"—and then there's a big—a big 'splosion—"
"It's pronounced 'explosion,' kiddo. With an 'x.'"
"—a big ex 'splosion. And then – then Belle jumps out the castle window and has the candlestick Loomeer and she's yelling and she WHACKS! Right in his dumb face!"
Sarah gestured emphatically, almost knocking over the IV stand next to her bed. Gilbert quickly grabbed her arm and gave her a little high five to calm her down.
"So that's how you wish Gaston had died?" he asked. He checked her vitals before she got wound up again. The other kid in the recovery room stirred but didn't wake up. A miracle considering how loudly Sarah was talking.
"Yes!" she said. Flailing resumed. "Yes he just got to fall which isn't fair since he was such a jerk! It's my favorite movie but the end is so…" She let out a shriek to show her displeasure rather than search for a better word. Once the noise had dissipated into the hospital walls Sarah slumped down against the pillows and made a face. "Ludwig is like Gaston," she complained. "He's too smiley. Like he has a creepy mask on. And he won't let me read books at the table."
"Is that so?" Gilbert managed to keep his voice from cracking. "That's not the villain I would have picked for Ludwig, but I respect your decision."
Sarah gave him a questioning look but fell silent. Her tiny fingers plucked at the blue hospital blanket, eyes downcast and brows furrowed in thought. Gilbert took advantage of her silence to do a quick checkup on the other patient. The numbers swam before his vision as his eyes stung from exhaustion. He could hear the nurses pacing outside the room. They were waiting to kick him out the moment Sarah was picked up. It was her last day in the recovery ward. She had insisted Gilbert stay with her. She hated Berwald (unsurprising – most children did) and had screamed until a desperate nurse had rung Gilbert up at home and all but begged him to come back to the hospital. Union rules apparently didn't matter when a prominent investment banker's daughter was throwing a tantrum. Or that he'd pulled a full night shift immediately before.
Gilbert turned to face the girl again. She was staring up at him, a shrewd look in her eye.
Her shrewd look grew shrewdier.
"Do you know Ludwig a lot?"
Just the conversation he was hoping to have with a six year old when he barely had the brain cells left to stand upright.
Gilbert picked up her chart and pretended to scan it. Nonchalantly. It may have been upside down. He couldn't tell.
"What makes you ask, Miss Sarah?"
"You said Gaston's not who you'd pick for Ludwig… which means there is someone you'd pick. Which means you probably do know him pretty good," Sarah said, ticking each reason off on her fingers as she spoke. It would have been adorable if she hadn't been trying to Nancy Drew him into confessing rather delicate information.
"You have a point," Gilbert said. He put his clipboard down and gave the girl a disarming smile. "Yes, I do know him—"
Damn she was fast.
"We were friends," he finally said. "A long time ago."
Sarah made a little noise to show she'd heard.
"But you're not friends now. Or Dad would've invited you to his party. He invited Ludwig's friends."
Gilbert took a moment to make sure he wasn't going to accidentally yell at the small child. The small child who was inadvertently tearing his composure to shreds.
"That's right. We're not friends anymore. So, Miss Sarah, what's your second favorite—"
"I'm glad you're not friends. I don't like Ludwig's friends," Sarah said stubbornly.
Gilbert's lips twitched up in a smile.
"Because Ludwig's Gaston?"
"Or worse," Sarah muttered. "He made my mom leave."
Gilbert raised an eyebrow at that. He sat next to Sarah's bed.
"Made your mom leave? How'd he do that?"
Sarah pressed her lips together and for a moment Gilbert thought she was going to cry. Instead her shoulders sagged in a depressingly adult-like gesture of surrender.
"Maybe he didn't," she said finally. "I have to think about it more careful. She might've left before Dad met him but… but it was close together. Real close…"
Gilbert lightly patted her hand but kept silent. Ludwig breaking up a marriage. Didn't sound much like him, but the Ludwig Gilbert knew was well over a year old by that point. Maybe modern day Ludwig got his jollies listening to prenup arguments.
"Well," Gilbert said finally, "if you're having trouble remembering then I don't think it's very nice to blame Ludwig for something he might not have even done." He gave the girl a little wink. "Blame him for something he definitely did do. Like hog the TV remote. He used to do that all the time. Or correct your pronunciation. Or alphabetize his sock collection. Or have a sock collection at all."
Sarah's mouth fell open slightly before she clamped a hand over her mouth and let out a loud snort of laughter.
"He does steal the remote! All he wants to watch is—"
"TV shows about historical boat disasters?"
"Yeah! Boats, why's he like boats he doesn't even have one! He told me, he said it was—… im…um…"
Sarah nodded and made a face, her nose scrunched up with laughter. But slowly her features evened out until they more resembled the rather listless child Gilbert had met that first day after her surgery. The first day when Nurse Williams gently told her that her father couldn't make visiting hours.
She began to pluck at the blanket again.
"Why's my dad like him?"
Quiet and sad. Her voice was dwarfed by the gentle humming of the machines.
Gilbert reached out to gently brush her hair off her forehead and fix her blankets. Not that it mattered. She'd be leaving soon.
"I don't know, kiddo," he said. "I only know why I did."
Sarah stared up at him, her brown eyes narrowing.
"Why'd you like him?" Her voice was a challenge.
Gilbert sighed and sat back in his chair, honestly trying to think. He'd been up for almost forty hours. His thought process resembled nothing more coherent than television static.
"…I don't know that I remember," he said finally. "Because he made a house feel lived in, maybe."
He could tell from the way Sarah was staring at him that she didn't understand. She dismissed him after that and turned to stare at the window.
"He's gonna be there when I go home," she said quietly. She let out a heavy sigh that rattled her small frame. "I wish you'd be there instead of him. You'd let me watch cartoons…"
"I would," Gilbert said. He felt the urge to be mature clamber its way over his static brain and for once he indulged it. "But I'm not dating your father. Ludwig is. And he's… he can be nice."
Sarah stared at him, her face pinched as though she were tasting betrayal for the first time.
"Nice – he's not nice! He's so bossy…"
"He's used to being in charge," Gilbert said. A little smile was tugging at his lips. He could feel it. And it was only half warped. "But he's also—he notices when you do things right. And he's a really good baker. Great at making hot chocolate too. And he knows like – all the names of the stars. And can tell you politely when you accidentally call a planet a star when you're trying to show off."
Sarah fell quiet. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, obviously thinking hard as she stared off into space.
Gilbert let her think. He pulled out his phone, flipped through a few Tweets.
"My dad doesn't like stars."
Gilbert pocketed his phone.
Sarah shook her head.
"He wouldn't send me to space camp," she explained. "And I wanted to go real bad."
Gilbert raised an eyebrow.
"Aren't you a little young to go to space camp?"
"Sarah Miller got to go and she's in my class!"
"Oof. That's rough."
Sarah tilted her head to the side, her brows furrowing.
"Maybe," she said slowly. "Maybe Ludwig will let me go…"
There came a knock at the door, and a moment later a nurse stuck her head in. She gave Gilbert a perfunctory smile and then said cheerfully, "Your ride is here to pick you up, Sarah. Say goodbye to Doctor W so we can get you discharged and on your way home."
Sarah gave a solemn little nod, but her fists grabbed at the blanket and held it tightly. Gilbert waited for her to give a verbal response, and when she didn't he smiled at the nurse and said, "Thank you, that will be all."
He thought he saw her roll her eyes as she shut the door. Didn't matter.
He turned his attention to Sarah. She was still staring straight ahead so he lightly flicked her forehead. She made a little squeaking noise, hands immediately flying up to cover the injured area.
"You hit me!"
"I flicked you," he corrected. He stood and took a moment to make sure he wasn't going to pass out.
"All right, Miss Sarah, I've gotta go home myself. I haven't had a nap today."
"You're an adult. You don't nap," Sarah said sulkily.
"Oh but I do. I'm a champion nap-er."
Sarah gave him a look that said she didn't believe him but otherwise didn't move. Gilbert let out a little sigh and crouched down. He held out his hand.
"I can help you with your crutches again."
She pursed her lips.
"No. I can do it."
"Okay. Do you need me for anything else, then?"
His vision was swimming he was so tired. He hadn't been this exhausted since med school. Amazing how one random patient had him so wrapped around her finger.
The fact that the random patient was his only human tie to Ludwig probably didn't mean much. And if she talked about him to Ludwig then... Didn't mean much either. She was just a kid who hated Ludwig.
Gilbert waited for Sarah to respond, blinking his eyes every few seconds to try and keep them from feeling too much like the Sahara.
Sarah suddenly reached out and grabbed his shirt sleeve. She held on until her fingers turned white.
"…What if my leg hurts real bad again?' she asked quietly. "As soon as I get home?"
Gilbert lightly patted her hand and gave her a little smile.
"Then you ask your dad for some of the pills the nurse is going to send home with you."
"What if they don't work?"
"What if Dad's not home?"
"Then you can ask someone else."
Tears sprang to her eyes. Panicked, microscopic tears.
"W-What if the only one there is Ludwig? What if he doesn't want to help me?"
"He will," Gilbert promised. "He's not a monster, Sarah, he wants to help you—"
"B-But you stopped being his friend, you're not his friend anymore because he's a bad person, what if Dad's not home and my leg stops working and he's there?!"
She was suddenly bordering on hysterical. Tears no longer microscopic streaming down her cheeks. Gilbert let her hold onto his shirt, too tired to comfort her properly. She was well and truly scared. Breathing coming in choked little gasps.
"Sarah – Miss Sarah, can you take deep breaths for me?"
Sarah shook her head, her small chest shaking as she struggled to breathe.
Gilbert wracked his exhausted brain, tried to dredge up everything he knew about calming children. Nyquil probably not the best solution at the moment.
On a whim he fished out his wallet and grabbed one of his business cards. He scribbled his cellphone number on the back and then held it out to Sarah. She stared at the card, hiccupping like a drowning asthmatic.
"It's my phone number. For if Ludwig's being mean to you and not letting you take your medicine or read books at the table."
Sarah snatched it out of his hand immediately and inspected it. She absently wiped snot from her nose with the back of her hand.
"Is this real?"
"Like the real numbers. I can call it?"
"Sure you can. You're a rich kid, you probably have your own phone, right?"
Sarah nodded, still clutching the card. Gilbert smiled and gently ruffled her hair.
"Then whenever Ludwig's being mean – or even your dad. You can call me, okay? And then I'll call them and tell them that I'm the doctor and they have to listen to me."
He did his best Berwald impression, adjusting his glasses and straightening his imaginary tie. It made Sarah laugh, her earlier panic all but forgotten.
"You're weird," she said. "But nice so it's okay."
"Weird and nice. I'll take it."
Gilbert patted her head one last time and then stood, swaying on his feet.
"All right, Miss Sarah. It's been wonderful having you here but I'm sure you miss your bed and all your stuffed animals and dolls and whatever."
Sarah scooted to the edge of the bed, and Gilbert could feel her eyes on him as he headed to the door.
Gilbert paused, his hand on the handle. He glanced over his shoulder at the small girl perched on the edge of the bed, her cast seemingly forgotten. She pointed to the card.
"Can I show this to Ludwig?"
"To Ludwig? You can, but he already has my number, kiddo."
Gilbert watched the girl fiddle with his card for a moment. He debated whether or not to ask why. Curiosity won.
"Why would you want to show Ludwig?"
Sarah frowned and turned the card over in her hands a few times.
"'Cause… maybe if Ludwig had a friend again, he wouldn't be around my house so much," she mumbled, sounding like she knew she should be more apologetic. Gilbert snorted and said dryly, "Reminding him that I exist in the world would probably just make him stick around your house even more, champ. Sorry to say."
Sarah's shoulders slumped in defeat but she nodded and mumbled a contrite, "Okay."
Gilbert heard the approaching footsteps of the nurse and sensed his impending ousting. He glanced at the girl one last time.
"Will you be all right, Miss Sarah?"
Sarah glanced up at him. Nodded once.
Gilbert raised an eyebrow.
She nodded again and crossed her heart.
Gilbert gave her a tired smile.
"Ready to go, Miss Sarah?"
She pushed herself out of bed, balancing on one foot. She gave him a wobbly salute just as the door opened.
"Ready, Doctor W."
He started badly. The razor-sharp edge of the magazine he was holding sliced across the pad of his index finger. Swearing quietly he jammed his finger in his mouth as he stood. The intake receptionist offered him a polite smile, her eyes glassy and unfocused. She gestured towards the other end of the waiting room.
"She's ready for you. It's the second door on the left, just a reminder."
Gilbert shook out his hand and headed toward the door. One of three lining the short hallway.
"Thank you, Edwina."
"It's pronounced 'Kate,' Mr. Weillschmidt."
"No one with half-moon glasses is named 'Kate.' Only Edwinas and Dumbledors have those," Gilbert called out over her shoulder. Receptionist Kate didn't smile. Her loss.
Behind the Second Door on the Left lay two high back chairs, a rolltop desk, and a pleather couch. The pleather couch was flaking in places and sagging in the middle. Heavy drapes flanked the two tall windows, faded, but clean and free of dust. Hardwood floors squeaked in places, their noise muffled by a Persian rug that had likely been expensive at one point but now looked more like something a mobster would roll around a dead body and chuck over a bridge. Every surface of the small room was coated in a thin veneer of stale cigar smoke. The miniature "No Smoking" signs peppered in between the books lining the built-ins were a nice ironic touch.
Gilbert avoided the couch and took a seat in one of the two high-backed chairs. He hugged a decorative pillow to his chest. The small mirrors sewn into the brocade fabric dug a bit into his skin. The pillows, at least, had been spared the cigar smoke. They smelled like the rose candles on the coffee table instead. Placed there, no doubt, by the young doctor behind the rolltop desk in the corner. Cigar smoke didn't really fit her image.
Gilbert let his head fall to the side until it rested snugly against the back of the chair.
For a psychiatrist office that specialized in treating other doctors the place was remarkably shabby. But it had most likely felt shabby since the day it was built. Probably came pre-equipped with dust motes to match the dark stain of the wood.
The chair behind the rolltop desk squeaked as the doctor stood. Heels clacking against the wooden floors, a whiff of cloyingly floral perfume that clawed its way up into Gilbert's nostrils as she passed. The doctor sat down in the other seat, her legs crossed at the ankles.
Gilbert supposed from her voice, the run in her stockings, and the heavy handed perfume she wore that she had a face that matched. Kind. Young and kind, full lips to match her full voice and sharp, dark eyes that had dismissed the run in her stockings as unimportant. She'd worn the same pair the last three times he had been there. That or all her stockings had runs. Either scenario was equally possible.
Gilbert nodded slightly.
Her foot tapped against the Persian rug.
"How did you do this week?"
Gilbert closed his eyes.
"You know when you've been outside in the cold and your fingers go numb and then you go inside and you wash your hands and even though the water is lukewarm it feels like it's burning hot? Or if the water's anything above lukewarm it makes your whole hand feel like it's not even there? Like it's just... it's ghost hand. Sometimes kinda tingly."
He heard her pen scritch scratch across the pad of paper.
"I have some idea, yes."
"Okay. Like that."
"Ghost hand. But more like ghost... ghost body."
"And that's how you did this week."
Gilbert nodded and pressed his face against the pillow.
"That really isn't much of an answer, Doctor. Can you engage a bit more?"
"I didn't have much of a week. Can't engage if there's nothing there."
"Did you make the box? The panic box I told you about?"
Gilbert clicked his tongue in annoyance.
"Are you lying?"
"You don't have to make it."
"I'm going to make it."
"I told you at the beginning of our first session that a lot of what I give you are suggestions. Not prescriptions."
Gilbert waved his hand to show he'd heard. Doctor Laksa made a note of it.
"I said last week I would be really appreciative if you would try meeting my gaze. It doesn't have to be for long. Would you mind trying today?"
Gilbert shook his head.
"No. Thanks, though. I'm sure you're very attractive. You shouldn't need me to verify that for you."
"Not even for a few seconds? It's part of building rapport, but if you're not comfortable-"
Gilbert pressed his face against the chair.
"Don't ask me again, Doctor. I'm serious."
"Do you mind telling me why you're so resistant to the idea of making eye contact with me?"
Irritation spiked. Gilbert dug his fingers into the pillow a bit deeper. One of the little mirrors broke free of its stitching. Its edges were surprisingly rough.
"Isn't it your job to comfort me? The fuck am I paying you for if I have to be the one that—"
Gilbert bit his lip and swallowed the rest of his words. He'd already had his breakdown that week. Hadn't been able to hold it in until therapy so. Quota exceeded. It was fine.
He was going to break that fucking pen.
"Has she been discharged yet?"
Gilbert felt Sarah's drawing in his pocket. Could see her smile, the bright balloons. She'd clutched their string so tightly. A nanny had come to pick her up. Full uniform and everything. Complete with papers signed by Richard authorizing the nanny as Sarah's agent.
Gilbert still hadn't met the man himself.
"That was this week, wasn't it? That Sarah was going to be discharged?"
Gilbert sat up enough to fish around in his pocket. He pulled out the drawing and rested it on the coffee table, in between the rose candles.
"Going away present," he explained. He watched her slim hand pick up the drawing to examine it. "I get them from a lot of kids. Have a whole collection on my fridge."
"Are all of them this graphic?"
"You mean do all the kids draw their accident? No. Not many."
Doctor Laksa set the drawing on the table again. One manicured nail gestured to a figure.
"And this is you?"
"Lab coat and dashing figures. I have to assume."
Her finger moved.
A tiny figure tucked in the corner. Blonde hair. Added as almost an afterthought. The figure's arm was outstretched towards the others. It looked almost like another child.
"Ludwig. Since I'm assuming this brown smear in the middle is her dad."
The doctor pushed the paper towards him and Gilbert quickly stowed it back in his pocket.
"She seems to have taken quite a shine to you."
"Most kids do. But her especially, I guess."
Gilbert closed his eyes again.
"Probably since we have a common enemy. There's your rapport builder, Doctor."
"Did he come by the hospital this week? You speculated that he might be the one to pick her up."
"No. Her nanny did. Not sure if ol' mystery Dick or if Ludwig was the one who made that executive call. Either way."
"So you haven't been in contact with Ludwig?"
"Couple of texts."
Gilbert's eye twitched. He sat up, sitting cross-legged in the chair.
"No need to sound so titillated, Doctor. Nothing untoward happened."
"I'm sorry if you thought-"
"For a shrink you're sorry an awful lot, you know that? Wonder how much one of your 'sorry's would weigh against one of mine. You killed any of your patients, Doctor?"
"Gilbert, remember your breathing."
"Oh right, my breathing, fucking thank you, Doctor, almost forgot about that basic fucking function–"
Gilbert looked down. His fingers were wrapped around the pillow in his lap. Throttling it. Knuckles white.
He slowly loosened his grip. Let his hands rest in his lap. His heart was racing so fast inside his chest it felt like it was going to shatter his ribs.
For some reason his jaw was moving on its own. Opening and closing, shifting side to side, teeth dragging against each other with each pass.
A box of tissues appeared in his vision. Slid across the table like a hockey puck. He plucked one out of its thin cardboard box. Shredded it between his fingers.
"I don't even feel angry anymore," he said. "But my body just. It keeps going – like everything is suddenly shoved off a cliff and I can't control it. I don't mean to be like this, I don't. Want. This."
"Did you have this sort of physiological reaction when you were working with Sarah?"
Gilbert shook his head.
"What about when he messages you? Do you feel out of control?"
Gilbert smoothed his fingers over the pillow. The loose mirror popped back into place.
"Sometimes," he said. "Sometimes it. I don't know. If I were more religious or whatever I'd probably think I was being possessed. I didn't think it was possible to be that angry. Especially not just because of one thing."
"Why do you still feel that it's 'just one thing'?"
"Because it's just Ludwig!"
Gilbert fisted a hand in his hair, momentarily furious at himself for yelling before he got his temper under control. He tried again.
"It's just Ludwig. I've lumped him in with all these stupid associations with my childhood and being sick but he's not responsible for any of that. It's stupid to be so angry at him. I'm not even angry! God I – I haven't been angry in weeks. Honest to god weeks. He's just a contact in my phone now who sends me the occasional nonsequitor and asks if I've eaten or whatever."
The scratching was back. Gilbert crossed his arms over his chest.
"What the fuck was in that statement that was worth jotting down?"
"He asks about your health? Reminds you to eat?"
"Yeah," Gilbert muttered. "That's what most of his messages are. When they aren't about Sarah. Although I guess those will stop now."
"He sounds concerned about you."
"It's just his weird guilt complex," Gilbert said. He picked up his pillow again and fiddled with a loose thread. "It's why he interacts with me at all. It's why he got me that hotel room, it's why he got me that phone even though I'm the one that broke it. Maybe it's a Catholic thing, I dunno. I don't want to look too closely at it."
Gilbert felt his stomach clench. Like he was going to be sick. Another physiological reaction he didn't understand. They kept blindsiding him.
"I don't know."
Scritch scritch scritch.
"Do you want to hazard a guess?"
More bile. Gilbert pulled at the pillow thread.
"I don't know," he said again, his throat full of acid. "I really don't. Maybe because if I look too closely it'll be too in focus."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Like – that he's asking only out of guilt. That that's all he's going to be capable of ever. That – that it's like how I get so angry. And I can't control it but what if he gets the same way? What if he gets so incredibly mad and this guilt – this asking after me, that's how he deals instead of blowing all his money on fuckin' therapy?! What if he still hates me?! He has to, right? He has to – he hates me he hates me and it hurts so badly I – fuck I think I'm going to throw up–"
A plastic waste bucket skidded to a halt next to his chair. Gilbert eyed it for a moment, not sure if he should feel insulted or grateful. A few deep breaths and he wrested control back. His skin felt like he'd been dumped in a bucket of ice water but at least his dignity was still semi-intact.
Gilbert sat up straight again and rested his pillow on his lap.
"Sorry about that. I don't really have a rational guess, is how I should have answered."
He could feel the doctor's disapproving gaze. She probably liked having him as a patient. Meant she didn't need to try and maintain an ever-calm look of sympathy.
"It might be helpful if you stay with those feelings rather than push them down. You need to try and engage, Doctor."
"If engaging means throwing up in front of someone who took Psych 101 and for some deluded reason decided to pursue it beyond sorority-girl-curiosity level, then I'll have to pass."
"If you don't engage, I can't help you. You're only wasting time and money—"
"I said I'll pass, Daphne. And is it really in your best interest to remind your patients how much money they're wasting? I mean, 'A' for ethics and all but Garnier's best fire-engine red hairdye won't buy itself."
The scratching stopped. Gilbert could feel her, tense and staring at him. He rolled his eyes and nudged the wastebasket forward with the toe of his shoe.
"Drugstore receipt on the top of your half-eaten salad. That and you shed to an alarming degree. Either that or you need to fire your cleaning crew. Not exactly CSI-level deduction work needed."
"Do you enjoy unsettling people, Doctor?"
Gilbert snorted and tugged the pillow to his chest.
"Not to sound all poorly-written-super-villain, but if I wanted to unsettle you, Doctor, I'd just tell you why I was here."
The scratching resumed. He must have appeased her somehow.
"Do you want me to guess?"
"You can't guess," Gilbert said flatly. "But go ahead. This is confidential, right. That little tape recorder doesn't leave this office?"
Her pen tapped against her notepad.
"A string of failed relationships would be my first guess, in addition to Ludwig."
Gilbert held up a finger. A point for her.
"I bet half your doctor patients have that as their first symptom. Kind of part of the profession."
"True. It is something of a gimmie."
Tap tap tap
Gilbert held up two fingers.
"You're lucky I fit the stereotype of the mental patient so well. Otherwise this might actually be a challenge."
"You said I wouldn't be able to guess. Do you mind if I ask why?"
"Details are a little less stereotypical." Gilbert made a face. "At least I hope so. For humanity's sake."
"Family troubles as well. Family trauma."
"Disapproval of the relationship."
"Disapproval of you specifically."
"Disapproval of the breakup."
"You can stop there."
Gilbert lowered his hand and let it rest atop the pillow again.
"It's not something I'm ever going to say aloud."
A clattering noise as a pen skipped across the table, landing in front of his shin.
He stared at it in mild disgust.
"Or on paper. And you can spare yourself the repair bill and refrain from hucking your computer at me. I'm not conveying it. And you can't guess, so."
Doctor Laksa crossed her legs. The run in her stockings crept up her knee.
"So we're at an impasse."
Gilbert crossed his arms.
Doctor Laksa's pen resumed its scratching.
"Then we're going to do what I suggested during our first session. We're going to work on building your toolkit for dealing with stressors."
"Wonderful. So glad I'm paying you to teach me about the magical world of metaphors."
"This week I want you to try engaging with Ludwig. Since you are having difficulty not responding to him, it is important that you learn how best to do so. If he texts you, set your phone aside for a bit and do some of your refocusing exercises. Then return to the phone and compose your reply, then set the phone aside again. The key is to try and keep impulsivity in check. Acknowledge your anger, and then let it go."
"You got it, Yoda. No dark side this week."
"And if you're feeling up to it—" Doctor Laksa continued as though she hadn't heard him, "—then you may want to take your friend up on her suggestion. Even if nothing comes of it, going out could also be a form of letting go."
Gilbert bristled slightly at the suggestion, and grew even more irritated with himself when he realized he was waiting to calm down before speaking. Playing right into her stupid, Intro Psych hands.
"Great. I'll look into that," he said, voice clipped, and stood. "Thank you for your time, Doctor."
"You still have several minutes."
"No, I'm done for the day, thank you. Same time next week?"
Without waiting for her to reply Gilbert headed for the door.
Gilbert groaned dramatically and pressed his hand against his face.
"Please, Doc, I've already done the 'poignant stopping in the doorframe' move once today. I'm over quota as it is."
"There really is little I can do for you – and that you can do for yourself – if you do not engage. Surely you came here hoping to get something out of our sessions? It might help to try and remember that."
Gilbert lowered his hand and stared at the door.
He let out a quick breath and squared his shoulders.
"Right. Thanks, Doctor."
He could hear her pen scratching against the clipboard again.
"You have something in mind, then?"
Gilbert nodded and yanked the door open.
"Leverage. Just in case."
Her pen was still writing as the door clicked shut behind him.
Gilbert drummed his fingers on the table. Irregular rhythm. They made a hollow tocking sound against the linen tablecloth. Swanky jazz music quickly swallowed the noise. The musicians crammed in a far corner of the restaurant were dressed in the same outfits as the wait staff. Which had made for a very awkward conversation when Gilbert had first arrived. The bassist did not, in fact, know anything about a reservation under "Doctor W And His Ersatz Companion."
Gilbert felt his cheeks grow warm at the memory. He shifted his chair a bit more until his back was fully turned to the corner where the magicians were stationed. A simple "I don't know" would have sufficed. The bassist's colorful commentary about Gilbert's pretention level was, in his opinion, slightly unwarranted.
"Another glass of the Bordeaux, sir?"
Gilbert started and glanced up at the waitress standing by his table. He wordlessly eased his glass towards the edge of the table, averting his eyes again. The glass opposite him at the two-person table was empty. Had been for thirty two minutes now. Not that Gilbert was counting. Or embarrassed to be a single person at a table clearly meant for two. Waiting by himself. For thirty two—he checked his watch—thirty seven minutes.
He waited until the stone-faced waitress trundled off elsewhere (she did leave the bottle, which earned her a few points) before he fished his phone out of his pocket. Three new texts.
Two were from Eliza.
/Is he there yet? Oh my god Gilbert is he there yet does he match his profile picture or is this a whatever-fish situation?!/
/Gilbert if you are leaving me in the dark on purpose I am going to be very cross with you. Notice my stern inflection and proper grammar this means I am most definitely serious./
One was not from Eliza.
/Do you have a moment?/
Gilbert studied the text, torn between irritated and relieved. Ludwig had given him five words to work with. Not a lot to completely distract him from his growing embarrassment and desire to move to a less central table until his blind date showed up, but enough to offer a bit of welcome diversion.
Ever since one disastrous attempt to have a civil conversation via text had imploded a month and a half ago, communication between him and Ludwig had been scarce. Hovering more in the scarce-to-none range, if he were to don his realist's cap (fuck, maybe the bassist was right, his pretention levels were too high to function).
But even so, Ludwig had become something of a wildcard, especially in the several weeks since Sarah had been discharged from the hospital. At the weirdest times, a /Saw an unusually fat squirrel today./ or a /Why is 'pistachio' pronounced the way it is. Infuriating./ would show up on Gilbert's phone. No explanation or context. If several of the texts hadn't included his name, Gilbert would have assumed they were meant for someone else. Doctor Laksa thought it was genuine concern on Ludwig's part. But Doctor Laksa was not privy to all the weird shit Ludwig sent him. The mountains of nonsequitors and attempts at conversation starters that went absolutely nowhere.
Ludwig hadn't been this direct before in recently memory. Or this coherent. Not even when he was at his most busybodyness.
Gilbert's phone buzzed again.
/I know it's a little presumptuous of me but this time I would like to politely request that you maybe answer. Even just a 'y' for 'yes' would be all right. Or an 'f' for 'fuck off.' Whichever./
Gilbert bit his lip as he stared at the text.
First coherent Ludwig message. There was the rush of familiar anger and resentment. His heart was racing in his chest, skin feeling too tight for his body. Fight-or-flight instinct kicking in. But it was almost… half-hearted. Perfunctory. The expected physiological reactions were there, sure, but the passion, the drive to give into them just. Wasn't.
That, or, the crippling humiliation that was blackening his heart was making any attempt at rage pale in comparison.
Gilbert mulled over his response for an embarrassing five minutes or so before he finally replied. Long enough that his hands stopped shaking and the resentment-fog that normally clouded his brain had started to dissipate.
/y. but also f./
Ludwig's reply was immediate.
/Fair, I did set myself up for that. I'm going to assume the y is slightly stronger or you would have just texted back an image of you flipping me off like you did that one time I was in the middle of a meeting. Which was fine. I deserved that./
Gilbert clicked his tongue in irritation. Self-Sacrificial-Ludwig annoyed him almost as much as Self-Righteous-Ludwig. Irritated him but didn't send him into a psychotic rage anymore. Which was. Progress. Even if he was reluctant to admit it.
He grudgingly gave Doctor Laksa a half a point.
/Just tell me what you want. Despite what you might think I don't exactly enjoy reading about you flagellating yourself./
/I think I've been stood up./
Gilbert stared at Ludwig's text, not understanding. He took another sip of wine.
/Stood… on? Is this a veiled cry for preposition selection assistance?/
/No. Stood up as in. I'm sitting in a restaurant. Alone. At a table clearly meant for two./
/I don't know why I thought it was a good idea to confess that to you./
/Turns out it's more embarrassing than simply sitting here and letting it happen to me./
/Who would have thought./
Gilbert quickly glanced around the restaurant and then spent a few minutes scrutinizing the street beyond the large windows over his shoulder. No sign of Ludwig lurking. Which meant that Ludwig probably wasn't mocking him. Barring clairvoyance. But Gilbert was fairly sure that if Ludwig had that particular ability he'd use it to save humanity by becoming a martyrism-prone super spy or something else saccharine and awful.
Gilbert worried at his lip, cursing when an old split decided to crack open again and drip blood on his napkin. He quickly sucked on the wound, marveling at how gross he had become. No wonder he was sitting alone in a restaurant. His date had probably walked in, gotten one look at him, and then left. Honestly he would have done the same. He'd only recently started gaining back the weight he'd lost since his and Ludwig's split. And he was fairly sure that the discount store shampoo he'd been using was actually formulated for guinea pig fur and not for human hair. It had a slightly disagreeable odor that he couldn't really wash out. And Eliza had left the iron at Bel's so he'd shrugged on a falsely-advertised wrinkle-free shirt and called it good enough date attire.
Gilbert scrubbed at his eyes and then returned to the text, trying to get over the self-pity ball festering in his stomach.
He typed back.
/So just so I can paint myself an accurate brain-picture, right now you're sitting alone in a fancy restaurant?/
Ludwig's reply was so immediate Gilbert was having a hard time not imagining Ludwig hunched desperately over his phone. He'd always been a punctual texter but the complete lack of delay between message reception and message response was borderline otherworldly.
/Yes. The really nice one that just opened up on Charles' Square. And now I look like a complete idiot. Especially because I've been drinking enough wine for two. And am honestly tempted to start using the extra glass to expedite the imbibing process./
/That why you're texting me?/
/I think so. God I'm sorry, I'll stop. I told myself not to but lately my impulse control has been less than ideal./
/I'm baking a lot, too./
/I don't know what to do with it all no one I know eats desserts./
/Which is a shame./
/Dessert is amazing. But not this much dessert./
/No one needs this much dessert./
/The waiter handed me the dessert menu and I nearly ripped his arm off trying to get it away from me I don't even want to see that word./
/ I was supposed to stop texting. I'll stop. I apologize. Again./
Gilbert had to quickly switch his phone to silent for fear of it vibrating itself into pieces. He scrolled though Ludwig's texts.
"Fuck… he's a mess," he muttered to himself, mildly proud that his response to being stood up was to drink wine almost to the point of being sloshed rather than simply charging head-first over that line like Ludwig apparently had.
He scrolled through the texts again, rereading them in their stumbling, pell-mell waterfalling of words. He ignored a few flashes of irritation, a few clicks of the lighter in his gut that was trying to set him off again towards blind rage. The wine was helping drown the little sparks before they could blaze up properly. And without the blinding light blurring out everything else, he realized with an uncomfortable churning of his innards that there was something nostalgic in Ludwig's texts. A whisper of the sort of rambling intimacy they'd shared before. And if Gilbert were being honest with himself – and the wine was helping to lubricate those particular empathy cogs as well – it was an intimacy he'd seen in some of Ludwig's other texts. Inside jokes he'd maybe forgotten. References to places they'd been. Conversation starters that echoed back to something he'd once known but had since been burned and charred to unrecognizability.
Gilbert brushed away a bit of the ash that clung to Ludwig's tone of voice and odd word choices. And for a moment, a fleeting one that quietly slipped away almost as quickly as it had come, it was two years ago. And he was comfortably, unwaveringly fond of that tone of voice and those odd word choices.
The lighter sparked again as he felt the scar on his hand. Without thinking he snuffed it out. His own suddenness and decisiveness made him start, and for a long while he could only sit in mild shock, waiting warily for the anger to flare up again.
But it stayed quiet. Smoldering, if that.
With a groan Gilbert let his head rest on the table, his insides churning. Also, probably, from the wine.
He couldn't let Doctor Laksa know she'd been right about him growing bored of his anger. Or even partly right. She'd probably push harder for him to come twice a week like she wanted. The half a point he'd granted her a few minutes ago would go to the grave with him. Because for whatever reason he really, really didn't want to be the bigger man. Capable of forgiving and letting go of his anger.
Which was a different level of fucked up and spiteful he wasn't sure he wanted to directly face again.
Gilbert blindly fumbled for his phone and then dragged it onto his lap so he could read it. Cautiously testing himself to see if his rage would stay at bay.
He reread the texts a third time.
Restaurant on Charles' Square.
He frowned. A little suspicion took hold.
Ludwig's reply was immediate again.
/Rou… rou, something. Rousine? I can't remember./
/There's a menu right in front of me I'm an idiot./
Gilbert bolted upright, his phone clutched in his hand. He stared at the red menu on the table.
The waitress chose that moment to come by his table again. Her expression was pinched as though, for some reason, she was dreading interacting with him.
"Another glass of the Bordeaux while you wait—"
"Is there another man here?" Gilbert interrupted her.
She stared at him as though he were an idiot. Before she could reply with what would have no doubt been a mildly sarcastic and thoroughly unhelpful rejoinder Gilbert said, "Another man sitting alone at a table. Blonde? Blue eyes? Stern and probably a little drunk?"
Her eyes lit up.
"Oh – there must have been some mix up. Is he the other member of your party?"
The lie slipped out before Gilbert could think it through. He stood up, grabbing his phone. Notification light was on again. Probably another message from Ludwig.
"Would you mind showing me to his table?"
"Of course. Right this way."
The waitress led him through the packed restaurant (and away from the jazz corner, thank god) to another section, partially hidden behind a divider.
In the corner table, wedged tightly against another large bank of windows, was Ludwig. His phone was on the table next to his bread plate. Both were liberally covered in semolina from a roll that had been haphazardly torn in two. A bottle of wine was chilling next to his table, although it looked to be mostly empty. Ludwig was hunched over his phone, brushing off the little crumbs and muttering to himself. He looked, Gilbert was slightly miffed to note, more composed than his texts had indicated. Tipsiness and semolina aside.
"Should I bring you two the entrée menus?"
Gilbert nodded, not really trusting himself to speak. The waitress either didn't notice his weird hovering just out of Ludwig's line of sight or she had seen far, far more disconcerting behavior before. She left without another word.
Gilbert cautiously approached Ludwig's table, still sticking to Ludwig's blind spot. Ludwig was wearing a lavender colored tie. Looked like silk. Striped pattern. Very classy. His suit coat was slung over the back of his chair and the sleeves of his collared shirt were rolled up to his elbows. He looked so charmingly disheveled and thoroughly irritated at being alive in his present situation.
Gilbert fiddled with his phone and for a long moment simply watched Ludwig. Ludwig brushed the last of the semolina off his phone's screen and sent another text. For one, irrational moment, Gilbert was terrified that his phone wasn't going to light up. It was highly likely he was simply one in a string of people Ludwig was harassing in his tipsy boredom, after all. As Ludwig had liked to remind him during the nastier parts of their breakup, he wasn't special, he wasn't Ludwig's entire world.
Something anxious and tense uncoiled in Gilbert's chest when he felt his phone buzz in his hand. His phone lit up. And he, like the worst spy possible, was holding it with the screen facing outward.
The sudden change in lighting must have caught Ludwig's attention. He straightened up and looked towards Gilbert in that unconscious way he had of checking his surroundings. For a moment his gaze fell on Gilbert, unrecognizing. Almost dismissive.
Then his eyes widened. Surprise. Maybe a bit of horror.
Gilbert raised his phone in greeting. Pointed to the text with his index finger.
Ludwig stared at him, his mouth slightly agape.
"How—did you come here just to—"
"Apparently this is the place to ditch your blind date before actually meeting them," Gilbert drawled. He gestured towards the large windows. "Probably thanks to this. Gotta assume he saw me and decided to save thirty bucks and a couple hours of awkward conversation and just split."
Ludwig finally seemed to snap out of his stupor. His large hands fiddled with the shredded halves of bread on his plate.
"Thirty bucks…" he mumbled and then quirked a weak smile at Gilbert. "He wasn't even going to spring for an appetizer? Sounds like you might have dodged a bullet."
Gilbert snorted and shoved his phone in his pocket. Probably wouldn't be buzzing anymore.
"Not sure if this bullet was worth waiting by myself in a restaurant for forty minutes with a very busy queue out the front door," he said. "The host asked me five times if I wanted a table for one. I asked him if I could just sit at the empty space at the huge group table and ingratiate myself with them. Didn't go over so well. Apparently wedding rehearsal dinners are a somewhat private affair."
Ludwig's lips twisted into an expression of sympathy. One he wore too well thanks to the wine.
"Did you get a judgmental stare? Or did the waiter go full-blown snide remark?"
"Stare. I think my running tab that just read 'glass of red' for twenty pages stoked pity in his waiter heart, delayed the snark just long enough to—"
"Excuse me, sir?"
The soft voice made them both clam up immediately. The waitress had returned and was standing off to the side, looking mildly impatient.
She cleared her throat.
"I don't mean to hurry this along too much but will you be dining together this evening?"
"Yes," Ludwig said immediately. Assuredly.
Gilbert glanced at him in surprise. Ludwig's cheeks were red from wine but he was staring straight ahead at the waitress. Jaw set. Back straight. Far, far too much conviction for answering a question as mundane as restaurant seating arrangements.
Gilbert was furious with himself when his heart beat decided to quicken. Just a bit.
Ludwig pushed the other chair out with the tip of his toe. Gilbert stared at it, pride and that stupid booming in his chest warring with each other.
The waitress cleared her throat again. The cough propelled Gilbert's feet forward, some spark of good manners and the few shreds of dignity he had left wanting to salvage what they could. He sat down and immediately tugged his legs up to sit cross-legged in the chair. Whatever, it was huge. And he was nervous and there was no pillow to throttle so making himself as compact as possible would have to do. Whatever easy intimacy had possessed him when he'd first approached Ludwig was quickly deflating, leaving him feeling a bit hunted and unsure. Like a sleepwalker waking up to find themselves in an apartment that wasn't exactly theirs.
"Will you have another glass of the Bordeaux?"
Gilbert just nodded, his eyes fixed on the spotless tablecloth. Spotless and. Semolina.
"I'll be back to take your order shortly."
Gilbert nodded again, what little confidence he'd had bleeding out completely. He listened to the soft clacking of the waitresses' shoes against the nice hardwood floors. Recently stained floors, from the looks of them. Nice dark color.
"I can't believe you're actually here."
Gilbert lifted his head to glance at Ludwig.
"…It's a popular new restaurant," he said. "It's not like we ran into each other… I don't know. Donating blood in Minsk or something."
"I'm nervous, Ludwig, cut me some slack." Gilbert propped his elbows up on his knees and glanced out the window. "Note the general nervous posture and lack of eye contact."
Silence. Gilbert could hear Ludwig fiddling with the bread crumbs on his plate.
"…You didn't have to sit down."
"You said 'yes' at like. Super-hero levels of fast," Gilbert muttered. "And it's better than sitting alone. Marginally. And it's better than going home. Admitting defeat and fleeing like some. Date. Coward."
Gilbert heard Ludwig rip the bread into smaller pieces. A bit of force behind the movement. He glanced at the other man out of the corner of his eye. Ludwig's eyes were averted.
Gilbert snorted and resumed his outside gazing.
"That pissed I'm dating? Mr. Practically-Engaged?"
"Even I'm not that petty, Gilbert," Ludwig mumbled. His fingers scratched against the linen tablecloth as he splayed them out. "Despite what you might think of me."
"Then why the gluten mangling."
Ludwig flicked a few crumbs of semolina off the table. The waitress chose that moment to come by and refill Gilbert's wine glass. He ignored it. His cheeks were already too warm and his head was starting to cloud again. Which was fine when he'd had humiliation to dull but in front of Ludwig… The thought made the primal anger in his gut bare its teeth and start to gnaw at the ignition lighter again.
"I. It just doesn't make sense to me. That's all," Ludwig said once the waitress had left.
A little jolt of irritation made Gilbert raise his head.
"What doesn't make sense?" he asked icily. "Again, me dating, or—"
"It doesn't make sense to me why someone would stand you up—I'm trying to compliment you here, Gilbert, could you at least meet me a quarter of the way? An eighth?" Ludwig said in exasperation. "You're a good—a reasonably attractive doctor. Clearly this specimen you've been set up with has no concept of normal—normal human attractive levels. Or job credentials. Maybe you should've given him your CV first."
Gilbert fell quiet, unsure how to respond. As much as he wanted to chalk up the little compliment to Ludwig's blood-alcohol levels, something in his tone and the sober spark in his eye made it hard to attribute everything to the bottle of wine sitting in the pool of ice water to his left.
"Yeah well… guess not everyone sees me like you do," he finally muttered, slumping back against his chair. "My impeccable bone structure does, I'm told, make me look a bit inbre—ah."
An uncomfortable silence fell over the table. Gilbert cursed his stupid mouth. Digging up the core of their breakup wasn't—
Ludwig suddenly let out an ugly snort of laughter and quickly hid it behind his hand. Gilbert's eyes widened as he watched the other man dissolve into barely-contained… chortles. There really was no other word for it.
Gilbert sat up a bit straighter, still watching Ludwig. After a few seconds he grabbed half of the roll and lightly tossed it at Ludwig's arm.
"Get a hold of yourself. This is a fancy establishment."
"Says the one sitting like a sulking kindergartner in his chair," Ludwig said after a few calming breaths. He grabbed his water glass and downed half of it before resting his elbows on the table and fixing Gilbert with an amused look.
"Poor word choice, I assume?"
"You assume right," Gilbert said slowly. "But now I'm left wondering if perhaps it wasn't so terrible. Since I don't seem to be sporting a bruised ego and ruptured eardrums like the last time I dared joke about our… genetic situation."
Ludwig winced, the smile immediately falling from his face. His fingers returned to gathering crumbs of semolina.
"…I do—I, ah. Owe you… many. Many apologies for that," he said softly. "I won't give them now, though, if you don't mind. The wine makes them taste a little insincere, I think."
"Apologies for what, Ludwig. Being related to me or kicking me out of your life like a kid erasing an Etch-a-Sketch?" Gilbert said. "Because one of those things, I regret to inform you, is sadly out of both of our control—"
"The latter, the latter. Don't be smart when I'm trying to be sincere," Ludwig said in mild exasperation. He ran his fingers through his hair and let out a quick breath. "Honestly I—they're long overdue. But I was afraid that if I extended the olive branch you'd grab it and beat me senseless with it so I've been a little…chary."
"Chary," Gilbert repeated. "Meaning afraid?"
"Oh, petrified, yes," Ludwig said. His lips quirked up into a little half-smile, and he glanced up at Gilbert, his eyes bloodshot and tired.
"Your aim really is quite good. I had an iPhone shaped bruise on my forehead for weeks."
"Yeah well—guess any object in my hand becomes a homing device for targeting assholish individuals," Gilbert mumbled, the smile making his insides squirm in ways that he feared were quite a distance from loathing or any of its emotional cousins.
He cleared his throat and picked up his wine glass for something to do.
"So that's what the text messages were? Olive branches?"
"Twigs, really," Ludwig said. "Smaller ammunition. That, and the side of me that's been slowly realizing the true extent of the damage I did is something of a glutton for punishment, so the flurry of 'fuck you's and 'go to hell's was… welcomed isn't right. Appreciated, I guess."
"Oh don't tell me that—don't take damning you away from me too. It's the only hobby I've got left," Gilbert said. His cheeks flushed a light pink when Ludwig burst out laughing again. He'd forgotten what Ludwig's tipsy laughter sounded like. It was so young and uninhibited. Rosy like the wine in his glass.
"Apologies. I can pretend to hate hearing from you, if you'd rather," Ludwig said once he'd calmed down.
"No—no, that's okay," Gilbert mumbled. "I—"
"Are you ready to order?"
Gilbert ground his teeth in mild frustration. Waitress. She must have been trained in some sort of conversation-interrupting espionage. Gilbert grabbed the menu while Ludwig rattled off his order but he was too flustered to read the thing properly. He could feel the waitress and Ludwig staring at him. He met Ludwig's eyes over the top of the menu and before he really could stop himself, he found himself asking, "What would I like?" An old question. One he'd asked Ludwig hundreds of times when they'd gone out together in the past.
The look of surprise and happiness that flitted across Ludwig's face didn't help settle Gilbert's stomach any. Ludwig picked up the menu again and scanned it before saying softly, "The caramelized duck with braised asparagus. I think."
"That, then," Gilbert said, closing the menu. "And a Fanta. Whatever your most obnoxiously-colored one is."
"…Of course, sir."
Gilbert ignored the slight hint of judgment in the waitress' voice as he handed the menus over. He waited until she was gone to speak again.
"So. Abandoned by ol' Dicky. Shame."
"Abandoned's not quite right," Ludwig said, his tone souring a bit. "Now that she's feeling up to it Richard is hosting Sarah's coming home party and he forgot he'd scheduled this with me earlier and neglected to tell me the change in plans until I'd already sat down—"
"And you aren't welcome at the little family celebration?"
Blue eyes flashed with mild anger. Ludwig pressed his lips together for a moment before muttering, "I know I said I'm welcoming of your little jabs but maybe you could keep them to less-than-lethal levels. At least in public."
Gilbert crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back in his chair.
"She really does hate you."
Ludwig's shoulders slumped.
"And her dad doesn't seem too keen on fixing that. A move suitable to his stupid name."
Ludwig glanced up at Gilbert in surprise.
"That a parent should try and foster a bridge between his offspring and current dating person?" Gilbert said slowly. "Like any rational person would? Yes." He snorted. "Although considering your dating history, rational' is a bar that's probably a bit too high—"
"Can I—I don't mean to make this about me but…"
Ludwig trailed off, fiddling with his napkin. Gilbert waited as patiently as he could for Ludwig to resume his thought. But Ludwig was sinking deeper and deeper into introspective brooding. And something about Ludwig's expression or the way his large, clumsy fingers were deftly ripping at a loose thread in his napkin made empathy grab hold of Gilbert's ribs again. Kept his heart from racing. Snaked its way up his spine to nestle in his brain and whisper old things at him. Pre-devastation and hurt. Little shadows of what he would have done before his sympathy centers had been so thoroughly razed.
Ludwig was still staring at the table. His hair was falling out of its normally slicked-back style. His breaths were becoming mechanically even. Signs Gilbert recognized as Ludwig struggling to keep himself even and calm. And failing.
Gilbert felt his body move on auto-pilot. Following whatever empathy had programmed into his brain.
He lightly nudged Ludwig's shin. Even that bit of physical contact was enough to make him retract in on himself again. He hadn't acknowledged Ludwig as a real, concrete presence in a long, long time. Not since they'd last touched. Well before he'd been Etch-A-Sketch erased out of Ludwig's life.
"That whole 'psychic twins' thing was debunked pretty thoroughly, Ludwig," he said, his voice shaking in spite of his affected nonchalance. "You're going to have to string at least half a coherent thought together for me to make an attempt at communication. And I really—I am willing to attempt. At least while we're here."
Ludwig flinched and raised his head, his expression shocked and grateful and wary. The distrust in his eyes made Gilbert shove empathy out of the pilot's seat to let irritation take the reins again for a bit.
"Just spit it out, Ludwig, holy fuck. Does every conversation with you that isn't text-based have to take on soap-opera levels of drama?"
Ludwig winced, but for a moment looked refreshingly exasperated again.
"Sorry. I—Can I just… vent? For a bit? About it?" Ludwig dragged a hand down his face. "'It' being the whole… Richard and family situation. I wouldn't ask but I've no one to talk to. And you know Sarah, and—"
It was what Gilbert had been expecting. Which was half-relief, half-boring.
Ludwig peered at Gilbert through his fingers. Like a timid, caged animal. It was a off-putting.
"…Really? And… why?"
"Really, Ludwig? Really it's because as ambivalent as I feel towards you I really, really dislike who you're dating even more," Gilbert said icily. "Sarah's a cute kid and it's clear her dad loves her but he's a shitty parent. You don't send a nanny to pick up a six year old from the fuckin' hospital. I don't think he came to see her even once. You were there until they kicked you out. So no, I don't mind you dragging Dicksalot through the mud."
"…Not that… not that this matters any but he really doesn't like the nickname 'Dick'—"
"God-willing I am never going to meet this guy so I think I'm going to call him whatever I want." Gilbert lightly hit Ludwig's shin again, feeing suddenly emboldened. "So. Spill. I'm learning all kinds of active listening bullshit from my therapist. May as well test it out."
Ludwig started at that.
"You're seeing a ther—"
"Another conversation. Right now we're talking about Dicky."
Ludwig met his gaze and held it for a long moment before he nodded.
"Fine," he said quietly. "For the record, though, I'm. Proud of you. For what it's worth."
Gilbert took a moment to stamp out the warmth that was pooling in his gut before he said, "It isn't worthless. For what that's worth. Now spill." He smirked and picked up his wine glass again. "Does he make you call him 'daddy'? Is that where this is confessional is leading?"
Ludwig's eyes flew wide open in horror.
"What—no!" he stammered. "No, god… no. He's… I'm not sure why I'm telling you this but he's really… standard. Bedroom-wise."
"What?" Gilbert snorted. "You should definitely tell me that. That's amazing."
"It's really not, actually."
Gilbert felt his lips twitch up into a grin.
"So nothing like when we were in Belize and—"
"No! No not even a tenth—a microscopic fraction of that," Ludwig said. His ears and cheeks were flushed but the corners of his mouth were slowly morphing into a smile. "He mostly just lies there like a recently-gutted tuna. Sometimes he'll emit a grunt but—"
Gilbert pressed a hand over his face, his shoulders shaking with a sudden jolt of laughter. He could tell the other diners in their little sequestered area were staring at them but he was hard-pressed to care. He heard Ludwig chuckle.
"Is it really that funny?"
"V-Vindicatingly so, yes," Gilbert said once he'd caught his breath. He let out one last exhale before forcing himself to calm down. He waved his hand.
"You were saying? Before the uh. Unfortunate seafood simile."
Ludwig's large fingers twirled the delicate stemware in his hand. A pensive frown tugged at his thin lips.
"Sometimes I think," he said slowly, carefully, "that I'm… something of a trophy boyfriend. Which isn't—god that's not me thinking highly of my looks or anything—"
"I more than anyone, I'd wager, know full well the extent of your self-loathing when it comes to your appearance," Gilbert said dryly. "Don't forget who you're talking to, please, or I'm going to get irritated."
"Ah—right, sorry," Ludwig mumbled. He hunched in on himself a bit more. Gilbert felt empathy dig its talons into his brain again. Had Ludwig been alone in the restaurant as long as he had? Longer? The ice in the chill bucket was looking like global warming had long gotten to it. Polar bears drowning. That sort of thing.
…Probably a while, then…
"…So, trophy boyfriend?" he said, nudging Ludwig's leg once more. That, at least, felt safe. "If that's the case why didn't he show up tonight? Kind of pointless to have a trophy if you're just going to send it off to a restaurant without any sort of plaque or... un…attributed…this metaphor is running away from me."
"I told you," Ludwig said quietly. "It's Sarah's day. She gets priority. Richard, he—he was very clear about that. That family was… it takes priority. Which I understand, of course, and… and I respect it. Especially since Sarah's not fond of me—"
"She'd be fonder, probably, if her dad didn't ban you from all family fun time," Gilbert pointed out. "Really—can I be frank?" He didn't bother to wait for Ludwig to finish nodding. He drained his wine and set the glass gently on the table. His slight buzz was starting to wear off.
"I don't get why you're with him. Which isn't jealous ex talking or protective older brother talking—"
"Still really not comfortable with those two things being mentioned in the same breath," Ludwig muttered.
"—just an objective observer." Gilbert grabbed his fork and brandished it at Ludwig. "And shut up. I've had over a year of conversation simulations where I practice feigning indifference to that particular trauma. I deserve to show off my honed ability to disassociate."
Ludwig lifted his head slightly, and Gilbert could see the fight in his eyes. But he looked away without saying anything.
Gilbert propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward.
"So. What is it. Why're you with him." He raised an eyebrow. "Does ol'Dicky have a huge one?"
Ludwig made a little face and shook his head.
"I think I've divulged enough about my boyfriend's anatomy."
"Can't be the money," Gilbert mused. He stared off into space, thinking. "Or prestige. Considering your job, you're practically slumming it with—what's he do again?"
"Ugh. Just buy him a copy of Ayn Rand and he'll be so thrilled you'll be invited to all of Sarah's birthday parties or whatever."
"He's safe, Gilbert." Ludwig crossed his arms over his chest, a scowl on his lips. "That's the big mystery behind my dating him. To spare you further guesswork."
Gilbert stared at Ludwig, torn between disgust and pity. "…The secret is that he's boring?" he said. "You're dating this prick because he's dull? You can't be serious. And honestly, as far as secrets go? Not much of one."
"It really shouldn't be that surprising given my dating history," Ludwig said. "Our breakup was bad enough, but it's not like my other ones were any better. Francis? He tried to sell personal information about me to the BBC. And that was before we broke up. My college boyfriend turned out to be in some… repugnant fight club—"
"That you then joined."
"Under duress!" Ludwig swiped his fingers through his hair again. "Point is, Richard is stable. Stable job, stable family—his ex wife, also stable. Maid, chauffeur, cook, coworkers, daughter—all stable. All speak very highly of him. It was ni—it is nice. To have that sort of stability and not have to worry about the fallout."
Gilbert watched Ludwig take another sip of his wine. His hand was trembling. Gilbert wanted to ask, if nothing else than just to see how much the man's hand would shake, if Ludwig had ever thought that about him. Them.
He felt the scar on his palm and quickly abandoned the idea. Ludwig may have been stable. The rock holding their relationship steady. Gilbert, on the other hand, clearly had never been.
And come to think of it, towards the end Ludwig had been less bedrock and more Andreas Fault.
Instead Gilbert plastered a grin on his face and drawled, "He has a cook and a maid? You must be dying inside with your domestic sciences compulsions so denied to you."
Ludwig gave Gilbert a strange look before he let out a soft 'ah' and said, "We aren't living together, if that's what you're implying."
"It is what I'm very, very heavily insinuating, yes," Gilbert said, hiding his surprise. " I thought I'd have to lean on you a bit more to extract that particular bit of information, honestly."
Ludwig shook his head and fiddled with his wine glass.
"You're not the first to make that mistake," he said. "Although you, ah… you are the first person I've… I've corrected." He groaned and pressed a hand against his face. "It's guilt that's doing this to me, I know it. Turning our little… rendezvous into some sort of. Confessional."
"I mean— I don't mind if you tell me all your tedious suburbia secrets, Ludwig, I really don't, but…" Gilbert hesitated and then reached out to lightly tap his finger against the wine bottle in the chiller.
"It's going to be a wee bit… awkward. If your little divulgences turn out to be nothing more than the product of this. And I don't have enough… ire or whatever left in me to actually get a kick out of you humiliating yourself to someone you once were content to never see again." He let out a little breath and muttered, "If nothing else this is just me trying to prove to myself—and you I guess maybe—that I've… I'm. You know. Letting go. Let go. I've released—unclenched my talons. From around—this—this is just. Awkward just tell me what's wrong with Richard."
Gilbert snagged the bottle of wine and poured himself another glass. The waitress chose that moment to bring by their appetizers which was a welcome distraction from his insane ramblings. Gilbert snagged a little… egg… pie. Looking thing and slouched down in his chair, gnawing at it.
Ludwig was quiet, staring at him from underneath hooded eyelids. He lightly hit his fingernail against his wine glass.
"It is partially this talking," he said quietly. "But more than that it's… I've. Realized something." His eyes slid to the side, gaze fixating on some far-off point outside of the glass.
"The real secret—the only thing about Richard really is that he's nothing like you. Every little thing I can complain about or praise him for boils down to that. He doesn't let me close to Sarah. You always let me help with visitation at the hospital. He never texts first. I ran out of data when I was dating you from all the stupid… the videos and snap… whatevers that you would send. He won't… he doesn't want me in his home. You wouldn't let me leave."
Ludwig's lips twisted up into an empty smile.
"And I know this has turned from confessional to… to some. Reality TV horror but that's really all there is to it."
He glanced at Gilbert, his blue eyes distant.
"I think I miss you," he said simply. "I have missed you. And I've no… earthly idea. At all. What to do about it. Other than to send you the stupid sorts of texts you'd send me. The one thing I could think of that wouldn't… hurt."
"That wouldn't hurt you, you mean," Gilbert said, another flare-up of irritation taking over. "Because I'm sure your lizard brain is just big enough to extrapolate what it was like for me getting those first few texts—"
"I know," Ludwig said quickly, his face paling. "I know. It was selfish. I was so angry when I saw you in the hospital but after that faded and I was sitting there alone next to Sarah's bed I remembered all those nights I spent waiting in your office and how I never… I never was irritated or impatient. I was so content to just… wait. And I'd never thought about it—never had a reason to think about it until then. But since we… since we parted ways, I… I've not been able to wait for anything. Not like I could then."
Gilbert pressed his lips together and did his best not to react to the absolute babbling spewing out of Ludwig's mouth.
"…So you missed sitting in my office and dicking around on your phone."
"No—no, Gilbert." Ludwig let out a little breath and half-heartedly pushed a bruschetta around on his plate. "I missed. Being so in love with something that it didn't matter where I was or how long I had to wait. That kind of—"
Ludwig lifted his gaze slightly and nodded.
"Devotion," he echoed quietly and then fell silent.
Gilbert twirled his fork around between his fingers as he studied Ludwig. The man did look forlorn. Like a lost dog. Lost wolf, actually, Ludwig wasn't that helpless or fang-less…
Gilbert set down his fork and grabbed another mini quiche.
"Well," he said, "you're welcome to come and wait in my office. If you're ever in the neighborhood and are legitimately that bored."
Ludwig's head snapped up at that. He stared at Gilbert, mouth agape.
"Wh—you'd let me in your office?" he said. "Why?"
"Why?" Gilbert shrugged, trying to appear as relaxed as humanly possible without reaching catatonic levels of inactivity. Meanwhile his heart was trying to jam its way through his ribs in protest. "The only person who'd really notice your presence is Bel. And she's too busy sucking face with Eliza lately to—"
"Wait—wait, wait," Ludwig interrupted. "Bel? And Eliza? Your nurse Bel?"
"She's really more like the people's nurse," Gilbert said. "But yeah, her. And Eliza."
"Couple weeks. Month and a half, maybe. Got together a little bit before Sarah broke her leg."
A troubled look crossed Ludwig's face. His eyes softened with sympathy.
"That must have been hard. Is? Hard?"
"Like titanium." Gilbert licked crumbs off his fingers and then reached across the table to snag one of Ludwig's bruschetta. Ludwig didn't seem to mind—he even pushed the plate a bit closer to Gilbert with the tip of his finger.
"Did Eliza ever sit down and talk to you about it, or—"
"What? No," Gilbert scoffed, "She doesn't need my permission—"
"Of course not, but… she has to know it isn't easy," Ludwig said quietly. "Given how rough our… our breakup was. And your history with her…" He frowned. "God—none of your breakups have been easy either, have they."
"Nope." Gilbert stole another bruschetta. "Really not easy. Especially since it apparently takes half a fucking decade for me to stop being head-over-heels sick-to-my-stomach in love with someone."
Ludwig fell suddenly very quiet, his cheeks dusting slightly with pink. Gilbert realized too late what he'd confessed.
"I'm not—I mean that's how long it took for her," he said quickly. "Not… that timeline isn't a universal experience of mine or anything."
"…Oh." Ludwig folded his hands on the table. His back was ramrod straight. "So you're not… you don't feel like that about me anymore?"
The forced indifference in his voice made Gilbert grimace.
"Do you feel like that about me? Mr. 'I miss you'?" Gilbert shot back.
"Wh—I asked first," Ludwig said, some of the steely control leaving his posture.
"Oh what is this, kindergarten? Just answer the question, Schmidt."
"I'm dating—I have been dating for almost a year now—"
"As amazing and airtight as that evidence is, it probably won't hold up in court."
"Would you quit dodging and just answer the question?" Ludwig's face was flushed bright red. Even his ears were pink.
Gilbert pressed his lips together, trying to get a lid on his temper.
"Ludwig, I spent months carving your likeness out of potatoes, carrots, cucumbers—pretty much any food I could take a knife to—and took no small amount of joy from stabbing, slicing, or parboiling your smug potato face. So no, I wouldn't say I'm still in love with you. Any more than you are with me."
Ludwig remained perfectly still. Back still straight. Hands still neatly folded. But the red was gone from his face. His eyes were slightly unfocused. And all he said was an even, "I see."
"Good," Gilbert muttered. He grabbed another tart but found he couldn't really eat it. Vivisection it was, then. He spent a few moments sorting the shredded spinach and carrot and whatever white vegetable was crammed in there before he glanced up at Ludwig again. The blank look was still on his face, but at least he was eating. Or rather picking half-heartedly at the bruschetta.
Gilbert watched Ludwig sort the tomatoes and basil and then glanced down at his own plate of neatly organized vegetables. They really were related. Genetic impulse to sort and categorize everything, probably. Maybe their father had been some sort of. Professional sorter. Or an accountant. God that would be devastating. To have such… boring genes…
Gilbert suddenly paused, a horrible thought occurring to him with a sickening punch. He lifted his head and stared at Ludwig.
"Oh my god," he said, "You want me to still be in love with you."
Ludwig's cheeks regained a bit of color, but his blue eyes were disinterested when they met Gilbert's. "Hardly," he said.
"Then why the sudden silence?" Gilbert pressed. "Why the whole 'I miss you'? Why text me when you're supposed to be waiting for your boyfriend?"
"I can want to spend time with you without wanting you to still be in love with me," Ludwig snapped, his face growing redder. "Last I checked those weren't mutually reliant situations."
Gilbert sat back in his chair. Ludwig looked ready for a fight. Embarrassed and cornered. Gilbert felt the urge to be the better man voice its quiet concerns, and for once he indulged them. He picked up his water glass and said a non-committal "I guess that's true."
"Thank you," Ludwig said after a moment's pause. "And sorry—I didn't… sorry I snapped. Sensitive topic, still."
"Clearly," Gilbert muttered into his glass. Ludwig must have heard him but he was gracious enough not to reply. Gilbert studied Ludwig over the rim of his glass. The waitress came by with their entrées but he didn't so much as look at his. Once she was gone he lightly nudged Ludwig's leg again. It was almost habit now. This time, though, Ludwig didn't flinch. He remained perfectly, carefully still. Save for a slight trembling of his fingers. A curling of his lips that quickly faded away into a carefully-schooled expression.
Gilbert filed that away for later.
He sat back in his chair once more.
"You and Dick exchanged mushy sentiments yet?"
"…Several," Ludwig said, raising an eyebrow before glancing back down at his food. "Depends on the level of mush in question."
"Pretty much what we were just talking about." Gilbert tilted his head to the side. "He say he loves you?"
Ludwig fell still for a bit, but then he nodded. Very slightly.
"Month in," he said quietly. "But don't bother getting depre—having any sort of reaction to that. It was a perfunctory thing. Like telling your dog groomer."
"…You tell your dog groomer you lo—"
"Recognize the hyperbole and accept it without comment. That's all I ask."
Gilbert made a zipping gesture over his lips and then resumed half-heartedly picking at his duck. Ludwig's clipped tone and hunched posture were giving him second thoughts about being there. With Ludwig, looking like they were on a date. Or at the very least, very, very close business colleagues.
Gilbert set his fork down and propped his elbows up on the table.
"…Can I ask you one last question?"
Ludwig nodded without looking up.
"When he told you. Did you return the sentiment?"
Ludwig paused for a moment and then resumed eating. His movements were tired and mechanical. He chewed his bite and swallowed.
"Yes. I did. It was a bit awkward, I have to admit."
Gilbert felt his insides go cold. The little bite of duck he'd taken threatened to make an encore performance. He fiddled with his knife and was scrambling to come up with something clever to say in return when he realized Ludwig wasn't done speaking.
"Very awkward. But not as awkward as when I had to correct myself, though."
Gilbert sat up straighter, his curiosity piqued.
"Correct? To… what, exactly? 'I lathe you'? 'I loathe you'? A classic, that one."
"No—god, no even I'm not that far gone," Ludwig muttered. "I meant… when I told him it was just as perfunctory as his confession had been. Because he'd gotten all worked up and… genuine. About it. For a few moments. Which was honestly a little off-putting…"
"Off-putting… because it was too soon?" Gilbert guessed, in full-fledged gossip mode now. He leaned forward, steadfastly ignoring how dry his eyes were becoming in favor of staring eagerly at Ludwig.
Ludwig seemed reluctant to stare back. Or even meet his gaze.
"It… I wouldn't say it was too soon," he said after a moment. "Just not what I'd wanted to hear, exactly. I'd thought—our relationship up until that point had been mostly physical. I hadn't even met Sarah. We'd spend the nights at my place or… or even at a hotel. A few nights. So when emotion suddenly entered the picture… I had no idea what to do. I was utterly flummoxed. So my mouth just sort of… responded in kind. Even though that wasn't at all what I'd originally wanted or intended…"
"So you didn't want an emotional relationship? At all?" Gilbert asked, doing his best to hide his eagerness and relief.
Ludwig shook his head and picked at his plate with his eyes downcast.
"None of my other ones were," he said quietly. "After you, I mean. I didn't—… I couldn't. Would be more of an accurate way to start."
Ludwig finally glanced up, his expression slightly annoyed.
"You're really hell-bent on wresting this from me, aren't you."
"What can I say. I delight in your discomfort and angst," Gilbert said. He realized, with a guilt-ridden jolt, however, that he owed Ludwig a bit more than that. Maybe. New phone in his pocket said as much anyway. The dozens of polite text messages said so too.
He chewed over his words for a moment before saying carefully, "And I can't… deny. That a part of me is glad you're as emotionally… hollowed out as I am. After it… yeah." He snorted quietly and muttered, "Or you were, anyway. Sounds like you've gotten over your dislike of Richard having emotions around you. And towards you. Maybe that's what's filled you out. Made you less… cavernous like I am."
He heard Ludwig suck in a sharp breath. Then a quiet, "Oh, Gilbert..."
Gilbert continued to stare out the window, feeling the color slowly drain from his face. He'd said too much. The little pity in Ludwig's voice. The self-loathing. The desire to fix it he could hear bubbling just underneath the surface. All prime indicators that once again he'd idiotically showed his hand to the one person who knew better than anyone else just how to win against it.
"It's fine," he muttered. "You don't have to say my name like I'm some sort of tuberculosis patient eking out their last in an iron lung. Shouldn't be surprising that what you did to me—what circumstance did to me and that you then hammered home—left me feeling gutted. Or if you are surprised then you're about a billion times denser than I'd given you credit for. And right now I have you sitting at about an iridium level. Little more and you'll have scientists flocking to study you."
He kept his gaze fixed on the street past the window. He knew if he looked over at Ludwig the other man's eyes would be soft with pity. The same look he used to wear any time Gilbert had talked about his childhood.
"I'm not looking for an apology or anything. By the way," Gilbert said. "I'm not sure I'm even at a stage where I'd believe one. But it… I'm…"He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. "Terrible at words, apparently."
He faced Ludwig again, trying to keep himself from flinching or looking away. His stomach was starting to do that curdling thing. The acid building that would spread to his nerves and his tongue. Make his limbs twitchy and his mouth liable to say shit he only half meant. Truths that were expanded into the inflatable lies that carved his world. Molded it out of the terrible cocktail of chemical affect that ruled his life.
"I'm tired of being angry. That's what I wanted—what I'm trying to say. And I'm really fucking mad because my goddamn therapist said I would get tired of feeling angry and I really, really wanted to prove her wrong. For some perverse reason. But all that said, I… ah…"
He swallowed heavily, wanting so badly to look out the window again. Ludwig was calmly meeting his gaze, but the bit of red surrounding the man's blue irises was easy enough to notice. If the slight creaking of his chair as he shifted his weight wasn't indication enough that Ludwig wanted to leave. Be anywhere else. Be a harmless text message where he couldn't get hurt.
Gilbert felt himself stand before he really knew what he was doing. He stared down at Ludwig, who was starting to appear visibly agitated instead of subtly distressed.
"I should go," he said, not wanting to go.
He grabbed his bag all the same, compelled to follow through with his panicked nonsense if nothing else. He had a grim feeling that perhaps that was why he'd wanted to hang on to the anger for so long. Anger was singular and simple. He didn't have to think about the nuances of anything else. Anger could simply be. A one note fuel that pushed him out of bed in the morning, helped him ignore the sickly sweet love notes and phone calls between Eliza and Bel that were growing day by day. And anger was how he should feel. Disgust and anger. That was right, that was good, that was what any rational person would harbor and nurture. It's what Ludwig had done. The most rational person he knew.
But this. Whatever it was that was making him grab his bag and throw a few bills down on the table. He didn't know how to name it or what it wanted from him. And that—even more than Ludwig sitting across the table from him—was terrifying.
Gilbert turned on his heel, his bag hitting him on the backside with the abruptness of the motion.
Gilbert's bag hit him again when Ludwig's fingers around his wrist stopped him in his tracks.
Gilbert yanked his arm out of Ludwig's grip immediately, panic seizing his lungs. That emotion he could name. Pure panic. The kind that made him gasp, "Don't touch me!" and startle perfectly innocuous restaurant diners with his outburst.
Ludwig immediately let go, his hands held up in a gesture of surrender.
"Sorry—sorry, I… I shouldn't have done that."
Gilbert eyed Ludwig warily, his heart still pounding in his chest. The last time Ludwig had touched him had been soft. A little brush of fingertips against the nape of his neck. That had been on the ride to the halfway house. Before the letter. The one positive memory of Ludwig as a physical being Gilbert had held onto. And now it was, more or less, completely shattered.
He stood up a bit straighter, irrational anger making its appearance again.
Ludwig opened his mouth a few times, obviously trying to respond and coming up empty. He finally shook his head and took a little step backwards.
"It's nothing. I'm really… really sorry, Gilbert. You can take your money back. Dinner's on me." He quirked a little smile at Gilbert. "Compensation for you getting stood up. We'll say."
"I don't need your pity dinner or your dodging," Gilbert said coldly. "What were you going to say that was so important it warranted manhandling me."
Ludwig fell silent for a few painful moments before he cleared his throat.
"I was—I was going to ask if you wanted to leave and maybe… go get a pizza instead."
"No. Unfortunately," Ludwig deadpanned. "I'm aware how pathetically teen movie that move is, but." He sighed and pressed a hand against his face. "I really don't want to be here any longer. But I didn't—I didn't want to leave you. So if you're leaving anyway, I… I honestly have no idea why I thought you' be interested in prolonging what is clearly an experience neighboring on torture for you—"
"You're not Bond-villain-y enough for it to be anywhere in the realm of torture," Gilbert muttered. He worried at his lip, studying Ludwig as subtly as he could.
"…When you say pizza do—were you thinking more. Fancy woodburning oven type. Or dive joint thin slices of grease."
"Oh the latter for sure," Ludwig said without pause. "Honestly I've had my share of—"
For a moment, Gilbert wasn't sure if Ludwig had heard him. The other man turned to face him, blue eyes unreadable. Then slowly, very slowly they widened. A subtle smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
"Yes. Apparently." Gilbert fiddled with his bag strap, anxiety threatening to take over again. "Assume, though, that I have no idea why I said yes. Treat me as you would a sentient, tranquilized badger. Very disoriented, very unsure and just praying it'll have a good time before it is inevitably betrayed by its handlers."
"Yeah it's this kid's show thing—I've been spending too much time in the recovery ward. Please put some bills on the table so we can just go and forget about this little exchange," Gilbert muttered, gesturing towards the table.
Ludwig immediately pulled out his wallet and threw some bills on the table.
"Should I stuff the rest of the appetizers in my bag? Or would people assume we're dining and dashing?"
"Considering you just plunked a Kilimanjaro's worth of paper money on the table, I think they're going to assume you're a banknote forger," Gilbert said, eyeing the stack of bills, "The comments about appetizer pilfering will be a fun little side note in the newspaper expose."
He hiked his bag over his shoulder and started for the exit, trusting that Ludwig would follow.
Outside the damp spring air made Gilbert shiver. He waited for Ludwig to catch up and took advantage of that opportunity to ask himself what the fuck he was doing. He wasn't an expert in the sort of fields Doctor Laika and her ilk roamed in, but he was pretty sure following up an anger-succumbing moment (or almost one) with a promise to get a slice of New York style greaseball pizza with your former abuser counted among the long list of Dumb Shit he'd done in his mid-ranged life.
He winced and mentally scratched out the word "abuser." Ludwig had been many things, but that was taking it a bit far.
He realized then that he was walking off in an random direction. Rather aimlessly. He stopped and let Ludwig catch up a bit.
"So why the sudden craving for garbage pizza?" he asked. "Richard not let it into his home?"
"Pretty much," Ludwig said. "You remember those little frozen pizzas we used to get as hangover cures? The ones that were roughly one-fourteenth the price of every other frozen pizza—"
"—and tasted more like a grease-soaked piece of cardboard than anything? I remember. Not exactly fond memories, but."
"Well I pointed one of those out to Richard when we were grocery shopping once and told him that and he was…. disgusted doesn't even begin to cover it. Appalled."
"Over cheap pizza?"
"He said he didn't understand me sometimes." Ludwig's expression turned pinched. "And he accused me of… basically he accused me of putting on airs. Of not actually being who I say I am or… something like that. I honestly don't remember. He was a little tipsy and I was too startled to respond properly. It—… he… Richard. Has a very… particular way of…"
Ludwig trailed off. After a moment he shook his head.
"Never mind. Antonio's okay with you? I haven't been there in forever so it's entirely possible they've finally broken the requisite number of health code violations and been shut down."
"Antonio's is fine. Walking distance, good enough," Gilbert said. He glanced at Ludwig out of the corner of his eye. Ludwig's expression was frustratingly unreadable. His jaw was set but that could mean anything. Soccer match too nail-bitingly close. Store out of his favorite brand of beer. Boyfriend an emotionally abusive dickhole.
"You'd tell someone, right?" Gilbert found himself asking. "If you were in some sort of trouble or pain? You'd tell a coworker or your mom or your therapist."
Ludwig continued walking for a few moments silent. Finally he shook his head.
"I really can't," he said with a little shrug. "I'd like to but… quite frankly I'm terrified that I'll slip up and confess something I really shouldn't."
"Us," Ludwig corrected. He rubbed the back of his neck. "If it were just you there'd be no problem."
"Is it really that shameful that the mere thought of letting something slip keeps you from talking about anything?" Gilbert asked. He didn't bother to scrub the bitterness out of his words.
Ludwig raised an eyebrow.
"So I'm to assume you've told your therapist everything?"
Gilbert's stomach clenched. He debated lying for a moment but he knew Ludwig would be able to read him instantly. Ludwig didn't give him time to respond before spoke again.
"And shameful isn't the word I'd use."
Gilbert lifted his head in surprise and glanced up at Ludwig. Ludwig's cheeks were flushed but he gave Gilbert an askance look.
"It's not either of our faults," Ludwig said quietly. "It's taken me a long time to understand that, but—"
"It took you a long time to understand that?" Gilbert felt his blood pressure start to rise again. "It took you months to understand that we're not at fault for being related? For not being able to guess that we're blood relatives before we started dating? That's your big soul-searching result?" The bitter residue in his words that had been clamoring for validation floated to the surface, and Gilbert gladly indulged it. He stopped in his tracks and turned to face Ludwig, his lips curled up in an angry snarl.
"Ludwig—for fuck's sake how was that something you even had to struggle with?! There's no possible fucking way we would have known or even had that worry on our goddamn radar unless we were living on a tiny island off the coast of Greenland or something where the population is five and the danger of inbreeding already pretty much a given!"
"I know—I know, Gilbert, I know," Ludwig said in obvious frustration. "Logically I've known that this whole time but—"
"But what, Ludwig? I cannot believe that a bit of genetic trivia was a huge revelatory experience for you!"
"But if it's not anyone's fault then that means I destroyed us over next to nothing!" Ludwig snapped, his fingers burying in his hair. "It means I might not be a monster for how I feel about you but I can't—I can't accept that. Part of me wants to be monstrous for what I did and for all the things I can't just… cut away."
Gilbert took an instinctive step away from Ludwig. His heart was sitting somewhere around his kidneys. Slowly thumping against his organs.
Ludwig's head was turned away from him. He hugged his suit coat draped over his arm. The few pedestrians walking down the little side street they were on were skirting them a wide berth. Quickening their paces until the last hurried past them.
Gilbert waited in the silence that followed. Counting to ten. Again. And again. And again.
"I'm so sorry."
Ludwig's words were barely a whisper. Gilbert almost missed them.
"Stop it," Gilbert said, ashamed that his voice was shaking. "I don't want to talk honestly about this. Make it into a joke, jokes I can handle. I've been practicing—"
Ludwig looked up at him, his expression unreadable.
"I won't lie to you," he said softly. "You don't deserve that."
"Don't deserve—you're damn fucking right I 'don't deserve' to be lied to, Ludwig, why the fuck would you say that?" Gilbert ran his fingers through his hair to try and keep himself calm but it wasn't really working.
And then what Ludwig had said, all the syllables and sounds and pain of it, fell softly into place inside his ribs.
He lowered his hand like a lead weight was dragging it down. His whole body felt heavy. He stared up at Ludwig. Took a small, shuffling step forward.
"How you feel?" he asked. "Present tense?"
Ludwig's shoulders stiffened. He took a step away from Gilbert, looking hunted. He opened his mouth as though he wanted to say something, and then abruptly closed it with an audible click.
Gilbert wrapped his arms around himself, his skin clammy and cold as he waited for Ludwig to answer. To say anything. But all Ludwig did for a long, long while, was hang his head, and let his arms fall to his sides.
Gilbert watched Ludwig in his stillness. He could practically see the walls being built. Moat excavated. Filled with crocodiles and piranha and the horrible things Ludwig had spat at him in their last few days together.
He retreated. It wasn't worth the pain.
Instead he rolled his shoulders and moved forward to lightly kick Ludwig's shin.
"If you're done petrifying yourself with shitty-phrasing disease can we go? I didn't eat lunch in anticipation of a stupid fancy meal. The role of which will now be played by its god-awful understudy."
Ludwig gave a small nod and started walking again. His back was still hunched and fingers still clutched around his bag. Gilbert couldn't see his expression, but it must have been pretty bad. Pedestrians were avoiding him like oil in water.
Gilbert let the silence envelop them for a while, but finally the jittery nerves twitching under his skin made him rip it apart again.
"Do you want me to treat you like a monster? I can. I've got a veritable warehouse full of resentment and angst I've been stockpiling. I'd be glad to put it to use instead of waiting for it to explode and evaporate the rest of my crumbling interpersonal relationships."
Ludwig let out a heavy breath through his nose. Like a bull deciding if charging was worth it or if it couldn't handle another spear through the back.
"…It used to be what I wanted," he said quietly. He turned his head and flashed Gilbert an empty smile. "But you have a way of making your kindness horribly addictive."
Gilbert felt his cheeks grow red. He quickly looked away, his throat tightening.
"It's damn near impossible to monsterize you when you say shit like that."
"I'm not trying to be un-monstrous."
"I know. That's kind of the problem I'm having," Gilbert muttered. He straightened up and continued on. He could see the dim, spluttering light of Antonio's neon sign a half a block ahead. It was the closest pizza place to his station. He and Ludwig had gone there often. Some (Eliza) would say too often.
The wooden door was covered in half-torn stickers and long, pale scratches where the stain had been scraped away. The handle was sticky when Gilbert grabbed it. He made a face and Ludwig laughed quietly.
"It's probably just dried beer."
"That doesn't make it better."
Gilbert yanked the door open and then let out a groan. The place was packed. Several large, loud groups of sports fans occupied the bar area, and the back dining seemed to be taken over by some teenager's birthday. The mid-thirties host seemed rattled when he addressed them.
"There's a twenty minute table wait. You can put your name down here."
A clipboard was tossed in their direction before the guy scuttled off to the bar again.
Gilbert stared at the clipboard and then glanced up at Ludwig, one eyebrow raised.
"Where would we eat it?"
"Yeah sure. I love sitting on used heroine needles while I'm trying to hork down a pizza before the tetanus sets in."
Ludwig pressed his lips together.
"You've gotten more sarcastic."
"Just your imagination."
Gilbert fell quiet, trying to think. Not much else was open in the neighborhood. Last trains ran early that night. The only thing that was really close…
His stomach gave a little lurch. He tried to remember if he'd done the dishes. Or if his room still had his depression nest of blankets or if he'd remembered to straighten it up before Bel came over and saw.
And all of that flashed across his thoughts before he even could consider what a terrible, horrible idea it was to invite Ludwig to his home. But it was late and he was hungry and two mini egg tart things weren't enough to provide him with the rational thought he needed to realize what a terrible, horrible idea it was.
"We could go to my place."
Despite the terrible, horribleness, the look of utter shock on Ludwig's face was almost worth it. Ludwig hesitated, his eyes narrowing.
"Am… am I meant to laugh?" he asked cautiously.
Gilbert shrugged and looked away, his heart racing so quickly he was sure Ludwig could hear it.
"If you find the idea of mid-income housing funny, I guess."
He realized he was scratching his arm with his raggedly clipped nails (god he needed to cut them he was so gross when was the last time he'd properly taken care of himself) and then risked a glance up at Ludwig, feeling… vulnerable.
"No—by which I mean no, not… not no," Ludwig said too quickly, thankfully missing Gilbert's expression of relief. "I just—I don't… I don't really follow your logic—"
"My logic is I'm hungry and my house is close by and if we put an order in now we can eat in thirty minutes," Gilbert said, partially trying to convince himself of the idea.
"But what about Eliza? If she saw me there—"
Gilbert groaned and raked a hand down his face. Fucking Eliza. Of course. She'd gossip him to death…
He pulled out his phone and without letting himself think about it pressed the picture of her face in his contacts. It started to ring. She picked up quickly, which meant she was walking somewhere. Probably with Bel.
/Gil? Hey! Bel and I are on our way to a movie. Midnight release! How's the date going?/ Her tone changed almost immediately. /Do you need me to rescue you? I can have Bel stand in line for me./
Distantly Gilbert could hear Bel say, "He doesn't need rescuing!"
"No, it's… uh." Gilbert glanced up at Ludwig and then looked away. Ludwig would understand. He needed Eliza to give him some space.
"Things are going well, actually. Which is why I'm calling. Can you stay at Bel's tonight?"
There was silence on the other end of the line. Followed by a loud bellow of laughter.
Gilbert pulled the phone away from his ear before it ruptured. He waited for the cacophony to subside before trying again.
"So can you."
/Holy fuck Gilbert. First date, really?! It took you like five when we were going out before—/
"Really, Eliza? You want to play the first date card? Tell me, what was yours and Bel's first date like? Oh wait I don't need a summary, I can pretty much recall the exact play-by-play thanks to how thin the walls—"
/It's fine! Jesus, Gil, I hope your date's not listening to your bitter-singles vitriol. I'll stay at Bel's. Congrats on the hookup./
"Please don't call it that," Gilbert muttered.
/Sex on the first date is universally called a hookup, Gilbert. I don't make the rules./
"It's not a hookup—have fun at your movie, goodbye."
Gilbert jammed his thumb against the disconnect button. He stared at it in disgust.
"I really miss phones that you could snap shut. Felt more final."
"Landlines. If I want to expose myself as the dinosaur I am," Ludwig said. "I miss those." He cleared his throat and then said awkwardly, "So you, ah… neglected to mention me."
"Guess so," Gilbert shoved his phone in his pocket. "Let's not make a big deal out of it. I don't— I don't want it to be a deal. Just a thing that's. Happening or whatever." He grabbed a menu and handed it to Ludwig. "Here. You remember which ones give me food poisoning better than I do."
"I've told you it's the green peppers… fine." Ludwig took the menu and spent all of two seconds glancing at it before he set it down again.
"I'm not sure I feel comfortable lying to Eliza."
"Well that makes one of us."
"Surely she has some… ill will against me. I don't know that I'd feel welcome—"
"You'll notice I didn't lie to her," Gilbert said, starting to get a bit agitated. "I neglected to divulge certain details. Which is how I've been dealing with you-related stuff whenever she asks since we broke up. So chalk it up to reflex or whatever, but it's done. I'll send her a text later or something if it's really weighing on your conscience. Or you can just avoid her half of the house. Just—please, god just order a pizza I'm so hungry…"
Ludwig hesitated a moment longer and then nodded and said quietly, "I'll be right back."
Gilbert watched him weave his way between the groups of drunken sports fans, looking terribly out of place in his pressed suit and slicked-back hair. Gilbert sat down on one of the grimy benches to wait, tilted his head back and closed his eyes.
What the fuck was he doing.
He was about ninety percent sure there were dirty dishes in the sink. And that nothing had been dusted for an inordinately long time. There were probably more skin cells on top of the TV stand than there were on his actual person.
Ludwig was going to see. And going to know just how not okay he'd been. But clearly some part of Gilbert's subconscious wanted him to. Maybe rub his face in what he'd done, what Ludwig had reduced him to. Maybe Ludwig would go all pale again and quiet. Avoid looking at anything. Leave with his tail between his legs, uncomfortable and upset. Feeling more monstrous than ever.
Or he'd roll up his sleeves. Dishes done. TV dusted. Rug vacuumed, bathtub scrubbed clean and he'd order Gilbert, politely, to take a bath and relax while he finished up the rest of the house and then fine, yes they could play that new racing game Gilbert couldn't get Eliza to touch with a ten foot pole.
Gilbert opened his eyes and stared up at the blackened tin ceiling of the restaurant.
He could feel it. The initial surge of humiliation and stubborn pride. The lapping bathwater against his skin. Guilt that wouldn't let him relax, bath abandoned because Ludwig knew he hated those and had most likely made him take one just to get him out of the way so he could work.
He could feel it. All of it, the tinge of domesticity, of repairing and resetting normalcy. Hesitant jabs and inside jokes he'd tried to incise out of his memories and parlance and god, god it wasn't fair. He knew it was going to be scenario one. Ludwig was too fragile, too hell-bent on martyring himself. What the fuck had he been thinking inviting him…
Gilbert's eyes started to sting. He pressed a hand against his face, schooling his expression into something neutral and robotic.
The floor vibrated with footfalls, signaling Ludwig's return.
"I can't believe it. He actually remembered me. Which is great because he promised he'd use the newer sausage for—…Gilbert?"
A faint warmth lingered by his shoulder for a moment before it quickly faded. Gilbert could hear Ludwig shuffling around. Unsure.
He took a moment to make sure his eyes wouldn't be too red before he lowered his hand and glanced up at Ludwig. The man's expression was pinched with worry.
"I don't have to come over," Ludwig said immediately. "It's not worth this much stress—"
"That's not—it wasn't that. Just let it alone."
Ludwig immediately closed his mouth, but the worried expression never left his face. He hovered awkwardly off to the side until Gilbert pointed at the bench and muttered, "Sit."
Gilbert turned his attention to the televisions above the bar, watching the hockey game that was on.
"Do you mind if I ask what it was, then?"
Ludwig's soft voice barely got Gilbert's attention. He glanced at him and then turned back to the TV. He watched it for a few more moments in silence, listlessly debating how much to divulge.
"I was thinking," he said finally, "that I'm going to take advantage of you."
He felt Ludwig tense and without thinking he reached out and hit him in the knee.
"Not like that."
"Ow—forgive me for jumping to a perfectly logical conclusion," Ludwig muttered, rubbing his knee. "How did you mean it, then?"
"I meant it the other way."
"The platonic way."
They fell silent again. Watching the game.
"I don't mind."
Gilbert tilted his head back to stare unblinkingly at Ludwig.
Ludwig met his gaze.
"I don't mind," he said again.
"You should," Gilbert said dryly. "It isn't an ideal scenario."
"Not to be too reductive but 'not ideal' is practically the slogan for our relationship so far," Ludwig said. "And if taking platonic advantage of me is what you need right now—"
Gilbert made a frustrated noise and turned around on the bench to face Ludwig. He scooted forward, his knee banging into the wall as he did so. He ignored the sting.
"You're not the only one who feels like a monster sometimes, Ludwig, so just—could you tone the martyr act down to something even a bit shy of Jesus Christ Superstar levels? I'm telling you I'm going to be selfish and you—you can't just be okay with that because of what an asshole you were a year and a half ago."
There was a stubbornness to Ludwig's expression that Gilbert recognized with a little jolt of nostalgia. Ludwig lifted his chin up just a hair.
"I'm not saying I'll bend over backwards for you or follow whatever arbitrary command you can come up with," Ludwig said. "I'm saying that if you need someone to help you right now, and if you don't mind it being me, then I want it to be me. Please."
Gilbert sat back on the bench, his hands resting between his legs. He said nothing.
"Is it okay if it's me?"
Gilbert looked away.
Gilbert shuddered as another wave of nausea swept through him at the thought of Scenario One. Ludwig leaving again. The house still undone.
A bolt of panic suddenly seized his nerves. Without thinking he reached out and grabbed Ludwig's hand. Held it tightly.
Discomfort. Tension, wariness.
Gilbert grit his teeth.
"Just for a moment."
He hung his head. His fingers tightened.
"Give me fifteen seconds. Then you can let go and go… disinfect your hand or whatever."
Gilbert kept his eyes averted so he could only imagine what sort of expression Ludwig was making. Tormented, for sure. Which would be nice to see. He was half tempted to look up, but then Ludwig would see the slight redness to his eyes. How they couldn't focus on anything. How splotchy his cheeks were.
Not that his stringy fringe was hiding much of that, anyway.
And then there was a light pressure against the back of his hand. Brushing over the stark tendons and veins that jutted up like an uneven mountain range under his skin. Gilbert held perfectly still, afraid to move, the slightest breath could dislodge, change minds, resolves. He could feel the divots and ridges of Ludwig's thumbprint as it brushed against the back of his hand. Stuttering. Warm.
Gilbert squeezed his eyes shut and steeled his features. He wasn't about to have a full breakdown in the middle of a pizza dive. Not in front of Ludwig. But still he had to ask. Even if it meant his voice cracking.
"Why are you being so nice to me."
Ludwig's thumb stilled for a moment before it resumed tracing its invisible path against Gilbert's skin.
"I wasn't aware I was being nice."
"You're letting me act like a complete child in a public establishment. That used to be like. Number two on your 'Never Acceptables' list."
"You're not acting like a child."
"I'm insisting you hold my hand in a pizza parlor for no goddamn reason."
"There's a reason."
"You don't know that."
"Yes I do."
"Bullshit. I'm just being impossible and annoying."
"All right now you're acting like a child."
Ludwig's hand tightened around Gilbert's slightly. Maybe to take the sting out of his words.
Gilbert stared up at Ludwig through his hair and then slowly tried to pull his hand away.
Ludwig's fingers tightened again for a moment and he made a little noise.
"…What was that."
"It hasn't been fifteen seconds yet."
"Ludwig it's been almost a full minute."
Ludwig was quiet for a moment before he said a soft, "Oh."
His fingers uncurled. Ludwig's nails were still clean and neat, Gilbert noted absently as he pulled his hand away. Cuticles perfect save for a small little cut on his ring finger. When they'd been going out he'd teased Ludwig about getting manicures. Turned out Ludwig maintained them himself. Had a little kit and everything.
Gilbert took a moment to make sure his face wasn't red before he sat up straight.
"Sorry about that."
Ludwig's voice was soft.
"It won't happen again."
"Gilbert, it's really fine."
Gilbert's eye twitched.
"Maybe I don't want it to be fine." He glanced at Ludwig, feeling prickly now that vulnerability time was apparently over. "Maybe you shouldn't want it to be fine either. Can't imagine Dicky boy would be too happy seeing you slumming it up in this dive holding some depressed lunatic's hand."
Ludwig's eyebrows scrunched together as he frowned.
"You shouldn't use that word."
"No—god, you're impossible…"
There was so much fondness in the insult. Gilbert stared at the red entry mat. Stained and covered in dark spots where people had dropped gum decades ago. He made a face.
"Fuck this place is gross."
"With how often you got food poisoning here, I half suspect they toss bits of this carpet into the sauce."
Gilbert quickly clamped a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing, tears springing to his eyes again. Fuck he couldn't take much more of this… the constant up and down was going to give him an aneurysm.
He quickly pulled himself together and turned to face the television again, his back to Ludwig. He heard the other man shift on the bench behind him.
"Ah… sorry if… that joke was a bit crass—"
"It wasn't," Gilbert said, still staring at the television. "More to the point it's probably true."
"You turned around, so…"
"Yeah there's really only so much falling apart in front of you I can handle right now, so." Gilbert gestured to the screen. "Hockey and quiet until pizza."
"Oh. All right."
Ludwig fell thankfully silent after that, although Gilbert could still feel the other man's gaze on him every so often. It made it impossible to relax or focus on the game. Not that he was especially invested, but.
"Uh, large mushroom and sausage to go?"
The harried host had returned.
Gilbert remained seated as Ludwig sprang up from the bench like a fucking jack-in-the-box to pay. Gilbert waited until the transaction and pleasantries were complete before he stood up as well and made his way to the door to hold it open for Ludwig. Ludwig made a soft noise of surprise and said an unsure "Thank you?"
"I don't want to risk you dropping anything. I'm so hungry I'd probably resort to cannibalism." Gilbert raised an eyebrow. "Is my acting like a civilized member of society that surprising to you?"
"Wh—no, it's… you seemed a bit out of it earlier, and—that's all," Ludwig mumbled. He cleared his throat and said quickly, "I don't know the way to your house, so."
"Oh that's bullshit. You know the address," Gilbert said as he started to walk home. "You sent my phone there."
"I know the address but I sent the phone via courier service. I've no idea what it actually looks like or where… it's not a neighborhood I'm familiar with."
"Of course it isn't."
Ludwig fell quiet for a moment before he said softly, "I didn't mean it like that."
"I'm sure you didn't, but thirty some years of yachts and ski chalets make it hard to filter out some of your douchier comments," Gilbert said dryly. He shut up after that, nausea and anxiety making it difficult to hold a conversation. They were only a few blocks from his house. The apartment buildings were growing ratty and dingy. Bushes out front looked in need of some serious maintenance. Half of the trees lining the sidewalk were stumps or were papered with the bright pink notices that meant the city was planning to reduce them to stumps in the next few weeks. It wasn't the worst neighborhood Gilbert had ever lived in. But that didn't mean it wasn't humiliating. Really drove home the whole "I have no friends or family in my life who would have stopped me from signing a lease in this neighborhood."
Gilbert turned down his street which thankfully was a shade nicer than the rest of the area if only by virtue of there being more living trees and more fences that hid under-watered lawns from view. The street was a cul-de-sac, and his and Eliza's house was towards the end, right before the curve in the road started. The white paint was flaking a bit, but at least the yard wasn't a terrible mess. And the windows were still relatively clean.
But fuck had it always been that small…
Gilbert fished his keys out of his pocket as he walked, not really sure how to take Ludwig's silence. He was probably too scared to say anything for fear that it would just dig deeper the spoiled rich-kid hole he'd dug himself.
Which of course made Gilbert want to offer him a shovel, for distraction if nothing else.
"So how's your family?" he asked. "Have they met Rich yet?"
Ludwig didn't answer right away. Gilbert was about to turn around and repeat the question, not sure if Ludwig had heard, when finally he spoke up.
"They haven't, no."
Something in Ludwig's tone of voice gave Gilbert pause. He stopped halfway up the stoop and turned to stare curiously at Ludwig.
"And how is your family doing?" he asked again.
Ludwig met Gilbert's eyes for a moment and then looked away.
"…The pizza's getting cold."
Gilbert pressed his lips together, trying to quell his irritation but finally he shrugged and turned around.
It took him a moment to fiddle with the door. He held on to his aggravation—at both the door for sticking and Ludwig for dodging. Easier than being terrified about what Ludwig would think of his home.
He finally kicked the door open and stepped inside.
"Come in. Just leave your shoes there."
He kicked his own off and then took a moment to straighten them before heading into the living room. Some habits died hard.
Gilbert tugged off the nice button down he'd worn for his failure of a date and tossed it on the sofa. Ludwig was still trying to kick off his shoes without making a mess and while balancing the pizza. Gilbert took pity on him and grabbed the box.
"Kitchen's through the living room. And don't—I know it's a disaster. Eliza hasn't been home much lately and I've been working so."
Gilbert left it at that. He brought the pizza into the kitchen and set it on the counter next to the full sink of dirty dishes. He scrounged around for some clean plates and managed to find two that were acceptable. He flicked a bit of caked-on something off of one and then opened the pizza box to grab himself a slice. He heard Ludwig enter the kitchen. Heard too the little hiss of surprise.
"I told you." Gilbert licked grease off his finger. "It's a disaster."
He watched Ludwig out of the corner of his eye. The man was obviously trying not to touch anything. Possibly for fear of things toppling over. Like the overflowing garbage can or the semi-clean pots stacked on top of the fridge. Or the dust caked onto everything in the kitchen higher than arm's reach. Spaghetti sauce crusted on one of the back burners that Gilbert kept meaning to clean up and never had the energy to. Probably didn't help that the curtains were drawn over the only tiny window in the entire kitchen. Made it look even more like some recluse's hideaway. And the smell of cat piss from the previous owners added a nice bouquet. He and Eliza had tried to do something about that. She'd been buying air fresheners every week but now that she was more or less living at Bel's, that had kind of fallen by the wayside too.
"Gilbert, I know you can't like living like this," Ludwig said after a few moments of stunned silence. "I know you, this isn't—"
"You knew me," Gilbert corrected. "You're really having tense issues tonight, huh." He fished a soda out of the fridge, leaving one on the counter for Ludwig if he wanted it and then headed into the living room. Ludwig could come if he wanted.
Gilbert pushed a few out-of-date fashion magazines off the sofa for Ludwig and then sat in his chair. There were half a dozen coffee cups on the table next to him, ranging from mostly empty to a solid half cup of black sludge. Gilbert nibbled his pizza and eyed the cups. He should probably clean the coffee maker.
He could hear Ludwig in the kitchen behind him. The man's careful movements were irritating him more than he thought imaginable. Probably compensating for the wave of shame that he predicted was going to wash him away into a state of catatonia at any moment.
Gilbert paused, pizza halfway to his mouth.
He couldn't hear Ludwig anymore.
He set the pizza down and pushed himself up in his chair to look behind him. Kitchen was deserted.
Slowly Gilbert stood up. Had Ludwig left? He thought Scenario One would win for sure, but not this quickly. Maybe a few stammered apologies and awkward promises to text or something before Ludwig high-tailed it but—
There came a rustling noise from the hallway. The sound of the linen closet door shutting. It always squeaked terribly.
A moment later Ludwig reappeared in the kitchen, through the doorway that went through the strange sitting room that connected the kitchen to the main front hall. In his hand he had a white plastic garbage bag. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbows. His nice watch had been stashed somewhere.
Gilbert watched him silently as Ludwig began tossing things into the bag. Old sponges. Paper towels. Take out wrappers. All the things Gilbert had been keeping organized into neat piles on the counter, best of intentions to deal with later.
Ludwig opened up the doors beneath the sink and looked around for a moment before he glanced over his shoulder into the living room.
"Where do you keep your cleaners."
Gilbert stared at the trash bag in Ludwig's hand.
"How'd you know where I store those?"
"You always keep them in the linen closet. You buy these stupid scented ones because for some fucked up reason you like the overpowering smell of Fabreeze on your bath towels. Where's the cleaner."
Gilbert bristled at Ludwig's tone. Sharp and accusatory.
"I have bleach in the laundry room and that's it," he said. "I didn't ask you to come over here and play maid, Ludwig. Just eat the fucking pizza."
"No, Gilbert, you did ask me to 'play maid' as you so condescendingly put it by inviting me over here," Ludwig snapped. He threw down the garbage bag and gestured to the kitchen. "This? This is asking for help! You knew I wouldn't be able to let this go. You knew I'd have to fix this before I could do anything. You knew that forcing me to see this would make me irrationally furious with myself that I reduced you to this. And then furious with you that you let yourself live like this because you're an adult and I'm not responsible for you. And you know what, fuck it, throw Eliza in there too, I'm furious with her as well. You knew that this would hurt me just like it's been hurting you for god-knows how long you've lived here. When did this happen?! How long have you been living like this?!"
"You're making it sound like I live in a radioactive dump. It's not that bad. I cleaned a few months ago," Gilbert muttered, looking away. He could feel the blood draining from his face. Shame burning in his stomach. This wasn't Scenario One or Two. Which in retrospect he should have seen coming. Ludwig always was volatile when it came to taking care of him when he was being particularly stupid…
"No, Gilbert, by radioactive dump standards, it's not that bad," Ludwig said, his voice still shaking. "But why the hell is that your new standard? You used to care—I have to believe that a part of you still cares. That you're not just some hollow zombie."
Gilbert turned around and sat back down in his chair. He drew his knees up to his chest and rested his forehead against them.
"Do what you want," he heard himself say. "I really don't care."
"Yes you do—I know you do, you can't have changed that much—"
"Stop saying you know me!"
The yell made Ludwig finally stop talking.
Gilbert tightened his arms around his knees.
This had been a mistake.
"You don't know me. And you don't know what knowing you did to me. This is about as good as it gets now, Ludwig. If that standard is too low for you, fine. Keeps things simpler."
Gilbert swallowed around the lump in his throat. Tightened his arms around his knees even more.
"If everything has to be clean and perfect then get the hell out of my house and go suck your boyfriend's dick. I'm sure it's pristine."
The rustling in the kitchen stopped. Gilbert listened for the footfalls. Five of them. From the kitchen to the laundry room. Laundry room to the empty garage. Garage to laundry room, to kitchen, across the living room, front door.
He felt the house shake as the door shut.
Gilbert counted to twenty. Listened for more footfalls, doors slamming, for Ludwig returning.
Slowly he uncurled his arms. Let his head fall to the side to rest against the back of his chair. It rocked back and forth with his movement. The quiet squeaking filled the room.
Scenario one after all.
He should have known.
He stared at the streak of light on the far side of the living room wall. The street lamps outside were bright. Didn't matter how thick the shades were. It found its way in through the cracks.
Gilbert felt a tear roll down his cheek. He swiped at it absently and stared at the light on the wall.
He didn't want to move. Some distant part of his personality was telling him in a rather dull, monotonous tone to at least put the pizza in the fridge. He told it later. It didn't believe him but was hard pressed to argue its point.
Gilbert closed his eyes. Pressed his face against the grimy fabric of his chair. He'd been meaning to get it steam cleaned for forever. Maybe he would that weekend.
He heard the part of his personality give a snort of disbelief and he silently agreed. It was pretty funny.
His arm was starting to fall asleep.
How long had he been—
The house shook again.
Gilbert bolted upright, thinking for a moment that they were having an earthquake and realizing he had no fucking clue what to do in an earthquake
The living room light clicked on. Gilbert hissed in surprise and covered his eyes.
Footsteps. The smell of burning leaves from one of the neighbors' late-night firepits.
Something landed in his lap. Gilbert glanced down to see a roll of paper towels and a pair of yellow rubber gloves. The tag was still on them.
"We're going to start with your room, then the living room, then the bathroom. You can take a bath and eat dinner after that. I'll handle the kitchen. My area of expertise, if you'll recall."
Gilbert fiddled with the yellow gloves and then looked up at Ludwig. The man was standing in the doorway to the living room. Sleeves still rolled up. Face set in a stubborn grimace. Ludwig caught Gilbert looking at him and gestured with the plastic bucket in his hand.
"Come on. Get up."
Gilbert found himself standing and grabbing the towels and gloves.
"…You left?" he said, not sure if it was a question or not.
"I went to the corner store." Ludwig gestured to the bags at his feet. Bottles of cleaning solution and new sponges. "Not the most varied selection but it'll do."
"You left," Gilbert repeated. "Without saying anything."
Ludwig pressed his lips into a thin line. His cheeks were red.
"I was a little… I was angry. And I didn't—I really didn't want to say something that would lead to another fight. I figured this was easier. Not my most mature moment but I think we can both agree it was hardly my least mature."
He bent down to grab the bags and headed down the hallway.
"Come on. It's already nine. We can probably finish in a couple hours."
Gilbert slowly followed after Ludwig, still not sure he was entirely awake.
"…What's this 'we' you keep using?"
Ludwig stopped in front of Gilbert's bedroom door and turned to study him for a moment before he looked away again.
"I—I reasoned that it… it would probably mean more. If I was helping you instead of… You can go back to sleep if you want, but—"
Ludwig's hand was reaching for the doorknob. Another bolt of panic took over Gilbert's nerves and he quickly moved forward.
"W-Wait—it's not… it's even worse in there. Just to warn you."
"Do you not want me to go in?"
Gilbert's brain scrambled to reconstruct what his room looked like. If there was anything truly, horribly embarrassing. Stuffed rabbit, but Ludwig already knew about that. Piles of unwashed scrubs. The journal his therapist had made him start writing. His half-constructed anxiety box or whatever, but there was no way Ludwig would recognize what that was…
Nothing worse than what Ludwig had already seen.
It would be like ripping off a Band-Aid. Where the sticky part was still embedded in the wound, which was always fun. But it was clear that Ludwig wasn't going to leave unless Gilbert kicked him out. If he hadn't run yet.
God he didn't want him to run.
Gilbert steeled himself and pushed past Ludwig without a word. He opened the door and stepped to the side to let Ludwig get a look at the place. It was dusty. That he knew. Bed linens hadn't been washed in a while. He mostly slept on top of the covers anyway. Curtains were never drawn open—
"Start there. Make a pile of laundry in the hall."
Ludwig was pointing to the scrubs in the corner. Gilbert wordlessly began picking them up and bringing them out into the hallway.
"I'm pretty sure we're out of detergent."
"I picked some up."
Gilbert's insides withered with shame.
"I—let me know how much I owe you—"
Ludwig stepped down off of the chair he'd dragged by the window to take the curtains down. He tossed them in the laundry pile and then fixed Gilbert with a stern look.
"Pay me back by taking better care of yourself. Calling me or—or someone to come help you if you can't do it on your own."
Gilbert bit his tongue and resumed gathering dirty laundry, feeling about an inch tall.
"I don't need your help," he muttered, throwing the clothes in the hallway. "And 'taking care of myself' to your ridiculous standards is going to cost me a hell of a lot more than just paying you back for laundry detergent."
"Fine. Receipt's in the bag. Let's hurry up and get this over with if you're that eager to resume your hibernation," Ludwig said sharply. He grabbed one of the dust cloths and began working on removing the layers of dust from the neglected bookshelf. Gilbert watched him work for a moment, fury and shame vying for attention.
And the worst part of it all was that Ludwig was right. He hated… loathed. Living like this.
Gilbert cursed softly and grabbed a dust cloth himself, working on the opposite part of the room so he wouldn't have to talk to Ludwig.
It took nearly an hour to get his room into shape. They wordlessly moved to clean the bathroom, and then the living room. Ludwig managed to extract the vacuum from the hallway closet and vacuumed everything that had some measure of surface area. Furniture cushions included. Gilbert stuck to working on the windows and built-ins, his back to the rest of the room. Somewhere along the way he'd ditched the uncomfortable yellow gloves. He was cleaning on auto-pilot. Months of living with Ludwig and his particular fastidiousness taking over after what felt like eons of dormancy. He was so zoned out he didn't hear the vacuum turning off or Ludwig approaching. The tap of his shoulder made him yelp and drop his cloth. He turned to stare up at Ludwig, his heart still racing.
Ludwig held up his hands in surrender again. A familiar gesture by now.
"I said I think we're done in here. If you want to take a bath and relax while I do the kitchen."
Gilbert scowled and crossed his arms over his chest.
"I can help in the kitchen."
"You could, but I know—…I, ah… remember, maybe. That you might not like it," Ludwig said. His lips quirked up in a cautious, empty smile. "You haven't used your bathtub in a while, right? Go get the cleaning chemicals off you. This won't take me long."
Gilbert pursed his lips, wanting to argue with Ludwig but exhaustion was making it difficult to do anything other than blindly follow. He finally nodded and set down the furniture polish. It was only then that he caught sight of the clock. It was almost midnight.
He turned around, ready to tell Ludwig that he should just go home. Ludwig met his eyes for a moment, his gaze flicking to the side to glance at the clock before catching his own again.
His lips quirked up into another smile.
"It's fine. Go relax."
Gilbert opened his mouth to protest but before he could say anything Ludwig threw a cleaning cloth at him.
"For fuck's sake just go. I've spent worse Friday nights than helping an ex clean his house. You can feel guilty later."
Gilbert pushed the cloth off his shoulder and scowled at Ludwig.
"You can't tell me when to feel guilty," he muttered.
Ludwig rolled his eyes slightly and grabbed another cloth.
"Apologies. Unless you feel like helping clean the hood vent, I'd go."
Gilbert went. But not without flipping Ludwig off behind his back. Which felt childish and stupid but he was too tired to feel the proper amount of shame.
He stopped in his room on the way to the bath to grab the new shampoo Eliza had forced him to buy. May as well use it. He spent a few seconds trying to remember where they'd moved his "miscellaneous" drawer. Finally he located the shampoo (resting neatly next to a thing of aftershave he'd gotten a few Christmases ago and never had occasion to use).
But then he stopped.
His journal was still resting on the side table. Ludwig hadn't gone near it the entire time they'd been cleaning. Hadn't so much as spared it a glance.
Gilbert walked over to it and picked it up. He flipped it open.
The first few pages were barely legible. Screams in the form of blistering ink. A few lines he could decipher or remember the intent behind their penning, but most of it was nonsense. Raving and sad.
The next chunk of pages were minimalism. A few notes his therapist had told him to take. Eating schedule. Sleep schedule. Dutifully filled out for a few days and then abandoned.
Then the dream pages. Less comprehensible still but filled with line after line of meticulous penmanship. Ludwig's name speckled here and there. The first line of the "L" unsteady every time.
Gilbert heard a loud crash from the kitchen, and then a moment later Ludwig's voice.
"Hood vent screws are rusted through! Don't worry about it!"
Gilbert closed his journal and stepped out into the hallway.
"Don't break my kitchen, Schmidt!"
"Why aren't you in the bath yet, Doctor?"
Gilbert flipped Ludwig off and made a loud show of opening the bathroom door and turning on the faucet. He remembered spying under the sink some of Eliza's expensive bath… salts? Is that what they were? They smelled good. He dumped in a handful. They made the water a bright, tropical blue. And smell like coconuts.
Gilbert shucked off his bleach-stained clothes and slid into the bath. The door was still open and he let it stay that way. He could still hear Ludwig cleaning over the sound of the running water. It was comforting even as it was invasive and nerve-wracking. The sort of bittersweet that clung to nostalgia born from memories still young.
Gilbert shut off the water and let himself sink deep. He liked baths for the first five minutes. Before the water got lukewarm. When the smell of coconuts was still cloying and the water lapped gently against the sides of the tub with every little movement.
Gilbert rested his head against the back of the tub and closed his eyes. Water swept into every pore. Made his toes and fingertips sting from the warmth. He'd forgotten to turn on the big light over head, and the faint light seeping in from the hallway made the room a grotto of eerie shadows and soft, blue waves.
He could still hear Ludwig humming to himself in the other room. The tune lingered somewhere between pop song and operetta. Bizarre and soft.
Gilbert sank deeper into the bath, his skin tingling from the heat and the salts.
Bruised-ink-journal him would be horrified and furious at what he was doing.
Gilbert frowned and sank deeper, an odd feeling of betrayal gnawing at him. Which was ridiculous. Ludwig wasn't an enemy. He'd done and said horrible things, true, but some of the words slashed across the journal, the ones that flitted across his mind in bursts of rage weren't rational. They weren't rational or fair or based on anything real. And now that Ludwig was a flesh-and-blood person again instead of this abstract concept every hyperbole and insult and damnation he recalled scrawling in between the faux-leather bindings made him feel like a pathetic teenager. Too in love with their own angst.
Gilbert pressed his hands against his eyes and shooed those thoughts away.
He'd hated himself as a teenager. Insecure little fucker. He hadn't been expecting to regress so badly but in retrospect that's exactly what he had done…
Slowly Gilbert lowered his arms and tried to relax again. He counted the steady drips of the faucet. The hum of the vacuum. Distant rumble of semi trucks down the highway a few blocks away.
Gilbert hummed in response. Ludwig's voice was hesitant. It crept slowly into the room. An animal adjusting to new surroundings.
"Did you fall asleep?"
Gilbert held up a hand and gestured for Ludwig to come in.
Shuffling around the door.
"Water's opaque… put in a bunch of like. Salt… things. Crystals," Gilbert murmured. He cracked open an eye. Ludwig's shadow was hovering in the doorway. Hand on the door.
Gilbert closed his eyes again. Took a deep breath and dunked his head under the water.
He could still hear Ludwig. His voice was muffled and irritated.
Gilbert didn't move.
"Gilbert, I know what you're doing."
"Come on. Knock it off."
"Gilbert I swear to god—"
Footsteps made the bathwater tremble. Gilbert was vividly reminded of Jurassic Park.
A strong hand closed around his bicep and yanked him out of the water. He surfaced, spluttering from the abruptness of the movement. He blinked his eyes to clear them and stared blearily at Ludwig. He couldn't make out his expression. Darkness and lack of glasses were a rather incapacitation combo.
Ludwig let go of his arm as soon as he was sitting up. He took a step back, resting against the vanity. Even through the darkness Gilbert could see him shaking out his hand like he'd been burned.
Gilbert propped his chin up on the side of the tub and stared at Ludwig.
"Electric eel?" he guessed.
Ludwig gave him a look.
"Speculating as to what sort of reaction you were practicing there. Toss up between 'fetching a flaming marshmallow out of a campfire' and 'accidentally arm-wrestling an electric eel.' Either way bravo on the theatrics."
"I was trying to get you to quit acting like an idiot. That's all."
"And now you can't look at me."
Ludwig's profile flinched.
"You're naked. This isn't exactly a normal scenario." Ludwig turned to face him slightly. "Even for a 'hookup.'"
"Ugh. Gross," Gilbert muttered, splashing some water in irritation. "Don't call it that. It sounds weird."
"You dragged me in here with your antics. You're the one making it weird, not my poor word choice."
"You've seen me naked a billion times. What's it matter."
"But I haven't—fine."
Ludwig dragged a hand down his face. Gilbert took that as a silent sign of defeat and awarded himself a point.
But then Ludwig moved. Sat down on the bath mat next to the tub, his back against the wall so he faced the door. His head was tilted back and his eyes were closed.
Gilbert shifted in the water. Moved closer to Ludwig to study him. Exposure therapy, maybe. He wasn't sure what was compelling him anymore. A weird cocktail of aggression, depression, familiarity, longing, bitterness. Too many flavors to name.
But Ludwig was still handsome. His good looks felt almost like an insult.
Ludwig's lips warped into a frown.
"Don't stare at me."
"I'm not staring," Gilbert lied.
"You are. Knock it off. I'm playing along with whatever this is, so let me rest for a bit."
Gilbert fell quiet, but he continued to study Ludwig's face as best he could sans glasses plus imperfect lighting. Ludwig had dark circles under his eyes. His bangs fell across his forehead in sweaty clumps.
Gilbert crossed his arms over the edge of the tub, resting his chin atop them.
"Do you want to take a bath?"
Ludwig cracked open an eye and stared at him.
"Not with me. Idiot."
Gilbert could see Ludwig warring with himself. Eyes moving behind paper-thin lids.
Finally he nodded and stood. A moment later a towel landed on Gilbert's head. It smelled like Fabreeze.
"I'll be quick. You can inspect the kitchen. Let me know if I missed anything."
"If I do I'll keep that info to myself for fear of you breaking a hip when you vault out of the bathtub."
Gilbert stood up and was rewarded with a hilarious squawking noise from Ludwig.
"For fuck's sake, Richard's turned you into such a prude."
Gilbert stepped out of the tub and quickly dried himself off before wrapping the towel around his waist. He grabbed his glasses and shoved them on his face. They were foggy. Ludwig had retreated to the hallway and was standing next to the door with his hand over his face. Gilbert tapped him on the shoulder as he passed.
Ludwig's face was bright red when he lowered his hand. He opened his mouth to speak, but then he seemed to catch himself. His eyes quickly raked over Gilbert before he looked away. The red left his cheeks.
"A-Ah. Thank you."
Ludwig turned but paused in the doorway and looked Gilbert over again. Much more blatantly.
Gilbert felt his own face grow hot. He took a little step backwards, wishing he'd thought to bring clean clothes into the bathroom with him.
"Make up your mind about whether or not you can look at me. And make it up fast."
Ludwig didn't respond for a moment. His blue eyes grew sad.
"…You've lost weight."
Gilbert gasped dramatically and covered his chest with his hands for a moment before adopting a deadpan expression.
"Who the fuck cares."
Ludwig's eyes flashed with irritation but it quickly bled away.
"No one, apparently," he muttered, turning to head into the bathroom. "Forgive me for not joining their ranks."
He slammed the bathroom door behind him. Immediately he opened it and mumbled, "Sorry, forgot this isn't my house to storm around in."
He closed the door again. Slower.
The latch clicked.
Gilbert stood still for a few moments, not sure how to process Ludwig's comment or subsequent chain of baffling reactions. He heard the squeak of the shower faucet. Splashing of water.
Gilbert reached out and grabbed the door knob. Turned it to see if it was locked.
He pushed open the door slightly and stuck his head in. Ludwig had remembered to turn the ventilating fan on. Of course.
The shower curtains were drawn. Only the vanity light was illuminated. It wasn't strong enough to light up the corners of the small room.
Ludwig was humming.
Gilbert rested his head against the door jam and listened for a few seconds before voyeur-born guilt began to set in.
The humming stopped.
Gilbert sat on the vanity. Crossed his legs at the ankles.
"Is it bad?"
Snap of a shampoo bottle opening.
"Is what bad?"
Gilbert wrapped his arms around his chest. He felt sick asking these questions. They were too personal too fast. But it was going to bother him unless he asked. He knew.
"How I look now. I mean you're—objectively you're right. Someone at work commented the other day too but she sounded more… I dunno. Blasé about it so I assumed it wasn't a big deal."
Water rushing down the drain. Splashing as Ludwig moved under the spray.
"You look different. But I imagine I do, too."
"You don't. Not really."
"You're not gaunt if that's what you're worried about."
"I wasn't until you said it…"
The water shut off. Ludwig's hand reached out from behind the curtain and grabbed the towel resting on the rack. The curtain slid open and Ludwig stepped out of the tub, towel around his waist. He stopped in front of the vanity. Gilbert looked up at him, bitter and furious that even with water dripping in his eyes and platitudes dripping from his lips he still looked resolute and immutable.
Ludwig reached out his hand, hesitating for a long, painful moment before his fingers brushed a lock of hair off of Gilbert's forehead. Gilbert remained perfectly still, his brain struggling to keep up with every little interaction.
"You should get dressed," Ludwig said quietly, "You'll catch a cold."
Gilbert pushed Ludwig's hand away and slid off the vanity.
"You know that's an old wives' tale, right. You don't catch a cold from wet hair."
He didn't wait for Ludwig to respond. He headed into his room and sullenly tugged on a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. He really was tired of his body automatically obeying Ludwig's every little command, but here he was. After a moment's thought he grabbed another pair of sweatpants and a shirt and tossed them through the bathroom door at Ludwig, who was starting to put his nice clothes back on.
"Here. Borrow these."
"Just do it. I know it gives you hives to wear clothes that have already been worn. These are clean."
Ludwig fiddled with the sweatpants before turning around to put them on. Gilbert remained in the doorway, half suspecting that if he left Ludwig would tug his cleaner-soaked shirt and pants back on and lie and say the sweatpants didn't fit instead of only being a few inches too short.
Ludwig folded his own clothes and moved to place them by his shoes near the door. Gilbert followed after him automatically. Ludwig's feet left heat footprints on the cold wooden floors. His stride was still so long.
"Now what," Gilbert asked. "Last train's definitely left. You gonna call a taxi?"
Ludwig rubbed the back of his neck and glanced towards the kitchen.
"We, ah… we still haven't eaten," he said quietly. "If you want. Antonio's always tastes better cold, anyway. Or at… at room temperature…"
Gilbert didn't feel like eating. But the hopeful tone in Ludwig's voice, his surprise that Ludwig wasn't jonsing to get the hell out of Dodge as soon as possible, the concern in Ludwig's words when he'd mentioned his weight. Some terrible combination of all of those made him nod and wordlessly follow Ludwig into the kitchen. Which really was spotless. Dishes drying in the rack, counters scrubbed.
"…Did you clean the top of the trash can?"
Ludwig faltered slightly as he took a few slices of pizza and put them on his plate.
"…It was dusty."
"For fuck's sake."
Gilbert just grabbed the entire pizza box and followed Ludwig into the living room. Ludwig sat down near the middle of the sofa. An unusual move for him. He normally liked having the arm rest, same as Gilbert.
Gilbert's steps led him automatically to his chair. But the open spot on the sofa, just enough room for him to sit without touching Ludwig. It was too obvious and too shy and sad a gift to ignore.
He set the pizza box down on the coffee table and then very carefully sat down in the little space left for him. Ludwig tensed, evidence by the squeaking of the sofa's ancient springs.
Gilbert froze, feeling caged and unwelcome.
He risked a glance at Ludwig.
"Did you not want me here?"
Ludwig remained still for a long while before he moved his plate closer to Gilbert and gestured for him to take a piece of pizza.
Gilbert tugged his knees up to his chest, moving as close to the arm rest as possible before taking the offered food. He nibbled at the slice of pizza, not tasting it at all. Too hyper aware of how no matter how much he moved towards the armrest, when he and Ludwig breathed in sync their shoulders would touch.
But Ludwig wasn't moving. And it was so quiet at one thirty in the morning. Every time their shoulders touched, the scratching of fabric, the soft inhales, the momentary stillness of lungs and arteries was deafening.
Gilbert suddenly grabbed the remote, needing to drown out the silence. He turned the television on, played whatever was first in his Netflix queue. Teen flick from the 90s. Peppy music loud enough to drown out anything else.
Gilbert sat back again, his toes curling around the edges of the couch cushion. He could feel the question evolving on Ludwig's lips.
"I don't deal well with silence," Gilbert said. "I can turn it to something else if—"
"It's your house, Gilbert. You should be comfortable. And this is apparently some sort of 'classic' according to Netflix so in the name of culture I won't protest."
The couch creaked as Ludwig settled back. He crossed his legs, his knee resting slightly against Gilbert's leg for a moment before Ludwig inhaled sharply and moved.
"Sorry—I forgot, I—… sorry."
Gilbert tugged his knees closer and stared at the television as he forced down his pizza.
"It's fine." He licked grease off his fingers. "It's my house. You should be comfortable."
Seconds dragged by painfully slowly.
The couch creaked with unsure movements, nervous shifting. Swallowing, fiddling, phone set on the coffee table next to the pizza box and long legs crossed again. A gentle pressure against Gilbert's thigh.
Gilbert forced himself to breathe, the slight bit of contact confusing, nauseating and comforting and so very badly wanted.
On the coffee table, Ludwig's phone lit up and buzzed. Before Ludwig reached out to silence it, Gilbert caught a glimpse of the screen.
A string of text messages. All from Richard and all unanswered.
The phone went dark.
Gilbert risked a glance at Ludwig's face. His expression was hard, save for the corners of his mouth. They trembled slightly.
Ludwig set his phone back down.
"Tomorrow," he said quietly. "Maybe then they won't be so easy to ignore."
His knee rested against Gilbert's thigh again. Purposeful and easy.
Gilbert felt his stomach clench. Pride and warmth and the half-hearted voice that let him know that nothing with Ludwig should ever be this comfortable. Not with what they had been. What they were.
Gilbert closed his eyes and listened to the television. His shoulder pressed against Ludwig's. He let it stay there.
It was so warm.