollow-feeling here, since there wouldn't be much in the way of animals here anyways.
A foot trail winds up the cindercone's side in a gradual, easily walked incline, dusty red brown against the black of the lava cinders. The footing can be tricky, with the cinders under their feet less firm than a proper rock face would be, but it's nothing beyond what either of them ever dealt with on the sandstone surrounding Prosperity. Every now and then the Scholar hesitates, like he expects to have Sebastian's inability to stay upright as he puts his foot down on a loose patch of lava rock. This hesitation almost causes him to trip a couple of times, though thankfully neither of them goes tumbling down the mountainside.
"Gonna have to agree to disagree," the Coward murmurs, but it's with a hint of a smile. His fingers flex under the Scholar's lips.
He's quite surefooted as they climb up. Occasionally he stops just to look out over the beautiful illusion the room has created for them, his golden curls ruffled by the wind. Also occasionally he puts out a steadying hand when the Scholar hesitates, ready to haul him back on the trail if he should go pitching off--but it doesn't happen.
"I'd never take you up here when we were in Prosperity, I'd be afraid you'd step right off the damn mountain," he says, after the Scholar almost trips, and he'd grabbed his arm.
The Scholar makes a small sound of concern, then the Coward has him, so it's fine. That's how it always worked with Sebastian and Colorado. He takes a second to get his bearings, says, "That's why I wanted to come up here," with a wry if shakey smile. "I think if we ever did, it was with you moving me, but maybe you never wanted to risk it. Which," he glances down the swell of the cindercone, "was probably the right call."
It's a short walk to the top, not much more than a mile. Easily managed in this constructed world, with their bodies in the shape they are. Up here the wind's stronger, and chillier, if not quite cold enough to warrant a jacket. Inside the long-dead cinder stone caldera clusters of pine trees have stubbornly sprung up among the rock, determined to grow. The heavy green of the pine forest they walked through spreads out below them, interspersed with swaths of gold from summer-dried grass. The San Francisco Peaks, members of the same family this cindercone belongs to, march along the horizon in a dark line, marking the extent of the volcano field.
The Scholar spends a few minutes taking it all in. "I don't remember if we came out to these mountains at all, but...I know we did. Some things, even if I can't remember doing them, I still know they happened. I feel it in my bones." He looks askance at the Coward. "They took the memories from us, but I don't think they can take away real knowledge of ourselves. We earned that. It's ours."
The Coward stands tall, smiling into the wind. He too soaks in all the colors and nature. It's artificial, he knows that, and yet--and yet. The memories fill in the blanks.
Even though they were artificial too. Maybe.
"Gorgeous," he says, eyes sweeping over to land on the Scholar. "The view ain't bad either." He grins and pulls in the Scholar by the waist. "All this beauty, right here, with colors washing around like paint, and you're still the prettiest thing in sight."
Oh, the flattery! The Coward bends his head to the Scholar's. He still smells like alcohol, and he's still kind of drunk. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," he murmurs to him, "I really am a coward, must be. But I can be brave, for you."
The Scholar smiles to see the Coward taking everything in, blushes faintly at the compliments. He's immeasurably happier than when the walk started; his eyes are clear, and much of the tension has left his shoulders.
"You're the one who makes me beautiful, makes me believe it." He leans into the Coward, one arm around his waist and the other coming to rest flat against the Coward's heart. "Thank you, for being brave for me. I know it's hard, and I know it hurts, and that makes me the luckiest man alive, that you're willing to do that for me." He kisses the Coward's chin. "And, I know you can't always be brave. That's alright. Let me be brave for you, sometimes. I don't mind doing that for you."
"Sometimes," the Coward allows, sheepishly. "Might be more than sometimes." He hugs him close, long, strong arms tight around him. "I'm tryin'. I surely am tryin'. Never want to lose you."
"I don't mind if it's more than sometimes either." It's not a reasonable promise to make, but the Scholar does anyways: "You won't," he says, buries his face against the Coward's neck. "You won't. I promise." If it were possible the Scholar would be happy to remain that way forever, but there are things like food to consider. Somewhere down among those trees is the door back into the strange space they inhabit.
Eventually, he says, "Let's head back. We'll make some food and I can play for you."
The Coward cradles the back of the Scholar's head, not pulling his hair (for once), fingers just loosely and gently cupping the curve of his skull. He breathes in the scent of the Scholar's hair.
It's not reasonable. He knows it's not reasonable. Yet he can't resist. The Scholar wants him in all his cravenhood. He can't say no to that.
"For me? Play with me. I'll pick up that old fiddle again." The Coward nudges the Scholar and smiles down at him. He takes his hand, to head back down the mountain.
As if it were possible, the Scholar's smile brightens; he ducks his head at his own reaction, almost embarrassed. "Yes, I--I'd love that. Let's do that." He squeezes the Coward's hand, leans in to give him a quick kiss. Another brief smile, then he leads the Coward back down the trail to the impossible door standing in the middle of the forest.