The Coward's room has changed. Overall it's still the same generic Room(tm). Now the center of it is taken up by a very large, cleverly constructed blanket fort. No ordinary blanket fort this: it's made of a dozen or so sheets in a variety of warm colors and patterns, draped over chairs and the couch where once was a bed. Fairy lights are strung throughout it, making it glow. Inside, several thick blankets on the floor and a lot of colorful pillows. It's part hidden safe place for a frightened child and part decadent love lair. Apparently the Facility has decided this is what the Coward gets in lieu of a bed anymore.
That's where he wakes up, and sure enough, the first reaction he has is relief. Oh thank God. He's enclosed. Nobody can get to him in here.
Followed shortly by, *what the hell?*
Everything comes back to him in a flood. Candi dying. Max dying. Roen dying. Lyle dying. His duel with Nails. His last fight to keep Mahoney away from the ritual. The boat, and his life afterwards with Ethan.
He drapes a hand over his face and fights not to sob.
What he hasn't realized yet is that he's still in the form of Colorado Jones. He hasn't returned to his mid-40s, as he was in previous scenarios and in the Facility.
The Scholar has seen people coming into the parlor, so he knows it's done, and the life they'd all been given to lead is over. He hasn't seen the Coward until now, so he can be reasonably sure that he didn't die in the attempts to stop Mahoney.
He thinks over whether or not to go to him as he did with Max, and furthermore if he should just invite himself in. They hadn't been close in the same way this time. He looks down at the ring on his left hand, runs his fingers over it. Well, if the Coward doesn't want him in there, he can just say so.
He's dressed as Bastian would have, in a red, black, and white plaid top and denim jeans, and has the same salt and pepper grizzled beard, but his hair is back to being a long mass of curls. He hesitates at the door, shakes himself out, knocks twice. He opens the door with the cowering cowboy on it without waiting for an answer, saying, "Colorado?" as he steps in. He pauses on the threshold, taking in the changed room. He tells himself it was the same door symbol, so maybe it's just the contents of the room which have shifted. No need to panic. Not yet.
The Coward's eyes pop open when the door opens. He sits up hastily. "Don't come in! Don't--Roen? Shit, I mean, Bastian?" His voice is Jonesy's voice, lighter and without the weight of years. A little muffled from the pillow fort. "Bastian, is that you?"
The blanket fort has an opening, as low and snug as an igloo's. The Coward shifts onto his hands and knees, peering out worriedly.
The Scholar approaches the blanket fort cautiously, noting the shift in the Coward's voice. He crouches next to the entrance and for a moment just stares at the much younger face looking out at him. It takes him a second to recover from what he's seeing. Hearing the Coward call him Roen has done something to him he can't describe.
He ducks his head. "I'll go, if you want me to," he says, voice low. "I just wanted to make sure you were alright." As if any of them could be, in this place.
"No! No. Don't go. Please." The Coward swallows, looking out at the Scholar. "Please. Would you come in? Uh...things're lookin' a little different, I know. It's me, Bastian, it's me." He pulls back to make room to come in.
Relief floods the Scholar as the Coward asks him to stay. He manages a small smile, saying, "A *little*," and raising his eyebrows. He gives the fort a once-over, glances at the rest of the room, the Coward himself. "You can say that again."
He sits to tug off his shoes, crawls into the fort with this considerably younger version of the Coward. He pauses once he's in to take in the lights and the close safety of its fabric walls. "I think I see why this is here," he murmurs.
Inside the structure, it's cozy but not stuffy, warm but not hot. The lights of the room through the layers of colored sheets give the place an ambient glow, while the fairy lights provide twinkling. There seems to be a stronger light source right outside, maybe a desk lamp or something, that gives enough light to read by. Maybe there's a foam pad under all the blankets; it's mattress-soft, not like trying to sleep on the floor. A lot of thought went into this thing's construction.
The Coward is only wearing boxer briefs, and all those muscles Colorado Jones was so proud of are on display. He looks like he's in his mid-20s, just like Jonesy. And there's a veteran's haunted look in his eyes, just like Jonesy. He moves towards the Scholar as if to embrace him, but then pulls back, teeth clenched, lips parted. "Do you want..."
For a moment the Scholar can only stare at Colorado. It occurs to him, in some distant part of his mind, that this might have been what it was like for Colorado Colton to look at Sebastian naked for the first time. Certainly Roen hadn't ever really *looked* at Colorado Jones, no matter how often Jones had paraded around in nothing but a thong, not the least because Roen had effectively slotted Colorado right alongside Dash (ah, Dash, who wasn't here...) as a type of nephew. (A testament to what Bastian Roen had been through, that he could look upon the lovely, golden haired young man in front of the Scholar and not be particularly interested.)
The Scholar isn't just Roen, though, and certainly he can tell the part of him that *is* Roen to piss off for these purposes. *Sebastian* wants his husband back. "Don't be silly," the Scholar says on a fond sigh, and continues what the Coward started, reaching out to pull him close.
The Coward plunges against the Scholar and wraps him in hard-muscled arms. He presses his face against Scholar's neck, mashes his sleek golden body against him. "Bastian, I'm sorry." He gasps and then he's weeping, and it's uncannily like when he took a swing at Roen for telling him they needed to cremate Candi. Except this time his clinging is intimate and prolonged, not just a desperate grab. "I'm so sorry, baby, I'm sorry, I couldn't stop it, I couldn't save them, I couldn't save her--"
The Scholar wraps his arms around the Coward, one hand going to cradle the back of his head and the other around his waist. He's not quite so solid as Roen, if still a man in his prime and not made of young, sleek muscle the way the Coward is now. He kisses the Coward's temple and holds him tight. "You have nothing to apologize for," he whispers fiercely, fighting back his own tears. "It certainly wasn't your job to save anyone." It takes him a second to get hold of himself. "You were incredible, considering you'd never faced anything of the sort in your entire life. You were so brave. He was so proud of you."
The Coward weeps for long minutes, his own hand (now burn-free) twined in the Scholar's curls. He soaks a wet spot into the Scholar's shirt. "I didn't...even...get...*hurt!*"
At the end of his last life, Colorado had had no more tears to weep. Not so with the Coward, not for a little while. Yet the storm passes, after that, leaving him wrung out. He pants breathlessly, ribcage heaving, slowing down.
"He was?" he mumbles into the Scholar's shoulder. "Proud of Jones, that utter dipshit?"
The Scholar rocks the Coward, keeping his own grief at bay so they're not both a sobbing mess. "So different from Prosperity," he says with a small laugh, eyes wet. He strokes the Coward's hair and lets him cry, face pressed against his sun gold hair, murmuring, "It's alright, we're here now."
He laughs softly at the question. "Of course. You should have seen yourself thundering away at Nails. And at the shed." And carrying Candice, he thinks but can't say. Candice, who isn't here; at least, the Scholar hasn't seen her. Oh, that's going to hurt.
"He wanted to tell you, all of you, how proud he was--God, he wanted to tell you so many things, when..." When he'd been slumped in Colorado's arms, a piece of rebar through his heart and blood filling his lungs. He shudders, grips the Coward tighter. "I'm the one that's sorry. Max died trying to save me and I went and threw that away, abandonned all of you."
"Prosperity was easier. I died first. Didn't have to--to watch." The Coward shudders all over. He lets go, sinking down, wiping at his face. "Nobody blamed you. Nobody at all. Max dying was why I suddenly realized I had to beat Nails so that would never happen again."
The Coward curls up among the pillows. "Didn't care about what happened to me. Not after that. Not after watching Lyle and half the group cook." He tries to laugh. "We made a hell of a team, actually. I kept Nails lookin' at me and he couldn't hit anybody, and you took care of him."
Lifting his bloodshot eyes to the Scholar, he holds open his arms in invitation. And again he hesitates. "Max. Bastian, is Max...here? Is Lyle? Is Candi?"
"Maybe they should have," the Scholar says of no one blaming him, tone absent. He thinks of what Max told him when they went to plant the flowers, shrugs it aside. He lowers himself to the pillow fort's soft bedding, again responds to those open arms by gathering up to the Coward without hesitation. He rests his head in the crook of the Coward's neck and shoulder. "That's how Roen felt most of the time," he murmurs, voice low. "He didn't care what really happened to himself, as long as the rest of you made it out. It...God, it broke his heart, that the only thing he'd ever wanted to do in his life, he couldn't. Keep the people he loved safe. Stop losing them." He takes in a shuddering breath, lets it out. A small, morbid smile. "We did, didn't we. Maybe some things don't change." He taps Colorado's chin lightly.
"Max is, yes, and Lyle. Cassandra as well. But..." He closes his eyes, murmurs, "Not Candice." He reaches up to rest a hand on the Coward's cheek. "I'm sorry."
The Coward tucks the Scholar against him, just like Prosperity, just like their last time in the Facility. They always fit together well. "We went to your cabin. Roen's, I mean. Found your medals, those pictures. Roen's field notes. Gave that to Mallory. Ethan and I visited Dad, and Dash's mom. Gave her the Purple Heart. Dad got the Silver Star. He *cried*." His voice lifts with a kind of wondering sympathy. "I thought Jack Jones was made of iron. When he saw I was alive and I had to tell him, he cried. ...Christ, I'm talking like any of that happened."
He goes still, then. "Candi?" he says in a tiny voice. "She's...not?"
The Scholar sighs to hear that of Roen's old friend. "He was a good man. He and Isabel never gave up on Roen, even when Roen had given up on himself. They and his parents were the reason he recovered as much as he did." He clears his throat, kisses the Coward's neck. "It happened, in a way. I know it doesn't feel like it, any more than our life together in Arizona does, but it's still something that's there, shaping you."
His expression tightens at the sound of the Coward's voice. "No. Maybe I just haven't seen her, but..." He swallows. He would have, by now; he knows that. Candice wouldn't be hiding in her room. He lifts his head so he can look at the Coward. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart," he says, eyes bright.
The Coward stares at the ceiling made of gracefully layered sheets. Tears well up again, slide down into his hair. "It's like losing her twice," he murmurs. His free hand comes to his breastbone, pressing down hard like he could hold his broken heart together. "Oh, God, is this how Cale felt when he woke up without Addie? Feels like I might die from it."
The Scholar squeezes his eyes shut. Hadn't he said the same thing to Caleb when they'd spoken? He opens them again, rests his forehead against the Coward's temples. "Ethan's door hasn't changed," he says, voice soft. "So I think he's still with us." A small comfort, perhaps. He tightens his hold on Colorado and falls quiet, letting him grieve Candice a second time.
"Was she real? Or just another--no, she was real." The Coward nods to himself a little, eyes wide and blank and wet. "That spirit in her, there's no faking that. That's as real as it gets." He turns his head to nuzzle the Scholar, eyes closed. "So she has to be *somewhere.* We must not be the only ones there are. Addie, too. Has to be."
He lies there silently weeping again, swallowing hard, shoulders quivering. "Would have thought I'd get to see her again," he mumbles, voice thick. Then he looks at the Scholar, an indescribable expression dawning on him of worry and fear and pain. "Oh my God, Bastian, I...here I am talkin' to you about her, and...you...I'm sorry, you don't want to hear that!"
"I've been wondering about that myself," the Scholar admits. Sounds like the Coward's not the only one bargaining. "Olivia, and Dash...any of the others we never see here...I think they must be out there, in places like this of their own." *Prisons* of their own, he means. "Wondering where we are." It's not a comforting thought, not really, but the alternative (that they're not real at all) isn't something he wants to consider, and so chooses not to. At least not right now.
The Scholar blinks, raises a hand to the back of Colorado's neck. "No, no, it's...it's alright. I can't--I *won't*, fault you for wanting to see her again. You knew her, grew close to her." He raises his eyebrows. "Loved her, maybe. Of course you'd want her to be here." His throat tightens. "I...couldn't possibly ask you to simply forget what you felt for her in there. I couldn't say I love you, if I wanted that. I certainly wouldn't want anyone to ask you to forget me."
The Coward shuts his eyes tight. "I *want* to say I loved her. I knew her for half a summer. Only...only got together with her," in a later era he'd say 'hooked up', "a few days before she was gone. That can't really be love, can it? Not with what I know now. That's got to be infatuated." His voice is young, his face is young, and the things he's saying are so very old. "So why does it feel like my chest is caving in? I loved her. Like a match lighting, a big flare all at once."
He's quiet again, sniffling. Then he clears his throat to venture something else on his mind. "You loved Max, too. Love. Still love. Maybe."
The Scholar licks his lips, thinking over the Coward's description of his feelings. Very quietly, he says, "I think that's still love. Just because your physical intimacy was brief and the emotions so intense, doesn't mean it couldn't be love. Different, maybe than other love you've felt." He runs a hand down the Coward's back. "I think if it hurts that bad, then it was more than just infatuation."
He lets out a soft breath at the mention of Max, shuts his eyes. "Yes. He did. He'd spent two years perfecting how to keep everyone at arm's length, and somehow she found her way in. I know it was only ten days, if that? But when I think of how he felt when she died..." His throat closes, and he rubs at his eyes. Here it is, the conversation he knows they need to have, and he's struggling to speak.
"Maybe nothing would have come from it, if they'd both lived. I suppose we'll never know." He clears his throat. "She's like you, in some ways. I think that's why he, and I, grew close to her."
That startles the Coward into a small laugh. "She's like me? *Me*? You have got to explain that one to me, sweetheart." The endearment comes out automatically, and he realizes it too late to take it back. "You're close to her now?" he asks softly, too neutrally. He answers himself, not letting the Scholar speak, "Why wouldn't you be, you were, you know, lovers, you've both been here a while. Why *wouldn't* you be close with her?"
"She wasn't afraid of or repulsed by his scars. Within or without." A small, cold smile. "He had more than his fair share of those. She let him be himself. The same way Colorado did for Sebastian. And he made her feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to let her guard down."
The Scholar stiffens in response to that neutral tone and those words, pulls back just enough to frame the Coward's face with his hands. "I don't mean like that," he says. There's an urgent panic in his expression, his mismatched eyes searching the Coward's blue. "I'm not close to her and *not* you. That's not--that's not what I want. And we haven't stayed lovers." He suddenly seems embarrassed, has to look away. "I told her I couldn't decide anything until you were back. Until I knew how you felt. She understood."
"Yourself is beautiful," the Coward murmurs. "Yourself is amazing. Of course I let you be yourself. Of course she did."
His eyes have none of the crow's-feet that characterize Colorado's older selves, when the Scholar looks into them. But they have depths that Jones never had, maybe would have had if he'd been given a chance to do so. Looking into his eyes is looking back over three lifetimes and the knowledge that there's more to come.
He lifts a smooth-skinned hand to stroke over the Scholar's curls. "All right," he says after a moment to work on that. "What *is* it you want?"
He seems to notice his hand, and blinks at it.
"Flatterer," the Scholar murmurs, smiling. "The world doesn't always see things so clearly as either of you do."
Without the weight of Roen's tragedies, but with his years, the Scholar is far more like Sebastian might have been at this age than he was the last time they were in the Facility together. There's a gravity and stillness to him that wasn't there before; Sebastian's ferocity tempered by the knowledge of a life which has had such things thrashed out of it. "I'm not entirely sure," he admits with a wince. "I don't want to be without you. But I also don't want to be without her. It feels, and sounds, selfish to say this, but I want both of you." He frowns, seems about to say more until the Coward notices his hand. "You're younger," he says. "Hadn't you noticed?"
The Coward, baffled, holds both hand out so he can see them. Then he looks down at himself. "Oh good Lord. I'm still Jonesy." His glance at Bastian is utterly bewildered. "That explains the hard-on I've been tryin' to hide from you, I guess. Was feelin' pretty awful about it." Now that he's shifted to lay himself out for a look, said hard-on is obvious. Shaking his head, the Coward sighs gustily. "This fucking place. Don't suppose I can talk them out of this."
He settles down, listening with Jonesy's skill and Rado Colton's melancholy. Not that Rado was a bad listener himself, but Jones had it down to an art. He frowns, too, thoughtful as Rado. "Well, I suppose that's selfish, when you come right down to it. You want us both?" Slipping his fingers through the Scholar's hair, he rubs his scalp delicately. "You know what I want? I want you to have whatever you want."
The Scholar's gaze travels up and down Colorado Jones' incredibly young and lovely body, lingering on said hard-on and arching an eyebrow. "I could tell," he admits, chases it with a teasing smile. "I wasn't going to say anything--I remember what it was like to be Sebastian around you."
He reaches out, tangles a hand in the Coward's hair in turn. His expression grows more intent. "Is that *all* you want, though? The most important thing to me is for you to be happy. If being with both of you won't make you happy then..." He sighs, looks down at the famous abs that would have launched a thousand ships if Dagon hadn't clouded the skies and filled the lake with murderous fish monsters. "Then we can figure something else out," he says, presently. "I just don't want to hurt either of you."
The Coward never blushes, and the Lord knows Colorado Jones never did, but that! That makes him blush like a rose and flash a wry grin. "Always was sorta mystified by that, to tell you the honest truth. Not to mention flattered as all get out."
He tries to sober, but he's still grinning stupidly, looking at the Scholar with adoration. The Coward clears his throat. Right, important talk. Very serious. Gotta ignore this damn thing pulsing at his groin making demands.
"I want you to keep bein' my husband," he says, and now his tone goes gentle. "I want the time you want to spend with me. If you want Max too...I guess I can't see why not. We're in a situation out of time and space, here. All we got's each other in this place. The rules that tell us what's okay to do when, strikes me as they don't apply overmuch. On the inside," he means in their varied lives, "the rules change there too, even. Look at Danny, three lovers at last count and I'm sure he'd have taken on more if more would have him. That would have been unthinkable to Rado Colton, but Jonesy, he knew it was okay. Rado was grateful just one man wanted him. Guess there's a lot of him in me."
The Scholar grins to see the Coward blush, leans forward to brush his lips over the Coward's. "'Mystified'. Please, you were a golden haired, silver-tongued Colton, quoting Whitman at me, a clumsy, Devil-Marked Naturalist. I didn't stand a chance."
He licks his lips, waits for the Coward to return to the topic at hand so he can as well. (Because he's not going to be able to stay on track if the Coward's not.)
He smiles, strokes the Coward's face. "I want to keep being your husband. I don't know that anything we experience in there," in their other lives, "could ever change that." He nods at the example, his expression growing distant. "Roen had experience with that," he says, picking through those memories which are more factual than emotional. It doesn't hurt to think of that time, though the knowledge of the pain is there, like running his fingers over a scar he doesn't remember taking. "Their names were Tom and Rafael. He met them in college. Those three loved one another." His expression softens with regret. "He lost them both to HIV."
He shakes his head, leaving off that aspect of it. "So I've an idea, at least, of how that can work, if no...practical experience." He rests his head against the Coward's. "Only if you're sure. I can't bear the thought of losing either of you. Or hurting you."
"Damn Coltons, charmin' the birds right down out of the trees." The Coward's smile is ruefully amused. "And I was the *least* charming." He accepts the light brush of a kiss, licks his lips too, but doesn't chase after more. By an effort of will.
He lifts his eyebrows. "They were the men in the pictures? You lost *both* of them? Oh, Bastian," he murmurs with a wince, half to this man, his husband, and half to Roen. "Poor bastard. We all knew, you know, why he went after Nails after Max died, like that. We just...we knew. That's why we didn't blame you. Didn't hate you for it. The rest of us understood. Don't think Lyle did, but he didn't get long to think about it, either."
The Coward takes a breath and shifts, nuzzling against the Scholar. The demands at his groin are getting more insistent. "Ain't sure. Ain't sure of anything. *Seems* all right? But I got to...got to sit with it, I think. See if I'm just sayin' that because," he waves. This part, where he's just woken up and grieves still. "I'd like to talk with her. I like her. And if she's in love with you? Well, that just demonstrates her good taste."
Rolling his eyes, the Scholar murmurs, "The least charming indeed."
That gives way to a sigh and a nod of confirmation. "His life was painful. It was a relief, in some ways, to wake up here, have most of that become knowledge rather than experience and memory." A stark contrast to how he'd grieved the loss of all those memories after Prosperity. "I...thank you. For understanding. Though I still wish he hadn't done it. I'd have rather he been there for you, to the end."
The Scholar kisses the Coward's hair in turn. "Thinking it over is a good idea," he agrees. "And talking with her would be even better--for both of you, I think. You've both been through more of this than I have. That's not something I can speak to in the way you can." His mouth twitches in a near smile as the Coward proclaims Max's good taste. He reaches out and runs a finger down the Coward's stomach, tracing the lines of his famous abdominal muscles to his belly button, pausing there. "*Her* good taste. What about mine?"
Now here's a hell of a role reversal: the Coward, before, and Rado, before him, would have accepted this teasing for the game it is. With this young body burning around him and testosterone charging through his veins like a wild bull, he reacts just like Sebastian used to, when Colorado would tease him. He grabs the Scholar's hand and puts it exactly where he wants it without demure. "Well I don't know," he says, voice going raspy, "why don't you *show* me your good taste?"
And neither of them are going to get much talking done after that.