Grad school. Is killing me. I'm so so sorry I haven't been able to update at all for over two months. I honestly wasn't expecting this to happen…
Okay. Apologies over. For now.
This is a request fic I did for kivaember over at the LJ comm 'meinbruder'. She is awesome and wrote a fic for me as well. Hurrah.
Warnings: THIS IS VERY VERY DEPRESSING. I KID YOU NOT. Read at your own risk. Even kivaember, the one who requested this fic, had this to say:
"This story was the equivalent of drowning ten thousands puppies and a marathon of the Mufasa death scene in Lion King."
There you go.
Also incest. You have been warned.
October Twenty Fourth
Ludwig smoothed the crisp white sheets over the bed, folding up the corners, tucking them securely underneath the heavy mattress. The comforter was next, plain black, taken from their bed that wasn't really theirs anymore to try and create a disillusioned feeling of home. The blankets, folded carefully over the edge of the bed. Pillows in their cases, clean and white and smelling like Spring that had been stuffed in a can for too long.
Ludwig could feel his brother watching him as he worked, but he ignored the older man and finished tidying the small room. Magazines piled on the bed stand. Video games carefully sorted away in their drawer. IV pressed against the wall, out of the way.
"You keep this up much longer, the staff is gonna hire you on the spot. And trust me. Cleanin' bedpans isn't the future you want for yourself."
Ludwig turned to raise an eyebrow at Gilbert, who was lounging comfortably in a chair by the window. "Might actually be nice. Then I wouldn't have to commute every day," he said with a dry grin and then turned around to inspect the room once more. It passed muster. Barely.
He heard Gilbert shift in his chair and Ludwig sighed. "You're not going to try and stand again, are you?"
"I can stand," Gilbert snapped, his voice no longer amused. "I can run a fuckin' marathon if those damn nurses would just let me walk around for a bit like they used to."
Ludwig ran a hand over his hair in silent frustration. "You've barely been here a week and you've already traumatized half the staff. I don't think you want another collapsing episode to exacerbate things."
Gilbert muttered something inaudible as Ludwig moved to dust the small bookshelf he'd missed. Satisfied after only a few swipes at the shelves with his dust rag, he turned around, mouth open to ask Gilbert if he was ever planning on getting rid of his comic collection, but then he froze, a horrified expression on his face.
"What the hell are you doing?!"
Gilbert glared up at Ludwig and took another shaky step forward, then another until he managed to collapse in his bed, breathing heavily, face bright with triumph. He twisted his head to sneer at his brother. "Movin' to my bed. You got a problem with that?"
"As a matter of fact I do," Ludwig snapped, crossing his arms over his chest. "The doctor said the treatments would make your bones brittle-and they were already weak enough as it was. Any stress on them and you could-"
He was cut off by the sound of Gilbert's derisive laughter and he frowned, blue eyes narrowing with disconcert.
Gilbert finally got himself under control and moved a bit to bury under the covers, giving a small sigh of contentment. "You think I didn't hear the good doctor's speech?" he drawled, falling backwards to let his head rest against the mountain of pillows. "Stop frettin', even it if it what you do best. I drink my milk every day like a good boy. My bones are fuckin' concrete."
Ludwig rolled his eyes and moved his chair back to its customary position next to Gilbert's bed.
He picked up his book and leafed through it, making Gilbert groan with thinly veiled horror.
"Not the damn book again." The albino looked up at Ludwig with a pleading expression on his face. "I thought you said we could move on to Kipling?"
"You're the one who insisted on Melville, not me," Ludwig deadpanned. "It's hardly my fault the novel fails to meet your outrageous expectations."
"Yeah. Sue me for wantin' a whale hunt that's actually exicitin'," Gilbert muttered.
Ludwig gave a quiet cough to clear his throat as he picked up where they had left off, Gilbert interjecting rather colorful comments every now and then about giant white whales swallowing tons of seamen.
As the clock's hands ticked relentlessly onward, Gilbert's comments became few and far between, and Ludwig's voice grew dull and tired. Then came the tell tale knock on the door, and Gilbert looked at his brother with a wry expression on his face.
"My executioner's here. So punctual."
Ludwig sighed and put the book away. "I'm sure she doesn't appreciate being called that," he muttered, just as the nurse stuck her head through the door and chirped, "Herr Weillschmidt. It's time for your sessions. Your brother needs to go home now, so say goodbye."
"Don't talk to me like I'm fuckin' five," Gilbert snarled instantly, fisting his hands in the comforter, his face growing even more murderous when the nurse just smiled politely back at him before leaving the room. He picked up the water glass on his nightstand and cocked his arm back to hurl it against the door when Ludwig quickly moved to wrestle the glass away. It wasn't a long battle.
Gilbert collapsed backwards on the bed, panting heavily but still managing to glower up at his brother. "As soon… as I get outta… this damn room… I am goin'… to eviscerate that bitch," he growled as best he could. Ludwig brushed sweaty silver bangs out of his brother's eyes and gave an indulgent sigh. "Of course. Will the evisceration be before or after you replace her blood with pure oxygen and light a fire in the room like you threatened to before? These details need to be thought through."
Ludwig got the laugh he was looking for, although it was weak and broken sounding as Gilbert smiled up at him and reached out with a slightly unsteady hand to jab him in the chest. "That's my Bruderlein… always helpin' me keep my priorities in order."
Ludwig caught his brother's hand in his own and quickly looked behind him to make sure the door was shut before leaning down and brushing his lips against Gilbert's. He pulled back and said sternly, "Don't hit on Nurse Maher again. She told me that next time you try and grope her breast while she's helping you in the MRI, you'll wake up in the children's ward with a few choice organs missing."
Gilbert's red eyes widened in mock horror and he gripped Ludwig's arm. "She knows my only weakness," he said quietly, "Quick, Bruder. Rockin' tits or not, you must destroy her to save me."
"I'll put it on my to-do list," Ludwig deadpanned and Gilbert's laugh brought a small smile to his face. He heard the tell-tale sound of footsteps approaching down the hall and he sighed as he attempted to pull away. But Gilbert had some reserve of strength left in him and pulled him down for a much more involved kiss, and Ludwig could feel his brother chuckle just before his tongue darted out to swipe against his lower lip. He made a quiet noise of protest as the footsteps stopped just outside the door and managed to growl out a warning, "Bruder…" before the handle turned with a dull squeaking noise. Gilbert quickly pushed his brother away, a satiated grin on his face as he mouthed a quiet, "Later". He winked at Ludwig, who in turn tried to pick himself up off the floor with as much dignity as he could muster before the doctor came into the room, white lab coat billowing behind him.
"Herr Weillschmidt. Visiting hours are over," the doctor said absently, picking up Gilbert's chart and giving it a casual once-over. "I'll have to ask that you please leave."
"Of course," Ludwig said quietly, the familiar leaden feeling returning to his stomach as he faced returning again to an empty house. But the quiet look of distress on Gilbert's face made him ignore his own petty problems as he walked forward to the bed and pulled his brother into a more traditional embrace. "I'll be back tomorrow," he said quietly, discretely pressing his lips against his brother's soft hair. Just like always.
"You better be." Gilbert's usual deadened reply.
Ludwig reluctantly pulled away and gathered up his things, throwing his back over his shoulder as he headed for the door. He gave Gilbert one last, smile, trying to put everything he couldn't bring himself to say into the gesture, before saying quietly, "Be brave, Bruder."
Gilbert looked back at him, his own rakish grin not quite reaching his eyes as he made a shooing motion with his hand. "Get out of here already. I'll see you tomorrow."
Then the doctor drew the curtain around Gilbert's bed, and Ludwig walked down the hallway, his footsteps echoing hollowly against the plaster walls, heading back to their empty house.
The warm air floating through the open window was driving Gilbert mad. He'd been propped up in bed like a goddamn ragdoll by Becker, the ugliest and most foul smelling of all the orderlies that worked in the hospice, and been told to 'stay put'. Gilbert had thrown as much of a tantrum as he'd been able to before he ran out of steam and collapsed backwards on his pillows, a light sheen of cold sweat on his face.
But he could see outside the window and into the garden. And there were green things there that didn't smell like antiseptic and wind that didn't come from an air conditioner and he'd always hated the outdoors until he was banished from them. Gilbert's foot gave one of those odd, painless twitches like it did sometimes as he forced himself to stare at the clock instead of the open window as the long hand dragged on.
Two minutes left.
Nurse Maher came in with his afternoon meds and he didn't even bother fighting them anymore he was so damn thankful to have that stupid IV out of his hand. He flirted with her like she expected him to, and she threatened malpractice like he knew she would. But then it was four and Gilbert could hear the steady clunk of polished shoes on the floor and he ordered her out, taking a moment to verbally mourn the loss of Maher's curvaceous body. He forgot about the dull pain on his forehead from where the good Nurse had flicked one painted nail against his skin in non-suing-pseudo-friendly retaliation as the door handle turned. Gilbert quickly looked around and straightened everything up as best he could, glancing at his reflection in the mirror on his bedside table and giving himself a good once-over to make sure he didn't look like death warmed up.
The door clicked open, and Gilbert could hear his brother exchanging pleasantries with Maher and a surge of irrational anger flooded his system as the nurse kept preoccupying Ludwig when she knew damn well they only got two hours a day. She left a moment later though, and the color came back to his vision as his brother entered the room like he did every day. Hesitant but focused, his bagcarefully placed next to his chair before he sat down and gave Gilbert a very disapproving frown.
"…You know we can't afford a sexual harassment lawsuit."
Gilbert just smirked. "Couldn't help it. Maher said 'I need you'. What other options did I have?"
"Maybe wait for her to finish her sentence?" Ludwig suggested dryly. "As in, 'I need you to hold still before I shove his pen cartridge sized needle in your arm or else blood will splurt everywhere and make a horrible mess'?"
Gilbert hummed in thought. "I don't really like that word. Splurt. All kinds of gross bodily fluid implications."
Ludwig spluttered for a bit before he seemed to get himself under control. "Focus, Gilbert," the blonde growled, his face still tinged a light pink. "The nurse. No more groping. I'm serious this time."
"But I'm bored," Gilbert whined. "And you're only here two hours a day. And the damn television buzzes and gives me a headache."
Ludwig fell quiet at that, fiddling with the cuff of his sleeve. "I… I'm sor-"
"If you apologize, I'm goin' to make you buy me somethin' shiny and explosive," Gilbert threatened. "You're here every day, Bruder. And you keep arguin' with the staff to let you stay longer. You just suck at debatin' is all. Don't beat yourself up about it. It's enough." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the wall behind him as he drawled, "Markus's wife has come to see him once. Once, and the guy's been here five fuckin' weeks."
Ludwig visibly winced. "Poor man. What's his condition?"
"Guy's got a non-malignant tumor on his dick," Gilbert snickered. "Probably why the misses hasn't been around."
"Don't joke about that," Ludwig said automatically. "He's here, isn't he? His condition must be rather serious."
The words were there, unspoken but audible.
Gilbert did his best to ignore them as he muttered, "Yeah, well… the nurses fawn all over him. Probably consider him a non-threat now. Feel sorry for him since his wife has obviously lost interest."
Ludwig chuckled weakly. "That a hint of jealousy I detect in your voice?"
"Hell no." Gilbert's red eyes flickered to the side to catch his brother's blue ones as he grinned. "I've got the better deal."
For a while there was just the ticking of the clock, the steady hum of distant machinery, the rustling spring breeze that was so out of place, and Ludwig's quiet smile.
Gilbert broke the static. "I want to go outside."
Ludwig's smile twisted slightly into a frown. "I… I don't know," he said hesitantly. "The doctor didn't seem to think it would be a good idea…"
"C'mon, Bruder," Gilbert cajoled. "I promise I'll even let myself be wheeled out in one of those goddamn chairs. I just… Can't you feel that? The breeze?"
Ludwig seemed to be warring with himself, his blonde eyebrows knit in thought before he gave a heavy sigh and rose to his feet, muttering, "I'm risking Maher's wrath. You know that, right?"
Gilbert just beamed up at his brother. "Don't let her rack dissuade you!" he called after Ludwig's retreating back. "Be firm, Bruder! Firm yet supple!" He could practically hear the blonde flushing even from his stationary position, but lo and behold, a few minutes later Ludwig returned with one of those damn wheelchairs that Gilbert tried very, very hard to be happy to see. But outside. Outside was good.
He swatted away Ludwig's hand as his brother tried to help him into the chair, grumbling, "I'm not a damn invalid."
Ludwig snorted but backed off. "I beg to differ," he mumbled, but his blue eyes were shining with some stupid sort of happiness as Gilbert managed to pry himself up and collapse into the chair with a sigh of relief. The albino pointed to the door with one bony finger, and barked out, "Mush! To the gardens!"
He heard Ludwig sigh behind him, but the blonde obliged and began pushing him out the room and into the hall. Gilbert took the time to flick off the orderly as he zoomed by at the breakneck speed of two steps a second, but Ludwig's immense build and scary, scowling face must have gotten through to even Becker's single-cell organism brain, because the huge mass of fat just stood there and glowered. Gilbert cackled to himself and felt Ludwig poke him in the shoulder.
"What was that all about?" Ludwig murmured. "Not the smartest thing in the world to flip the bird to someone who looks like he weighs as much as a Mack truck."
"He manhandles me," Gilbert sniffed, foot tapping against the rest as Ludwig pulled the chair to a stop to wait for the door to open automatically for them. "And I heard him say to the other orderlies that I reminded him of Voldemort. I took offense."
"…Voldemort?" Ludwig's voice was mired in confusion as he continued pushing the chair again, but then they were outside and Gilbert tilted his head back, ignoring anything and everything except for the feeling of the sun on his face, making his bones feel like they were going to jump out of his body like exploding popcorn, his skin tingling from the weak rays.
He barely noticed they'd stopped next to a bench, or that Ludwig was sitting next to him and saying something. The breeze buffeted his hair about, tugging on the thinning strands like a caress, and Gilbert moved to slide out of the wheelchair, landing on the soft grass with a quiet 'oof'. Ludwig made a small, muted noise of alarm, and in a moment the sun's warmth was blocked by a heavy arm around his shoulders, and the blue in his vision was not longer the robin's egg color of the sky, but icy and concerned.
Gilbert gently pushed his brother away, leaning backwards against the bench and stretching out his legs in front of him, bare toes wiggling against the plush grass. "'m fine…" he murmured absently, gesturing for Ludwig to sit next to him, red eyes drinking in as much of the simple garden scenery as he could.
"Falling off a wheelchair doesn't normally constitute 'fine'," he heard Ludwig mutter, but Gilbert just gave his brother a reassuring pat on the knee before tuning him out again. They sat in easy silence, shoulders and knees knocking together, shadows moving slowly across the grass as the sun dragged across the sky.
"… It's six o'clock."
Ludwig just sighed. "I know. Maher's been staring at us through the window for the past half an hour."
"…I'm missin' my sessions." Gilbert let his head rest against his brother's shoulder, the thin t-shirt suddenly not enough to combat the encroaching chill of dusk.
"It's Thursday. Check up day," Ludwig murmured as he surreptitiously shifted his arm to wrap around Gilbert's waist. "I deem you perfectly fine. Done."
Gilbert chuckled lowly at that, his eyes sliding shut. "Wish that were the prognostic I got every day… then I could go home…"
The silence suddenly became heavy, but then a loud tapping against the inside of the closest window of the hospice made Gilbert jump slightly. He looked up to see Maher glaring at him through the glass, pointing at her watch with a delicate, manicured finger. He smirked back at her and just pressed himself more against Ludwig. She glared back but then held up her hand, mouthing, 'five minutes' before she vanished from the window.
Gilbert's expression faltered once she left, and he sighed quietly. "I think we've just been given an ultimatum."
Ludwig's arm tightened slightly, his voice subdued. "By whom?"
"Germany's Next Top Model."
Ludwig chuckled throatily, and Gilbert could feel the noise reverberate against his side, making his ribs ache.
"…So I suppose we should-"
"Don't want you to-"
They both fell silent, and there was just the breeze, no longer warmed by the high sun, and Gilbert forced his voice to be light.
"I'll… I'll see you tomorrow, then."
It wasn't a question. But Ludwig answered without a moment's hesitation.
The wheelchair felt like a prison as it returned him to his room. The bed like an operating table. Sheets scratchy with bleach and new. And Ludwig's hand always made his look too small. Now even more so as he kissed him goodbye, and murmured a quiet, "Don't try and pawn your meds off on me, Gilbert. And no, they don't have any value on the black market that I'm aware of."
And then he was gone, and it was just Gilbert alone in his room with the buzzing television and the harsh lights that made his skin look eerily translucent.
He sat back against his pillows and tugged the comforter to his chest. He gave himself a minute, as he always did, to readjust to the feeling of absence. Then he pulled himself together, lowered the blanket that every day reminded him less and less of their home and more and more of this place.
The grin was forced back on his face, the drawl back in his voice.
The sing-song tone echoed against the concrete walls.
Maher stuck her head in, brown eyes narrowed to thin slits, as she snapped, "What, Weil-… Herr Weillschmidt."
He waved at the television. "This machine has been exacerbatin' my condition. I need a plasma screen."
With a flurry of muffled curses, the busty beauty stormed out of the room and Gilbert let himself laugh.
Twenty three hours and thirty two minutes.
He could wait.
"'The drama's done. Why then here does any one step forth?'..."
The windows were shuttered as the storm lashed against them, the muted baritone overthrown by loud claps of thunder before regaining its voice.
"'Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring…'"
Footsteps outside the door paused to listen, drawn into the words by the steady tone, before moving quietly onward, keeping their own voices hushed in reverent silence.
"'Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.'"
Ludwig snapped the book shut with an air of finality and from the bed Gilbert gave a ragged cheer.
"I thought that damn thing would never end," the pale man groaned, and Ludwig laughed quietly. "Need I remind you that this was your choice?" he murmured, placing the book in the cardboard box next to Gilbert's bed, balancing it carefully upon the other novels already laid to rest. "And we would have finished sooner if you hadn't gone on that 'Penthouse Forum Articles Only' strike."
His brother sighed, and muttered quietly, "The endin' was alright though… Ishmael adrift on that coffin in the middle of the ocean… the coffin that wasn't even his…"
Ludwig remained silent, walking over to the bookshelf to select the next title. The shelves were growing lean.
He sat back in his chair and flipped open to the first page, but a thin hand on his wrist stopped him. He looked up and Gilbert's pale eyebrows were furrowed as he shook his head.
"I'm tired of hearin' other people's words today," he said quietly. "Could you just… talk unscripted for a bit?"
Ludwig closed the book, and took Gilbert's hand in his. "Can't promise my prose will be on par," he said as lightly as he could, and his brother smiled weakly.
"If you were half as good at stringin' stuff together as some of these guys, I'dve pimped out your diary long ago for some extra cash," Gilbert quipped, resting against the headboard with a lazy smile on his face.
Ludwig's eyes narrowed. "Journal. And you wouldn't dare."
"Diary," Gilbert corrected. "And you know me better than that."
The lights flickered as another wave of thunder made the bricks in the hospice tremble, and Gilbert's red eyes lit up with childish excitement. "Turn the lights off," he said suddenly, waving his hand at the switch by the door. "And open the curtains."
Ludwig gave a quiet, patronizing sigh but did as he was told, fumbling around in the sudden dark so as not to crash into anything. The afternoon was black with clouds that rolled across the sky like a mass of boiling tar. Another flash of lightning made the room light up in stark monochrome, and Ludwig turned in time to see Gilbert staring at the window with a look of subdued longing on his face. His brother shifted as though to stand, and even though the warning tore at him, Ludwig still murmured, "Gilbert… don't…"
With an unfettered growl, Gilbert collapsed back against the bed, face a mask of fury as his body fought to rebel.
"I want to see," he snapped, lips curled up in an angry snarl.
"Then ask," Ludwig said as calmly as he could, fetching Gilbert's wheelchair from its place next to the door, but his brother's voice stopped him.
"If you try and get me to sit in that thing again I swear to God you'll be restricted to one in about thirty seconds," Gilbert bit out. "Just… just help me move to the chair."
Ludwig gave a quiet sigh, but did as Gilbert asked, looping one arm underneath his brother's, supporting him as he took three shaky steps and then lowered himself with as much dignity as he could into the hard wooden chair. Gilbert propped his elbow up on the sill, red eyes staring out into the storm, his anger seeming to abate as a torrent of lightning rained across the sky. Ludwig leaned against the window frame, pressing his hand against the glass to feel the rain patter against it. He saw Gilbert do the same as the relentless hour hand slid over the five.
"…I don't want you to go."
Another flash of lightening. Then a muffled groan.
"I left all the windows in the house open."
Gilbert laughed, the sound stifled by the rain against the window.
"Does that mean you'll be puttin' down new hardwood floors like you've been threatenin' to do for the past two years?" he jeered. "'The threat of mildew is imminent!' you said. 'Get your damn towels off the floor!' you said. Ha. Turns out I'm not the main culprit after all. You and your forgetful brain are ruinin' the resale value of our fine estate, I'll have you know. What on earth would Groβvatti think?"
Ludwig knelt down next to the chair to silence Gilbert's mocking laughter with a firm kiss before he pulled away, muttering, "Somehow I think the condition of the house would be the least of his worries…"
Gilbert smirked. "True." He leaned forward to kiss his brother again, his fingers curling against the fogged windowpane, thin streaks of condensation trickling down from the warmth of his hand to pool atop the wooden sill.
The hand on the clock moved to six.
A knock on the door, and Ludwig forced himself to pull away, gently untangling his fingers from the soft tendrils of silver hair, absently licking his bruised lips.
"I… I think I have to go." He stumbled.
Gilbert's hand gripped his arm with a strength that was not his own, an empty grin on his face.
"Gotta start replacin' those floors. I expect to be able to see my reflection in them when I get back," he said quietly.
Ludwig smiled, cupping his hand against Gilbert's proud jaw.
The sky was pale gray, thunder rolling in the distance.
"When you get back."
All the nurses were gathering by his door whispering to each other. And even when Gilbert snapped, "I'm not fuckin' deaf!" all they did was scatter for a few blessed minutes before coming back again, like tiny, annoying vultures that refused to take a fucking hint.
The flock had grown to twelve, all of them flitting about in their little white uniforms and trying to bring him things like tea and blankets and all he longed to do was snarl at them and inform them that all he wanted was a goddamn answer.
Four forty three.
"Where is he," Gilbert muttered, toying with the cover of the current book they were working their way through.
At forty past five, the nurses around his door suddenly scattered, and Gilbert checked in the mirror to make sure he looked pissed off enough as he heard the sound of familiar shoes out in the corridor. Ludwig rounded the corner and walked calmly into the room and set his bag down. The blonde paused and tilted his head to the side, glancing behind himself as a few nurses quickly withdrew their heads. He turned back around to face Gilbert and visibly faltered.
"…Gil?" Ludwig said cautiously, "What's going on?"
Gilbert just glanced at the clock and back at Ludwig. "Thought you weren't comin'," he said evenly, red eyes narrowing slightly.
Ludwig gave a quiet huff before collapsing in his usual chair. "I told you yesterday. I had a make-up exam."
"You said it would take an hour, tops," Gilbert said, trying to keep the hurt out of his voice.
Ludwig shifted in his seat. "I grabbed a coffee with some friends afterwards," he said casually, picking up the book off the bedside table and flipping open to where they'd left off.
Gilbert felt his entire body stiffen, and before he could stop himself he spat out, "A damn cup of coffee couldn't wait until after six o'clock? You can see your goddamn friends any time you want."
Ludwig's blue eyes flashed dangerously and he set the book down, folding his arms over his chest. "The 'damn cup of coffee' barely took twenty minutes."
Gilbert bit back a snarl as he said slowly, "You're pretty good at arithmetic. Tell me, Ludwig. What percentage of two hours is twenty minutes? What percentage of your entire fuckin' day is two goddamn hours?"
"Forgive me if I wasn't exactly eager to come back here," Ludwig muttered. "Yesterday you called me a pompous asshole and said a rabid porcupine would be capable of engineering more interesting conversation."
"I was bein' facetious!" Gilbert's entire leg spasmed as it was now wont to do, and he clenched his fingers against his thigh and swallowed a yell of pain. "But thanks. Nice to see where your priorities lie."
"It has nothing to do with priorities!" Ludwig snapped, his veneer of calm entirely shattered. "All I did was get a cup of coffee and you're acting like I spat in your face."
"You may as well have," Gilbert muttered bitterly. "I'm not even allowed to drink coffee anymore."
"Stop being melodramatic," Ludwig sighed in exacerbation. "You're not-"
"What I am is fuckin' trapped!" Gilbert yelled. "No melodrama involved! I can't fuckin' move from this goddamn bed without a thousand doctors swoopin' in to shove me full of needles and give me yet another stellar lecture about my bone and muscle density!"
"You don't think I'm trapped?!" Ludwig shouted back, his blue eyes almost white with anger. "I have my own damn life to live, Gilbert! And yet somehow whenever I try and do that, you just end up making me feel guilty as hell!"
"Because that used to be our life!" Gilbert snarled, his voice catching on the words. "They were my friends and my coffee shop and we existed outside of this goddamn room! So don't you fuckin' talk to me about livin' when the only glimpse of that I get is for two miserable hours a day! I'm sick of your martyr attitude and your goddamn-"
A knock on the door, and then the nurse's chipper voice called out hesitantly, "Herr Weillschmidt? Is everything alright? It's almost six… visiting hours are over…"
Ludwig immediately jumped out of his chair as though stung, grabbing his pack with a quiet and nearly inaudible, "Thank God."
Then he was gone.
Gilbert stared through the open door out into the hallway, and the minute a nurse paused to look in at him with a pinched expression on her face, he picked up Ludwig's spare pare of reading glasses off of the side table and hurled them at the door, aiming for the stupid bitch's face. She shrieked and fell back into the hallway, and Gilbert allowed himself a brief moment of vicious triumph before he caught a glimpse of the broken glasses on the floor. His chest started to hurt and his head was pounding and finally he couldn't take it anymore and he hugged his pillow against his face and screamed until his lungs burned and his throat was ripped to shreds. He barely felt the needles jabbing into his arms as the pillow was yanked away from him, numbness blurring the edges of his vision until he sank blissfully into unconsciousness.
Ludwig hesitated outside Gilbert's door, guilt still wrapping its claws around his throat. He'd been standing still for about three minutes now, eyes tracing the pattern of the wood grain in the door. Every nurse that passed by him gave him a sympathetic stare, and even the orderlies spared him a monosyllabic grunt.
A thin hand came to rest on his shoulder, making him jump, and Ludwig turned to see the good Nurse Maher staring at him with an unimpressed expression on her face.
"If you're not in that room within fifteen seconds," she said softly, "I'm going to replace your lungs with plastic bags. Bags filled with many holes."
Ludwig flushed slightly as he mumbled, "Don't you think I'm trying? It's not as easy as all that. Not after what I said yest-"
"Save it for someone who cares," the nurse droned. And with one, quick motion she twisted the handle of the door and pushed him inside. Ludwig stumbled forward, taken off guard enough that the minuscule nurse's gentle shove was enough to move him.
The door closed behind him.
Ludwig braced himself against the wall and slowly stood up, turning to face Gilbert's bed. His brother was propped up against the headboard with an open book on his lap, his face torn between shock and anger. Gilbert's red eyes narrowed for a moment before he crossed his arms and looked towards the window.
"Did you bring it?"
Ludwig blinked, any hesitant apologies he was mentally formulating crumbling to dust as he stared at his brother in confusion.
"Did you bring it?" Gilbert repeated slowly, red eyes shifting to glare at him. "Remember? You swore that if you ever said somethin' more asinine than I ever have that you'd apologize by buyin' me my own country to lord over. So. Did you bring the deeds to this shiny new country of mine? Is it populated by magical tiger minions like you promised?"
Ludwig's mouth twitched slightly, but mostly he just felt relief flood his system, making his knees give out. He sank down into his chair, and buried his head in his hands.
"Sorry," he said softly. "The UN is out of countries. They're expecting a new shipment in on Tuesday."
Ludwig didn't get the laugh he was looking for, but he did hear Gilbert give a derisive snort.
"Figures," the albino muttered. "The one time I get to call you out on that…"
Ludwig raised his head and gave a weak grin before rising to his feet and moving over to the window. "I couldn't get you the country, but…" He glanced over his shoulder to make sure the door was closed before he opened the window and scrambled out, holding up one finger to motion for Gilbert to hold on a moment. He returned a moment later, hoisting the paper bag he'd stashed outside up into Gilbert's room, slightly out of breath from having to crawl down the gutter to retrieve the thing. He clambered back through the window, flushing a bit as he leaned back on the sill. "I… I know it's not the same as going out, but…"
He stood up and handed the bag out towards Gilbert, the fingers of his free hand nervously twisting themselves around a loose thread in his sweatshirt. Gilbert hesitated a moment before accepting it, raising one eyebrow at his brother. But Ludwig just mutely shook his head and sat back down in his chair while Gilbert opened the paper bag, blue eyes flicking up to gauge the albino's reaction. The smile that came over his brother's face was worth the climb a thousand times over.
"I had to hide it outside," he said quietly. "The nurses check my stuff now… ever since I tried to bring you in that… that porn like you asked. And I swore it was the last time I did you a favor, but-"
"Bruder. Shut up."
Ludwig's mouth closed automatically.
Gilbert took a sip of the coffee, a small smile on his face. "From that place on the Platz?"
"One and the same."
Gilbert made a small noise of approval. "Karin still working there?"
"She is." Ludwig settled back in his chair, retrieving his own, not so extravagant cup of coffee from the bag on Gilbert's lap, mentally breathing a sigh of relief as they fell back into normalcy. "She's dating that guy who was in your metal working class. Uh… Tobi."
Gilbert rolled his eyes, cradling the cup of coffee to his chest. "Thought the girl had better taste. She had a crush on me, didn't she?"
Ludwig drank a bit more of his coffee and gave a tiny hum, "Gilbert, according to you, the world at large had a crush on you at one point or another."
"Damn straight." Gilbert sounded pleased with himself. "I mean, come on. Even you weren't immune to my awesome vibes."
"'Awesome vibes'. What is this, a seventies flashback episode?" Ludwig muttered, a light flush staining his cheeks.
They drank their coffee in silence for a moment.
"I didn't mean it."
Gilbert didn't respond, just reached into the paper bag to retrieve one of the scones Ludwig had stashed in there as well.
Ludwig tried again.
"I was having a horrible day. I hadn't been sleeping. I hadn't studied for the exam. The dog I had to operate on died on the table…" He trailed off, staring for a moment at the uncaring lid of his coffee cup. "…But those are just excuses. What I said… I didn't-… I didn't mean-"
"Yes you did."
Ludwig looked up as Gilbert spoke, his blue eyes wide. "N-No, Gilbert. I-"
"You meant every word." Gilbert took another calm sip of his coffee. "But it's true. I don't want you to live your life. I do make you feel guilty. I do it on purpose. Because every minute you spend out there with them is another minute you should be spendin' with me. Is another minute I'm stuck here." The albino's hand shook slightly as he set his coffee cup down on the comforter and turned slightly to catch Ludwig's eyes in the corner of his vision. "You meant every word," he said impassively, voice dull as the bleached yellow walls of the room. "I shouldn't keep you trapped here. You shouldn't be forced to-"
"No one's forcing me to do anything," Ludwig said firmly. "I'm here because I want to be, Bruder. I'm here every day because it's what I need. Until… until you come home. I'll be here." He cautiously reached out his hand to rest atop Gilbert's thin one, raising his eyes to meet Gilbert's averted red ones. "Every day. Like I promised."
After a moment Gilbert turned his head to look at his brother, a small frown on his face. "…Yeah, well… you promised me my own country too," he muttered. "Look how that panned out."
But the frown was gone and the smirk back in a moment as Gilbert took another generous swig of his coffee. "'Course, you did bring me coffee," he drawled, thoughtfully tapping his finger against the lid of the cup. "I figure you do this… oh, twice a week. I might gain the capacity to forgive you."
Ludwig gave a weak smile. "I think your doctor would flay me alive if I snuck coffee in for you that often. Even with this we're risking-"
"Stop, stop," Gilbert sighed. "I don't want to hear it. I just want to enjoy my coffee guilt free with my darlin' Bruderlein, and then maybe act distraught enough to get you to fix that damn television once and for all."
Ludwig opened his mouth to protest, but then thought better of it. "Alright," he agreed quietly, "I'll try and keep the guilt trips to a minimum."
Gilbert's eyes slid shut, a small smile on his worn face as he held his coffee cup as though it were the Holy Grail. "Danke, Bruderlein… for the overly apologetic coffee."
Ludwig said nothing, but picked up the book off the bedside table, noting his missing reading glasses but choosing to let it go. He reached into his bag and pulled out his spare pair, before he flipped open to the page they were on and began reading, his low voice barely audible above the hum of machinery dampening the small room.
"'… If she herself had had any picture of the future, it had been of a society of animals set free from hunger and the whip, all equal, each working according to his capacity, the strong protecting the weak.…"
An hour later the cups of coffee lay empty and abandoned inside the garbage can, hidden underneath a stack of paper towels. The book was set aside, the room quiet and still and far too familiar to be considered a temporary dwelling.
Ludwig held Gilbert's hand as his brother slept, running his thumb over the stark tendons, the pallor of his brother's skin an almost deathly glow.
He brushed silver bangs off Gilbert's forehead, and gently pressed his lips against the cool skin, whispering into the humming air.
"Danke, Bruder… for drinking decaff without a fuss…"
Gilbert clutched his pillow to his face, trying to will himself to stop. He heard Nurse Maher's clipped voice ordering the other nurses around, but he didn't really care. Couldn't bring himself to care, so much of his energy was focused on shutting the fuck up.
He distantly heard the door click open, Maher barking out, "Now's not really a good time, Herr Weillschmidt. You-"
"What the hell is going on?!"
Gilbert hugged the pillow tighter, not wanting even the smallest bit of his face to show as his body continued to rebel against him.
"It's his meds, Herr Weillschmidt. Doktor Schultz put him on a new medication and he's not reacting well to it. He-"
"Not reacting well? How do you mean? Is it making him sicker, or…"
"Not physically, no," Nurse Maher said brusquely. "But he is in no state to see you right now, so I suggest you-"
Every voice in the room fell silent, and Gilbert felt a large, calloused hand gently brush against his.
"Bruder? Are… are you alright?"
Ludwig's voice was barely audible.
Gilbert shook his head, but then choked out, "G-Get-… get …out…"
He heard the nurse sigh. "Alright, Herr Weillschmidt. You heard your brother. He doesn't want to see you right now. You can come back tomorrow and-"
Gilbert wrenched the pillow away from his face to glare at the nurse as best he could with tears still streaming down his face.
"I-I want my Bruder, Maher," he choked out, running a hand angrily over his eyes. "Get the hell out."
The nurse looked a razor's edge away from flagrant homicide, but after a moment she obediently left, shooing her flock of subordinates out with her as she went.
With the distraction gone, though, there was nowhere to look but at Ludwig. Gilbert forced himself to keep staring at the comforter as a fresh wave of sobs wracked his body. He pulled his hand away from Ludwig's and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes as though trying to force the humiliation back inside.
"I-I'm s-sorry," he sobbed, wishing the floor would swallow him whole. "D-Don't want you to s-see…I c-can't… s-stop…The meds… th-they fucked u-up my head and all I c-can think about i-is… b-bad things…"
The room was quiet again except for Gilbert's ragged gasping as he fought to get his body back under control, hoping that the thought of his brother having to bear witness to his most humiliating moment would maybe shock him enough that he'd be able to stop.
But it wasn't working. And every fresh sob, every broken cry that managed to worm its way out of his body just made him wish the disease would take him faster. He'd never cried in front of Ludwig. Never cried at all, in fact. Not since forever ago. And now to have his mind hijacked like this, to have his body ignore every austere rule he'd forced upon it for twenty five years was more than he could stand. He opened his mouth to order Ludwig away. To cut their already short time even shorter when-
"You've seen me cry, Bruder."
Ludwig's voice was warm against his ear, his arms solid around his own trembling shoulders. Gilbert tried to pull away, but his brother's grip didn't waver.
"You've seen me at my worst… below my worst…"
The bed dipped slightly as Gilbert felt Ludwig move to sit next to him, a gentle hand tugging on his own. Gilbert tried to resist, but his own muscles were weak and useless and in a matter of seconds his eyes were bared, staring up into Ludwig's bright blue ones. Gilbert could see himself reflected in them. Could see what a disgusting mess of tears and sweat he was. What a fucking coward that couldn't stop crying even when Ludwig's thumb brushed just underneath his lashes.
But what he couldn't see… was scorn. Revulsion. And he looked, blinking back the tears to clear his eyes as he searched for even the faintest hint of disgust. But it wasn't there.
He shakily reached out to mimic Ludwig's movements, cupping his brother's cheek as he continued to sob. "B-Bruderlein… I hate this… I h-hate cryin'… in front of y-you…"
Ludwig's expression twisted and his blue eyes slid shut as he pulled Gilbert into a hug, murmuring softly, "I know... I know you do. Just hold on to me, Gil… "
Gilbert clung to his brother's shoulders as best he could, his arms shaking as he pressed his face against Ludwig's neck. It took time. It took a long, long time, but finally Gilbert's wracking cries grew stifled, his breath came in shuttering gasps as he slowly but surely gained control of himself. The torrent of noise in his head petered out, and he could finally hear again. Ludwig's heart pounding. His brother's deep voice murmuring quietly. The steady drone of machines. His own disgusting breathing. His teeth chattering.
He cautiously pulled away, and Ludwig let him sit back against the headboard. Gilbert was shocked at how drained he felt. He could barely keep his eyes open enough to see Ludwig fetch a box of tissues and bring them to his bed, offering them hesitantly.
"…Better?" the blonde asked, face still pinched with worry.
Gilbert mutely shook his head as he took a few of the tissues to blow his nose and to mop at his damp face. A few tears still managed to leak out every now and then, but Gilbert swiped at them angrily. "'m fine," he muttered, tossing the tissues in the direction of the trash can. They fell about four feet short. And that, more than anything, summed up how Gilbert was feeling. Used tissue on a hospice floor, only a few feet away from being permanently discarded.
Ludwig moved off the bed to throw away the tissue, and Gilbert had to stop himself from protesting to try and save the pathetic tissues. In a moment, though, his brother returned, settling back down on the bed as he gave a quiet sigh. "If I promise to erase this from memory… will you be honest with me?" Ludwig asked, softly brushing his lips against the damp skin just under each of Gilbert's eyes.
Gilbert let out an unsteady sigh. "…Honest about what?"
Ludwig pressed a kiss against his brother's temple, murmuring, "About why you were crying."
Gilbert stiffened. "I told you, the drugs-"
"Are an excuse."
Gilbert snarled and tried to pull away, "You think I'm just cryin' for no good reason then?!"
"I didn't say that," Ludwig said quietly. "There's always a good reason."
Gilbert's red eyes flashed, but his bottom lip trembled, betraying him. "It is the drugs," he insisted, voice tight with self-restraint. "It is. It is, but…"
Quite suddenly, he found himself crying again, the tears slowly running down his cheeks. But it was calm this time. Calm and silent as he clung to his brother's arms and rested his head against the younger man's chest.
"…I'm scared, Bruder."
Gilbert dug his fingers into Ludwig's arms, trying desperately to hold on to all he had left.
"I'm so scared…"
Ludwig opened the door to Gilbert's room.
He refilled the water pitcher on the side table.
Gilbert was asleep.
Ludwig pulled his books out of his bag and started studying.
Ludwig put his books away and placed a gentle kiss to his brother's forehead.
Gilbert was asleep.
He straightened the note he'd left behind on the side table.
Ludwig closed the door to Gilbert's room.
Nights were the worst.
Gilbert stared at the ceiling, listening to the quiet moans coming from the room next door. He weakly slammed his fist into the wall, yelling as loudly as he could, "Markus! Shut the fuck up!"
There came a muffled, "Screw you, Weillschmidt!" from the other side, but then silence once again reigned supreme.
Gilbert tried to get comfortable, but the IV in his hand was itching like crazy, and the tiny ache that had started plaguing his chest was back in full force. For a few hours he just concentrated on breathing. Anything to keep his thoughts away from that dark place they slipped to when it was late and he was alone.
Four in the morning was when things always got bad.
This particular brand of panic was a funny sort of thing. It was always there, residing in the back of his mind. Always demanding his attention, no matter how slight. Every so often it would rear its head just to see what was going on and then either decide to sink its little fangs into his heart or go back to sleep. The only time it was ever, truly silent was for those two precious hours a day.
But four in the morning was when the thing stopped playing nice. It ate away at him, and every noise, every slight creak of his joints was that thing. Tiny little aches and pains made him convinced that at any moment that damn machine attached to his chest was going to stop beeping and start flat-lining. That his heart would give out. That everything stuffed within him would melt into useless goo and he'd be lying there for days. No one to talk to. No lungs to breathe though. No eyes to see through.
Five in the morning was when the spell first began to crack. It started with the newspaper hitting the door. Exactly at five oh three. Every morning. From the sound of the dull thud, Gilbert counted the seconds. The minutes. Until finally, finally the morning shift started, one-thousand six hundred and twenty seconds later. And muffled voices sounded down the hall, and the sharp bite of coffee drove away the lingering scent of antiseptic. And then at promptly six o'clock, Nurse Maher would come storming into his room, and Gilbert was so grateful to have solid, undeniable proof that he wasn't the only thing left in the world that he'd try and talk to her, even though talking to Maher before she'd had an army's worth of caffeine usually ensured that your meal that day would be grotesque enough to make even starving rats turn up their noses. But with Maher came the sun, peaking through his curtains until she ripped them open, and the light… oh the light… It flooded him. Because the light… meant that it was only nine hours and eighteen minutes until Ludwig came and the thing inside his skull shut up.
…But today was cloudy. And it was Nurse Maher's day off.
Gilbert lay in the dark, his fingers nervously tapping against the metal frame of his bed. Door closed so the smell of coffee stayed barricaded in the hallway. Rain drummed against the window, drowning out the sound of his shallow breathing. Breathing that was more and more painful every second. There was a vice around his lungs that moved in time with the clock.
A turn of the screw.
A turn of the screw.
That ticking. That insistent ticking and now Gilbert didn't find that story about the man with the heart hidden under his floorboards so very damn funny. The ticking was in his head, and he pressed his hands against his ears to try and keep it out. And the rain made the ticking louder and there were no voices and he was alone. Alone, God he was alone and going to die. Dying even now. His hour come to rest at last. A rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem.
The knock on the door startled him, and Gilbert could only stare at the nurse as she brought in his food and set the tray on the side table. She flashed him a cotton fogged smile and her pink nails were shells on a beach with a little fleshy snail inside each of them, worming and writhing and she was asking him how he was today and Gilbert answered, "Slouching" because it was the only word left in his head. And she gave him a funny look and turned on the television and left.
Gilbert stared at the tray, but all he could see were the snails in their pink shells. So he turned on his side and counted the stripes in the pristine wallpaper.
In a rare moment of clarity, Gilbert realized he was going mad. There were faces in the stripes on the walls. Like in that story, about the woman locked all alone in the room and she could see a woman trapped in the wallpaper. It was yellow. The paper.
The knowledge didn't surprise him, but it did make the vice around his lungs tighten another notch.
After stripe counting time was over, the woman came back and tried to scold him for not even trying to eat.
"Ah, well. Your brother will force you to eat something, I'm sure."
Gilbert sat up, blinking at the nurse who was staring back at him with an equally blank expression.
"…When is-… What time is it?" Saner to ask in real people's terms. Real people who didn't measure time by footsteps on the linoleum floor.
She looked at her watch, ignoring the clock on the wall even though it was the size of a blue whale's eye and her watch was buildings all stacked atop each other.
Eleven twelve one two three five. Five more hours.
"Thanks." The clock was clock sized again. But it was staring at him. "Open the damn curtains."
With a clack of heels and an indignant inhalation of air through nasal passages, the curtains were opened. She left.
Gilbert stared back at the clock, his red eyes narrowed.
"…The fuck is wrong with me."
The little hand dragged itself over the twelve, then separated from its big hand lover just a bit. And the next time they came close, there was a crack between them. It was better than a soap opera. Gilbert watched in mild fascination and horror as the gap grew wider and wider and then-
Shoes on the floor.
The drama of the clock was forgotten as Gilbert looked eagerly at the door. It slid open and Ludwig came stumbling inside, his normally slicked back hair damp and falling in his blue, blue eyes. And the vice tightened.
Ludwig collapsed in his chair and gave a loud sigh. "What a day. God… Sophia lost half the files we were supposed to be reviewing and-
Without thinking, Gilbert reached out and grabbed his brother by the back of the neck, tugging him down to press his lips against his brother's as hard as he could. He was weak, and his arms were trembling, but the vice was getting tighter and tighter and usually this was what helped but Ludwig was trying to pull away and Gilbert was too weak to hold on and-
"Wha- Gilbert, what the hell are you doing?!"
Ludwig's voice was breathless, and he was angry. His eyes only flashed like that when he was angry.
But Gilbert didn't care.
"The fuck's it look like I'm doin'?!"
Another quick jerk and Ludwig was his again. But it was wrong, all wrong no matter how hard Gilbert tried and when he pulled away for a second time Gilbert let go immediately, his hands burning from where they'd touched his brother.
The clock was staring at him and making him feel self conscious and humiliated and he buried his face in his hands just so he didn't have to look anymore.
"…You don't want me."
The pelting rain almost swallowed his voice.
Gilbert could feel himself crying from a very distant place, his entire being focused on the words.
"B-Bruderlein… why you don't want me anymore…"
The gentle hand on his shoulder broke him, and with a wretched snarl Gilbert shoved it away, his gaunt face twisted and mean as he bit out, "Don't touch me, Ludwig."
Ludwig's voice was quiet and sensible. Like always. "Gilbert… It's not that. I mean just… just look at yourself. You're not supposed to be-"
"I. Know." He was a skeleton now. With skin and eyes and hair and all the fleshy bits inside but still a skeleton. "Don't touch me. Not ever again."
He heard the scrape of the chair as Ludwig settled back down. "…I'm sorry."
That didn't help. Gilbert clutched at his bony wrists, and wished very much he could still punch things. "I don't fuckin' care how sorry you are," he said amiably. "Now either start readin' or get the fuck out. I don't want to hear anythin' real today."
There was just the clock and him for a moment before the rustling of pages chimed in. And then Ludwig's voice. Different though. Through a strainer or the eye of a needle it was thin and stretched.
"…'He will be your true Christian: ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify, sick to the very heart at the thought even of killing a fly. Reclamation! Joy before the angels of God! The point is that it works…'"
The two hours were two weeks. Two eons where people built pyramids and fought each other and fucked and replicated and made cars and shiny things to take them places so they could fight and fuck around the world.
Then the book closed.
Gilbert didn't move.
"Please, I… what can I do to make this better?"
Gilbert sat up and pointed at the yellow wallpaper.
"…Hand me that clock."
Without a moment's hesitation, Ludwig stood up and walked over to the wall, reaching up and plucking the clock from its home. He moved back to his chair and sat, handing the clock to his brother.
Gilbert cradled the thin plastic in his thin hands and watched the hands move along their tracks. Maybe they didn't like moving in circles. Maybe they wanted to move in a square. Or a spiral.
"Gilbert… Why are you-"
He slammed the clock into Ludwig's face. There was the delicious sound of cracking plastic bones and ripping cartilage springs and no more ticking, no more voice and Gilbert laughed with vicious delight because he was finally, finally free and he didn't care what it cost, he-
"Gilbert… Why are you staring at the clock?"
The clock was in his hands. Intact. Hands moving in circles, not squares.
He threw it against the wall where it exploded like a plastic, spring loaded firework. The pieces clattered to the floor and Gilbert fell back on the bed with a satisfied sigh. He grinned up at Ludwig.
Ludwig's eyes were blue. Blue like the bits of clock on the floor.
"…Did… Did the clock make you angry?"
Gilbert laughed, his thin chest heaving as the laugh dissolved into a cough. He could feel the heat from Ludwig's hand hovering a few centimeters from his skin, and he shifted just enough to close the gap. Ludwig flinched away, but Gilbert wordlessly shook his head and grabbed Ludwig's hand with his bony fingers.
"N-No," Gilbert stuttered weakly. "D-Don't… don't leave me… I lied. I always, always lie…"
Ludwig's smile was tired and unsure, but it was real, just like the hand on his arm and the gentle, hesitant lips on his cheek.
The clock twitched weakly on the floor.
Ludwig stared at the nurse at the counter.
She flushed in a way that probably made most men weak in the knees. It just made Ludwig irritated.
"Y-Your brother… has requested no visitors."
Ludwig fought not to roll his eyes. "He always has that outstanding order. No visitors except family."
The nurse looked away.
"…It… It just says no visitors, Herr Weillschmidt."
Ludwig stepped away from the counter, his face a neutral mask.
He turned on his heel and walked back out into the parking lot, trying to swallow around the lump in his throat.
He'd promised. So why…
Ludwig unlocked his car on autopilot and slid into the seat. He buckled his seatbelt and promptly forgot what came next. Something about keys. Turning keys.
He didn't know how long he sat there, hands at ten and two. But a loud knock on the passenger window made him jump. It was the nurse. Ludwig leaned over to open the door and she bent down, beaming at him as she held out a piece of paper.
"From your brother," she chirped, voice like a starling's.
Ludwig reached out and plucked the sheet out of the woman's fingers. "Thanks," he muttered absently.
She left, shutting the car door.
Ludwig fiddled with the note for a moment and then opened it, the thin paper crackling in his hands.
Please come back.
It was Gilbert's scratchy handwriting. But faded. Like when he used to fog up the windows in their grandfather's house and write his name in bold letters and watch it melt away. For days after, if you breathed on the same spot, you could see the faint remnants of the letters that made up his name. Like little stutters on the glass.
Ludwig all but bolted from the car, almost locking his keys inside. He wasn't stopped at the front desk this time, so he was free to barrel down the hallway and into his brother's room.
Gilbert was propped up on his bed, his stark cheekbones casting his face into odd shadows. He turned his head and held out his trembling arm.
"B-Bruderlein… I'm sorry…I-… I'm so tired of you seein' me like this, I just-"
Ludwig moved forward to hold Gilbert against his chest, his arms grown accustomed to how fragile his brother had become. He stroked his hand over the thinning silver hair, gently shaking his head.
"You apologize too much."
He could feel Gilbert trembling, and he slowly trailed his hand down his brother's back, fingers catching slightly on each stark vertebrae.
"…Professor Schuler was asking about you."
"…H-He was?" Gilbert hiccupped. "Why?"
Ludwig smiled and pressed a kiss against Gilbert's hair. "He used your thesis as an example in class."
"O-Oh…" Gilbert sounded cautiously pleased-as though he weren't sure if he were allowed to feel proud anymore. "Good or bad example? …Or god-like?"
Ludwig laughed quietly. "God-like. The man was practically ready to start building an altar to you."
He felt rather than heard Gilbert chuckle as his brother's thin frame trembled beneath his hands. "Finally, someone gets it right…" The older man pulled away and grinned, his red eyes crinkling around the edges with amusement despite the dark bruises that marred his face. And even though the smirk was merely a shadow of his brother's usual debonair and rakish expression, it still made Ludwig's breath catch in his throat with the kind of sad happiness he'd come to embrace.
He reached out his hand to cup Gilbert's cheek, running his thumb along the ugly bruises that speckled the pale skin. "I've missed your smile," he said softly.
Gilbert gave a delicate snort, but tilted his head into the touch, resting his cool fingers against the back of Ludwig's hand. "I don't fuckin' smile. Smirk, maybe. Sneer. I think I might've even leered once or twice. But never smilin'. Please."
Ludwig's mouth quirked up in a grin. "Oh, really? Because I seem to remember a few pictures from a certain birthday of yours where you were not only smirking and sneering and leering, but honest to God smiling."
"…Damn," Gilbert said quietly, his red eyes more alive than Ludwig had seen them in weeks. "Thought you were too drunk to remember. You're talking about my eighteenth, right? When I got my car?"
"A 'car' you call it," Ludwig said scornfully. "Too generous a term. A box with wheels probably gets better fuel economy. Probably moves faster too."
Gilbert let out an indignant 'hey!' and punched Ludwig in the arm. Ludwig pretended like it hurt, and rubbed at the offended area, and Gilbert pretended like he believed him.
"That 'box' is my pride and joy!" Gilbert said, his voice sounding injured. "My legacy! And you better take damn good care of it when I'm-"
The room was quiet, the absent clock's ticking sorely missed.
Gilbert shifted uneasily. "…Sorry," he mumbled. "Wasn't thinkin'."
Ludwig remained silent. His chest hurt.
He pressed his hands against his eyes. "And… And I'm taking care of that pathetic thing you call a car, Bruder. It's in the garage. Right where you left it."
Ludwig felt his brother's hand weakly tousle his hair. "That's my Bruderlein," Gilbert murmured, "Practically clairvoyant when it comes to my whims…"
Ludwig gave an unsteady laugh and lowered his hands to look at Gilbert, "My one and only talent," he muttered. "That's all my résumé says. 'Gilbert mind reader'."
He got the laugh he was looking for and picked up their latest book off the side table. He put on his reading glasses and glanced at Gilbert.
Gilbert nodded and leaned back against the pillows, his thin fingers laced over his chest.
Ludwig gave a quiet cough and began.
"'Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I'd spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn't matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit…'"