"The House of Usher"
Late August, when you can clench your hand and drink from it, when the trees seem to be made of wire and jade and the cicadas shake lazily, when there's nothing to do but lay beneath a tree and study the path of the looming sun, was when it started.
It started with the soft whine of an electric wheelchair, and with Rolo supine with his eyes half-closed wondering what that sound was until he realized with a sensation like stumbling precisely what it was. It started with him flipping onto his stomach and digging his hands into the earth, scrambling for their home, running up the ramp and opening the door and bringing his breath into order before walking in to find Lelouch alone.
It started with the sight of Lelouch examining a book before him, running his fingers over the raised bumps of the Braille letters with an uncertain smile.
"How odd," he said, and then looked up. "Rolo, isn't this odd?"
It started that night, when Lelouch unthinkingly pulled Rolo's plate towards him and started cutting his chicken before looking at his hands and murmuring, "What am I doing?"
It started just after midnight, when Rolo heard the low sweet piping voice of a young girl, a voice that faded when he sat upright and then returned when he lay down again. He didn't sleep that night.
The next day was wet and misty and hot. The windows were blind with fog. It was just the two of them all day, the rest of the world shut off, closed away.
"Is everything all right?" Lelouch asked around noon.
"Are you all right," Lelouch said, smiling a hesitant smile over his book.
"Fine." When that slight concern didn't fade from Lelouch's face, Rolo jerked his head in a shrug. "I didn't sleep well last night." Belatedly, he remembered the role he was supposed to play: "But I'm fine, just a little sleepy - " He wrinkled his nose and smiled. "That's all. Don't worry."
"I always worry." Lelouch's sharp eyes always reminded Rolo of some bird's, some falcon's. They were clouded, sometimes, and more often hooded - obscured as Lelouch concealed himself, even from his own dear brother. Now, though, they were clear, honest. Sometimes Rolo had to marvel at the mind's ability to deceive itself. "You know that."
"I know." Rolo smiled. "But you don't have to."
There was something vaguely uncomfortable in Lelouch's smile, vaguely off. Those sharp clear eyes went suddenly clouded. "All right," he said, and Rolo wondered what was causing this sudden shift. Had he played his part incorrectly? Had he done something wrong?
"Nii-san," Rolo said.
Lelouch's eyes were suddenly clear again, suddenly focused. It was like Rolo had called him back. "Sorry," he said, and smiled and tousled Rolo's hair.
That night he slept just fine until maybe two. Then he woke. The thunderstorms that had rolled in that evening had rolled out again, and it was silent. The only sound was the soft tick of the grandfather clock just outside his room. It came to him liquid, like each click was a coin dropped in a pool - surrounding him, coming from all directions, so that he turned, slowly, but was unable to see from where the noise came.
It was dark inside, but light out there, and he rubbed the fog away from the window. Through the claw-marks his fingers had left, he could see a mist, roiling like water, hugging the lamp-post and swirling up trees, retreating and surging. It should have been dark out there, the streetlight off or out, but the mist seemed to be lit from within.
He rubbed at the windowpane again, then brought his hand back and pressed his fingers together. They seemed to stick, and when he looked down they looked dark, and he thought madly that it was blood - but when he jerked his hand away from himself, his breath catching in his throat, the shadows moved away and revealed a hand that was just flesh. Nothing more.
"God," he murmured, and then again for good measure, "God," and wiped his hand against the drapes and then, firmly, pulled them shut. But as he lay in the darkness of his room, there was the slow, dark clicking of the clock through the cold wet air.
Rolo Lamperouge was maybe his most very favorite name of all. There was something elegant about the way the tongue traced those French gypsy syllables. There was something marvelous the way the two names interacted, the way it started out more of the same but then sank back into the mouth, a consonant snake-bite that struck and then slowly, warily recoiled, ready to attack again.
He could have shed it at any time, though, eased into another, which was why he was confused when Lelouch informed him that he wouldn't even consider moving.
"How silly," Lelouch laughed, his eyes half-closed. "This place has served us just fine up until now."
"I know." Rolo half-smiled, swallowed. He knew he was being silly. He was a jumpy person - he knew that. Even so - perhaps this was some strange trial? For him, or for Lelouch? So he begged: "Even so, I just...I don't like it here."
"You shouldn't be so flighty," Lelouch said. "We moved here because of you, remember? Because you..." He trailed off, his eyes hooded and distant. Rolo felt a lurch in his stomach, reached out, put his hand atop his brother's.
Lelouch didn't answer.
His eyes were clouded.
That night was low and quiet. There wasn't so much as a cricket. It was misty; the fog curled around his ankles, caressed his bare feet, wrapped around his breath that came heavy and loud in the silence. The street lights were out. When he turned to look, his home was nothing more than a smear of yellow light through the fog that disappeared as he rounded a corner.
He thought he saw a flash from the corner of his eye - turned and looked. There was nothing. All there was was the lightness of fog upon fog, the uniform glow that wrapped him in whiteness that he could reach out and touch. When he rubbed his fingers together, they felt gritty. He listened for an owl's hoot, a raven's croak. None came; there was just him, in the darkness.
Then, there wasn't just him. Then there was a low sweet voice, a girl's voice, in the dark and the stillness. Rolo whirled, tried to catch the words of what she was saying, but though he strained they were indistinct, even as her voice rose in urgency, in force; it was like she was speaking another language, like he was myopic, like sound was blurred about the edges in this fog. It came from nowhere and from everywhere, and he whirled, and he panted, dizzy, disoriented, without the faintest idea where he should turn to, where he came from - there was only that rising murmur, that force, that sound that pierced through the fog, the words indistinct but the tone furious, so furious, and all around him -
And then he turned, and she was before him, her sweet face frozen in a smile. His lips stumbled over everything - over apologies, over curses and the fact that she should be the least of his ghosts - to settle on nothing. All he could do was step backwards, mouth dry, as she followed him with the smoothness of a ship on calm waters, and slowly her lashes fluttered and her eyes opened and
then he woke up.
"This place is damp and ghostly," Lelouch said, running his thumb along the golden rim of his tea cup. "There are spirits poured into the cracks of the walls, thoughts in the windowpanes...There's a miasma here. There's a fragrance." A moment, and then a laugh. "I don't know what I'm talking about."
Rolo did, though. He knew perfectly well. That morning, he'd woken up to the sight of his brother caressing the delicate wings of a paper crane.
"It's the weather," Lelouch was saying, but Rolo shook his head.
"It's the house. I really think it is," Rolo insisted when Lelouch opened his mouth to protest. "It's so spooky all the time."
"It's our home."
"Well, it doesn't have to be," Rolo countered. "You know? We don't have to live in a place like this. We can live anywhere. Home is where your things are."
There was a long moment, and then Lelouch said quietly, "It's not."
His eyes were fixed on his hands, but Rolo knew that if his brother were to look up his expression would be distant and remote. It was like he was in thrall, hypnotized by the ghosts in the cracks of the walls. When Rolo murmured, "Nii-san," Lelouch didn't respond.
Instead, he was silent a long time until, finally, he responded, "We've been here all our lives."
"Which maybe explains why it's so run-down and broken," Rolo said, smiling, trying to turn it into something vaguely resembling a joke. Instead, Lelouch's face became even more melancholy:
"Things fall apart," he said. "That's all they ever do."
He sat alone in his room, every light turned on. His shutters were closed and locked, the windows closed and locked, the door closed and locked; there was just him, surrounded by walls and brightly lit so that everything seemed flat, robbed of depth. Everything seemed tinny.
It was late, and it was silent save for the ticking of the clock. He sat and traced the lines of a book but failed to make out the words as the ticking grew louder and louder until it sounded like a drum beat, like gunfire, consuming him and his world. It was then, when it became unbearable, that he slammed his book shut, and turned to see -
Everything was gone. There was nothing in that bare room but a single paper crane, tipped over onto its side. And as Rolo breathed loud and harsh in the sudden silence, the crane shuttered as though stirred by a silent wind, and then lay still again.
A second time, it fluttered, and then it looked up at him and a sound ripped through the room, a roar that for all that it was in a sweet child's voice sounded like the scream of a lion -
"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
And Rolo raised his arm to protect himself and
then he woke up.
Rolo had never lived anywhere longer than four months. When they'd told him he would be coming here, he'd thought it would be fine, but honestly, the very thought of the permanence now set him on edge. Even at the beginning, when he'd had to unpack his things, make his room his - he'd done it uneasily, but he'd done it. He'd been trained all his life to avoid leaving traces, but even so he'd forced himself to leave his scent all over the house.
But now, now that he was confronted with this wreck, crumbling and damp and ghostly, and the fact that this was his home - he thought he was going mad, he really did. He thought he would go mad.
So he tossed his head and shuffled his feet. "I'm uncomfortable here," he said like it was painful to admit, but Lelouch didn't respond. All the time, recently, he'd seemed like he was in the grip of some foreign power, enchanted, entranced. Rolo had upped the surveillance on him as a result, and while his behavior was different there wasn't anything dangerous about it - he just spent more time, now, staring at nothing, opening a book as though to watch it for changes.
"Nii-san," he called. There was no response.
It was an encounter that they repeated several times. Once, though, just once, the enchanted Lelouch just opened his mouth, and said, like in a dream,
"But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate."
There was a long moment as Rolo hesitated. He knew his job would be easier if Lelouch were entirely mad, but even so...
"What?" he asked uncertainly.
"Hm?" Lelouch asked, then looked dreamily at Rolo. "It's nothing. I was just thinking of this story I had read. I don't remember it, not the whole thing, just fragments - there was a poem in it, and that stuck with me...Strange how the ghosts of things can linger."
"Yes," Rolo agreed. Then he took a breath and said, "Nii-san, I'm worried about you. You haven't been yourself lately."
"I could say the same about you," Lelouch said with a smile.
Rolo froze. But Lelouch's glance (clearer than it had been in days) was playful rather than knowing, so Rolo just smiled back hesitantly. "Yes. Ah, well. I don't know, but..." He cleared his throat. "I just...I'm worried."
"Don't be. That's what I'm supposed to do." Lelouch reached over and rested his hand atop Rolo's head.
"Don't worry about - "
"Rolo. I just do. I love you too much not to."
Rolo froze. All around him, the swirl of the miasma all throughout the house seemed to freeze. He had never before heard those words directed at him, and he had never before heard those words used genuinely - but there Lelouch was, with a casual smile and bright eyes, and he meant what he said. He meant it, and Rolo...
He thought he'd prepared himself mentally to hear those words. He hadn't. Instead, he was left reeling.
"So we can do whatever you want. Leave this place behind, whatever you want. I just want you to be happy."
"Oh..." Rolo looked down at his hands. He'd had any number of surnames, and he could remember them all, but he had shed each of them in an instant. Home is where your things are. But this invitation, this affection on Lelouch's lips and in his eyes, this carefree smile -
"I, um..." Rolo looked up, something thick and painful in his throat. "No, I, um...I've been being silly. I just wanted to apologize for being silly."
"You never have to apologize," Lelouch answered warmly.
So that afternoon he went into Lelouch's room, found that book of Braille and that paper crane which his brother had so lovingly saved, and brought them to him and laid them before him.
"You want this little war?" Rolo sneered to the paper. "We can have a little war. I'm all right with that. I assure you, though - I'm not used to losing."
Perhaps there was something uncertain in the way the crane quivered in the air conditioner's currents.
"Maybe things fall apart. Maybe they do. That's all right, you know, because I will take this moment, and I will enjoy it in a way you will never be able to, ever again. Because now I'm determined, Nana-chan." He picked up the crane, held it atop his fingertips. "And I'll win."
And there was no response, so Rolo smiled and held a lighter to each one - first the book, then the crane. He dropped them in the wastebasket. He watched them be consumed, and then he doused the flames and turned off the light and went to bed, triumphant.
"Rolo," he heard that night, and someone shook his shoulder. "Rolo," was said. It was Lelouch.
"I figured it out."
Rolo rubbed at his eyes. "Figured what out?"
There was a smile on his lips. "What's between us - you and me, and me and you. There's a network of veins that lie beneath skin, and that skin is translucent. You can stretch it to make ghosts. Above, we both see, and we see the same colors, and things that are far away are small."
"What is this?" Rolo asked.
Lelouch answered, "The fundament. There are connections within us, not between us, tangible things across which electricity arcs, and these are memories, and they light us from within like St. Elmo's Fire. We have those in common, but they are physical phenomena. So what's between us?"
"I don't know."
"Our veins trace matching labyrinths, and through us march minotaurs. There is something between us that stretches from flesh to breath and comes back again. But it's false, and I'm called away. Yet I at times return. So what's between us?" He waited expectantly, and when Rolo didn't answer, he crooned, "Home."
"Home is the physical," Rolo said. "Home is a construct."
"It's what we have, now. It is everything that is between us."
"And what's between us," Rolo asked, "you and I, and I and you, when the gods are dead and the ghosts are gone?"
"Home will remain."
"But what will be between us," he persisted, "you and I, and I and you, when all is laid bare?"
"Life," Lelouch said, "and promise. That is all any of us will have, when the gods are dead and the ghosts are gone: life, and promise, and home. We have all three between us. We are the shudder and thrust of a beating heart. We are the fundaments of a house. We are a fog lit within."
"We'll survive, and then we'll start to live. Call me. I'll come: I'm fetched away by ghosts, but I'll return home. Call me. I'll come: Some things grow stronger with time."
"You're my brother," said Rolo.
"I love you, and I always will," said Lelouch, and he smiled. Rolo's heart was beating, and he was filled with blood and life and love. He was at home, at home, where there was everything, permanence and vulnerability, because he was with his brother, and so he reached out, his hand trembling, and licked his lips, and
then he woke up.