October Twenty Fourth
His grandfather was looking at him.
Gilbert tried to glare at the old man, but it was hard when he couldn't even lift his head off the pillow.
He blinked, and turned his head. There was someone else in the room.
"…Yeah?" he asked, trying to remember who else was talking to him.
"Our next book. Which one do you want to pick? There's only seven left on the shelf."
"You could stand to read the Bible. Not that it will do much good at this point."
Gilbert twitched and glared at his grandfather. "Gott, Groβvatti! Would you leave the fuckin' dogma bullshit out of it?!"
His grandfather just glared back, arms crossed over his chest.
Gilbert sneered one last time and then turned over, tired of staring at the wizened face. He blinked.
Ludwig was sitting in his chair, a look of surprise warping his blue irises.
Gilbert pushed himself up a bit and shook his head. "When… when did you get here?" His memories were buried in a swamp. Even when he managed to dredge them up they were covered in slime and moss and were partially eaten by alligators.
Ludwig looked like someone had punched him in the stomach, and Gilbert tried, he really did try, to remember why. He reached out and rested his hand against Ludwig's arm, his fingers like stripped bones next to the tan skin. "Are you okay?" he asked softly. "You don't look well…"
"Why would he be well? Not with how you're touching him like that."
Gilbert withdrew his hand as though burned and glared at his grandfather. "Shut. Up," he hissed. "You're gone. I'm not. Stop damnin' me to perdition from your own private room in Hell you sad fuck!"
Ludwig's voice made Gilbert jump, and he turned around to glare at his brother.
"What?" he snapped. "Is that how we're supposed to great each other from now on? By screechin' like kindergartners?"
Ludwig looked like someone had punched him in the stomach, and Gilbert tried, he really did try, to remember why. He reached out and rested his hand against Ludwig's arm, his fingers like stripped bones next to the tan skin. "… Sorry 'bout that," he apologized, his eyes clouded with worry. "...Are you alright? You don't look so good…"
Ludwig stared down at Gilbert's hand, and then he slowly leaned back in his chair, elbows on his knees, face buried in his hands. Gilbert was starting to get a bit freaked out and he reached out to shake his brother by the shoulder.
"Lutz… Bruder... C'mon man, talk to me," he said quietly. "You're scarin' me…"
Ludwig's shoulders were shaking, and if Gilbert weren't already exhausted from just sitting up he would have moved to hug his little brother by now. As it was, he just tightened his grip as best he could and ignored his grandfather's not-so-subtle sermons. But still, the blonde made no movement, other than to gasp for air, his lungs sounding like a death rattle.
"…Ludwig?" Gilbert was approaching panicked, if his heart rate monitor were anything to go by. "Ludwig, please… say somethin'…"
Ludwig slowly raised his head and stared at Gilbert, his blue eyes pained. He took a deep breath and grabbed Gilbert's hand, engulfing it in his own.
"…Who were you talking to?"
Gilbert frowned. "Who else? Groβvatti," he said matter-of-factly. The guy was standing right there, after all, probably muttering more about how they were both going to hell and the same stupid shit he'd spouted for twenty two years.
Ludwig's face grew pale. He licked his lips and seemed almost terrified as he said slowly, "Gil… you know that Groβvater… he passed away three years ago."
Gilbert stared back. "…And?"
"'And?' What the hell do you mean, 'and'?" Ludwig said, voice cracked and broken. "Gilbert, you're talking to a dead man."
"Well what else d'you want me to do? He's standin' right there yellin' and- Shut the fuck up! I wish to God I had put arsenic in your beer you stupid bastard!" Gilbert snapped, whipping his head around to glare at his grandfather. He turned back around, a sour expression on his face. "Sorry," he muttered, glancing up at Ludwig. "He keeps interruptin' me with more goddamn Bible verses and prophecies about us burnin' in Hell. Just like when the cocksucker was alive."
Ludwig's hands trembled as they held his own, and he shook his head, blonde hair falling in his eyes. "I… I don't remember him ever saying anything like that," he said quietly. "Groβvater hated religious organizations… …Right?"
Gilbert blinked. "He did?"
Ludwig just nodded slowly, and squeezed Gilbert's hand so hard it felt like it was going to splinter. "D-Do… do you talk to dead people often?"
Gilbert rolled his eyes. "What the hell are you talkin' about? I'm no Haley Joel."
Ludwig looked up at Gilbert, shock plain on his face. "But… but you were just talking to Groβvater," he said, blue eyes raking over Gilbert's face. "You just told me."
Gilbert sat up as best he could and stared at his brother, panic making his heart beat a little faster. "…Lutz…Do they have you on-… I mean, are you takin' any medications?" he asked carefully, trying to pull his hand away as gently as he could. "For stress?"
Now Ludwig looked confused. "Medications? N-No… I'm not taking anything…"
Gilbert closed his eyes and gave a small sigh. "Are you sure? Nothin' to relieve stress? Because I could have sworn you told me I was just talkin' to Groβvatti."
Ludwig's voice was almost angry. "But you were! You just said-"
"He's been dead for years, Lutz!" Gilbert snapped falling backwards on his pillows with an irritated sigh. "Just fuckin' let go of the coffin already! Jesus… Bad enough when we had to bury the asshole, you keep diggin' him back up."
They sat in silence for a moment before Ludwig let out a small sound of distress. "So… so who were you talking to?" he asked quietly, and Gilbert had to fight not to roll his eyes.
"You, dumbass," he drawled, fingers tapping against the bed frame. "Which book are we gonna read next? There's only seven left."
The room was completely silent. Gilbert turned his head to stare up at Ludwig, one pale eyebrow raised.
"…Hallo? Earth to Bruderlein…"
Ludwig blinked and then quickly shook his head. "R-Right… books," he murmured. "Seven left."
Gilbert rolled his eyes and stared back up at the ceiling. His brother was such a dork.
A small noise to his right made him jump, and he looked over to see Ludwig sitting in his chair with a small frown on his face.
Gilbert let out a slow breath, feeling his heart rate return to normal. "Damn. You've gotta stop doin' that to me," he muttered.
Ludwig glanced at him, his face haggard. "Doing what?"
"Sneakin' up on me." Gilbert yawned. "When'd you get here?"
Ludwig stood in the doorway of his brother's room, his best glare on his face.
Nurse Maher popped her gum.
Ludwig buried his hands in his hair, the stress of an already bad day making his notoriously bad temper even shorter. "If you do not move from that doorway in three seconds, I'm going to-"
"Punch an innocent woman?" Maher supplied, crossing her arms over her ample chest. "Right. Because the next thing you need is having to pay a lawyer to represent you in a lawsuit on top of all the doctor's bills. Your grandfather's life insurance only goes so far, kid. Don't push it."
Ludwig shook his head, his mind running on repeat, like a record that just kept looping over and over again. "Move."
He heard Maher sigh. "Look, Herr Weillschmidt. Your brother gave me specific instructions not to let you into the room today. He says it 'still counts'-whatever that means-even if you don't actually enter his room."
"N-No." Ludwig ran a hand through his hair, the skipping record in his head getting worse. "I have to see him. I promised. I have to see him."
Nurse Maher swore under her breath, and then muttered, "Hang on a second." She pushed open the door to Gilbert's room and slipped inside. A moment later she returned and beckoned Ludwig to follow. He hurried to do so, one of the day's many burdens lifted off his shoulders. He stopped in front of his customary chair and started to sit down when Maher grabbed him by the elbow and glared at him with all the ferocity her petite frame could muster. "I don't think so," she hissed. "He's asleep, and if he wakes up and sees you here he's going to have my ass. Going against patient wishes could get me fired. Are you understanding me, Herr Weillschmidt?"
Ludwig could do nothing but nod.
She let go of his elbow with a terse, "Good." She walked to the door and said quietly, "I'll give you a minute. No more." She pulled the door shut.
Ludwig sat down in his chair anyway, needing to go through the ritual. Needing something to hold on to even as Gilbert was knocked unconscious by the dozens of drugs coursing through his system, fed to his veins by the maze of tubes binding him in place. Ludwig studied his brother's sleeping face, feeling, more than anything… numb.
This sleeping thing in the bed wasn't his brother.
Gilbert hated sleeping on his back. He always mumbled in his sleep, and the next morning would babble on about some dream he'd had, and Ludwig would be able to piece together the mumbled words with the dream, like filling in the blank word bubbles in a comic book. Gilbert was a light sleeper, and he'd start awake at the slightest noise, be it a squirrel trying to claw its way up their roof or some dog off in the distance howling piteously.
This sleeping thing was nothing like the man Ludwig knew.
He needed Gilbert to be awake. To prove that beneath the unrecognizable skeleton his brother still existed. Battered and weary but still there and alive and his for those two hours a day.
But all Ludwig could feel was nothing. It had been a long, long week.
He went through the rest of the motions, tiding up the room as quickly and quietly as he could, double checking their place in the book. He brushed Gilbert's hair out of his face-the silver bangs long enough to halfway cover his eyes-and placed a kiss on his brother's forehead before grabbing his bag and bolting from the room.
He said nothing to Nurse Maher on the way out. Turned off the radio in his car on the drive home. Opened the front door to their empty house, and made his way upstairs to the bathroom. He locked the door behind him, even though there was no one else to disturb him. A movement born of habit. Like kissing his brother's forehead.
He leaned back against the oak door and slowly slid down to the ground, long legs resting on the cool tile floor. He tried to lose himself in the stillness of the house. The quiet creak of timbers and the eerie tap-tapping of branches against glass panes. But he couldn't feel. Much at all, really.
He gently bumped his head against the door behind him and told himself to stop being selfish. All the doctor's bills were still covered. The mortgage paid. He was healthy. Still slated to graduate in less than a year. Gilbert was-…
…This was the part in the ritual where he was supposed to remind himself, "Gilbert was going to get better."
Ludwig drew his knees up to his chest, and leaned forward, staring blankly at the black and white pattern on the tile. He let out a shaky breath, the black diamond tiles glowing purple around the edges whenever he moved his eyes a bit. Afterimage, or something. He vaguely remembered reading about it in a textbook a few years back. But why black went to purple instead of white he had no idea.
Ludwig closed his eyes. He could still see the pattern. Purple diamonds instead of white. Like a harlequin costume. Purple diamonds instead of-
The word fell dead on the tile the moment it was spoken.
Ludwig's shoulders shook as he cried, the quiet sobs echoing hollowing around the sterile room, against the door that no longer needed to be locked. There was no danger of interruption. No chance that someone would hear him screaming like a madman at the uncaring tile in his bathroom and come running to pound on the door and try the handle and threaten to call the police if he didn't calm the fuck down and open the goddamn door.
Still, the door remained locked.
The tile flashed purple instead of white.
Ludwig's voice. More a vibration than a sound.
He could barely feel it through the haze. The gauze in his ears and over his eyes. Binding his mouth shut. Rendering his legs and arms immobile. Taking everything away from him.
Gilbert wasn't an idiot.
He knew what the gauze was.
He was dying.
Ludwig waved his hand, exhaustion robbing him of most of his words. "'m fine. I promise."
The nurse hesitated in the doorway, her small face pinched as she said quietly, "This… this is really unorthodox, Herr Weillschmidt. The hospice has a policy that-"
"I know the damn policy!" Ludwig snapped, two weeks of only napping and never sleeping making his eyes itchy and his temper razor thin.
The nurse took a step back, her brown eyes wide and Ludwig's anger immediately evaporated.
"Sorry," he mumbled, running a hand over his face. "It's been… a long week."
The nurse glanced at the bed and her expression softened. "Of course," she said quietly.
Ludwig shook his head and brushed the encroaching silence away. "Thank you for the cot." He glanced at his duffle thrown in the corner, a bitter smile on his face. "Would you believe that this is probably going to be the best I've slept in months?"
The nurse laughed, although the noise was uncertain. Like she didn't entirely get the joke. Her bubbly voice trailed off, and she let out the breathy sigh of the downtrodden before saying cheerily, "You're welcome. Let the night staff know if you need anything."
Ludwig just nodded in response and the nurse left, the door sliding shut behind her. A moment later, the lights flicked off and then on again, dimmer than before. Ludwig stood completely still, and the quiet noises of the machine made it sound like the walls were breathing.
In a moment of childish impulse, Ludwig kicked the flimsy cot against the wall, and the loud clatter interrupted the breathing of the walls. It was satisfying. Fleetingly.
Ludwig sank into his chair, absently fiddling with his reading glasses.
"I suppose this is why you hate sleeping here."
The walls exhaled in response.
Ludwig propped his elbow up on the bed, and stared at the comforter.
"It's turned gray," he noted absently, stroking the once soft blanket. "Must be from all the harsh sterilization they do." He laughed quietly, and rested his head against the bed. "Bet you don't resent my Hausfrau ways now, do you."
Someone in the other room gave a wheezy cough.
Ludwig rolled his eyes. "Right. Because that one week I left you alone in the house I didn't come back to find the kitchen on fire. I must just be remembering things wrong."
He grabbed their book off the bedside table, flicking on the bedside lamp. It was like a little sun. A little weak sun. Doing its best, but the grass was still dying.
"Where'd we leave off?"
Ludwig slipped on his reading glasses. The frames were slightly bent. There was a fingerprint on the lens he didn't want to clean off. It was different from his own prints. He glanced at the bed over the top of his glasses.
"It is a weird name. But-… No, I don't think it's a typical American one. How the hell should I know?"
Ludwig gave a quiet sigh and settled in his chair. He began to read.
"'What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can't all be worth dying for.'
'Anything worth living for-'"
Ludwig blinked at the page. There were two little spots there. Little round spots. He furrowed his brow and curiously rubbed at his eyes. His hand came away wet.
He stared at the tiny drops on his hand.
He close the book and rubbed his eyes some more, trying to get rid of the evidence.
"S-Sorry. I don't know what's come over me."
The walls didn't really seem to mind.
It was odd. He kept rubbing his eyes, but nothing seemed to be happening. In fact, it just seemed to be making it worse.
He sat still for a moment. And it was quiet. Even quieter than their house. He'd hoped it would be something else. Something besides the walls breathing and kicking over random pieces of furniture and reading to himself.
He tried to see the bed as just a bed again. But he'd lost that ability to deny.
He buried his head in his hands, the walls continuing their steady breathing.
"Wake up, Bruder…"
The book fell to the floor. But Gilbert didn't move, the respirator doing the breathing for him. Echoing against the yellow walls.
Ludwig wanted to smash the machine to bits as he hunched over, fingers clutching helplessly at the comforter that was a part of this room now. Gray and sterile like the rest of this place. Like Gilbert had become without his red eyes to light up his face.
Ludwig was so sick of crying. It made him feel weak. Even when there was no one else around. But the comforter turned black again wherever it grew damp. Black like it used to be.
He tried to get himself under control, but the damn respirator was still wheezing at him and there were pins and needles stuck in his brother's arms and a tube down his throat and bruises around his eyes and he hadn't heard his brother's voice in three weeks and he was somehow terrified he'd already forgotten. So he needed Gilbert to wake up. Needed his brother to yell at him for being such a girl and punch him like he always threatened to.
But Gilbert just lay there. Not yelling at him. Not punching him or laughing at him or teasing him and it was all Ludwig could do not to barricade himself in the closet-like bathroom until morning came and he could go. Because sitting here with just the machines and the walls and this dead thing on the bed to keep him company was nothing like their home where he could close his eyes and pretend to hear Gilbert barreling down the stairs. Yelling at him from their room to make him a snack. Falling backwards onto the sofa in the living room…
Here the only thing he could pretend was that Gilbert could hear him when he read aloud. That the machines weren't doing the breathing for him. That the arrhythmic beeping wasn't getting slower day by day.
Ludwig wearily sat up, reaching out to hold onto his brother's hand, begging, bargaining, pleading with any god that would listen. With anyone who would care.
The walls breathed.
"Please wake up…"
Ludwig always delivered bad news with the most chipper face.
"And stewed carrots."
Ludwig sat down in his chair and idly poked the so-called food on the tray.
"That's what I said."
Gilbert glared back as best he could. "…Mind if I ask you a few questions?"
Ludwig blinked. "Uh… I guess not?"
Gilbert pushed himself up as best as he could and sighed. "So I finally get the geriatric feedin' tube removed and get to move on to solids." He winced and shook his head. "God. 'Solids.' It's like I'm a child."
"The food matches the personality. Finally."
Gilbert glowered at his brother and crossed his arms over his chest. "Could we save the juvenile banter for-"
"Juvenile? You sure you want to use that word?"
Gilbert all but threw his hands up in the air. "I'm still bedridden, Bruderlein, and here you are insultin' me! I made a miraculous recovery-"
"You accomplished what only fairy tale princesses have been able to: awaken from a coma by the power of true love's kiss."
Gilbert gagged. "I'm goin' to vomit."
Ludwig's eyes widened and he reached for the bucket stashed under the bed and Gilbert rolled his eyes and said piteously, "Fall back, Lutz. Just an expression."
Ludwig settled back in his chair, a light blush on his face as he hugged the bucket to his chest. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Next time I'll just let you be sick all over yourself."
"You wouldn't dare," Gilbert said in a scandalized voice.
Gilbert rolled his eyes and settled back on the bed, picking at a loose thread in the gray comforter. "I bet you liked it better when I was asleep," he muttered. "You could have your vomit bucket all to yourself without fear of interruption."
The room was quiet. Even the lonesome machines in the corner kept their opinions to themselves.
Ludwig coughed lightly and picked up their book off the table, cradling it in his large hands. "Believe me, Bruder. There was nothing I liked about you being asleep. …You snore."
Gilbert groaned like he was supposed to and weakly swatted at his brother's arm. "You're an asshole," he mumbled. "Probably groped me while I was in my coma. Pervert."
"I'm not you," Ludwig muttered petulantly. "I have no latent necrophilia tendencies."
There was another one of those silences that said that it was maybe too early to be joking about these things. But Gilbert was feeling so good – better than he had in months – and jesting with death came easier.
So he laughed, the noise a quiet wheeze in his chest. "I always wondered about those fairy tales where some prince kisses a chick that's been near death for like, years," he said, settling against his pillow. "Her breath must have just been ghastly."
"…I'm going to start reading now."
Gilbert snorted. "C'mon, Bruder. Don't you want to talk about dead princesses?"
"…'It seemed remarkable to Gregor that above all the various noises of eating-'"
"Hey!" Gilbert protested, trying to snatch the book out of Ludwig's hands. "Stop ignorin' me!"
"'- their chewing teeth could still be heard, as if they had wanted to show Gregor that you need teeth in order to eat and it-'"
"These sentences are too damn long," Gilbert complained, still swiping for the book. "The hell was this guy on?"
"I don't know," Ludwig said patiently, although his eyebrow was twitching. "Now sit still. ''…and it was not possible to perform anything with jaws that are toothless however nice they might be. 'I'd like to eat something,' said Gregor anxiously, 'but not anything like they're eating. They do feed themselves. And here I am, dying!'"
Gilbert poked morosely at his lime Jell-o. It wiggled obstinately at him. But lime Jell-o was better than a feeding tube. And a feeding tube was better than no need for one. And the leaves outside were bright orange and chipper and they made even the dull yellow walls look alive with sunshine. And so Gilbert picked up his spoon and began eating. And when Ludwig touched his arm and gave him a quiet smile, he stuck out his tongue and flicked a bit of the carrots at his brother's massive forehead. And life, it seemed, was kind to him for one more day. One day closer to release. One day closer to home. And that, more than anything, more than even the look of shocked indignation on Ludwig's face, made Gilbert want to cry with joy.
But he just ate his Jell-o, and rubbed at the spots where needles used to be.
Only one book on the shelf.
Ludwig ran his hand down Gilbert's back as his brother dry heaved into the bucket, clammy hands desperately clinging to his shoulders. The ragged noises clawing their way out of Gilbert's throat made Ludwig shiver and want to be sick himself.
Gilbert somehow managed to force himself upright and lunged for the glass of water on the table, almost knocking it over. He drank greedily for a few seconds, and Ludwig hoped that-
Ludwig rubbed Gilbert's back again as his brother threw up into the bucket, grabbing the half-empty glass out of clammy hands so it wouldn't spill. He fought back a wave of disappointment and said as soothingly as he could, "You can't do that, Gilbert. Remember what the doctor said? Small sips. Little steps as a time."
Gilbert sat up, pushing against Ludwig's shoulder for leverage and glared at his brother, his dark lips and eyes the only color on his face. "I don't need another damn lecture, Bruder," he snapped, voice as strong as tissue paper.
Ludwig just wordlessly shook his head and took the bucket to the bathroom, washing it out and giving Gilbert a few moments to collect himself before he returned. The bucket went back under the bed, and his hand went back to holding his brother's.
"I know it's frustrating," Ludwig said quietly, blue eyes flicking to the abandoned tray of food. "But you have to take it slowly."
Gilbert gave a bitter laugh and tugged his hand out of Ludwig's grip. "I said I don't need another damn lecture," he spat out. "And don't preach to me about how 'frustrating' it is. At this point, I'd eat an entire goddamn plate of that green slop and be fuckin' ecstatic if I could keep it down for more than a minute."
"The doctor said that small relapses would be normal with this new-"
"I don't give a flyin' fuck what the damn doctor says!" Gilbert snapped. "I was this close, this close to bein' able to go home and he decides to switch my meds! If I didn't think you'd be such a goddamn pussy about it, I'd have you sue his ass for malpractice!"
Ludwig just gave a quiet sigh, for once his temper not getting the better of him. "It's just for another week, Gilbert. Maher keeps brandishing your discharge papers like they're the Holy Grail. Believe me, if you're not gone by then she'll probably just drug you and dump your ass out on the sidewalk for me to pick up."
Gilbert gave a tiny snort that meant that he wanted to laugh, but didn't want to show it. "She would do that, wouldn't she," he muttered, the anger bleeding out of his voice. The pale man flopped back on the bed and let out an angry groan. "I'm just so fuckin' sick of this place…"
Ludwig glanced around the room, for once the barrenness of a place making his heart skip with joy. Gilbert's things were in boxes, stacked up like building blocks of little cities in the corner of the room. The bookshelf was bare, and when the door to the room opened a puff of wind would sweep little dust motes off the shelves and make them whirl and drift about in the small tempest. Anything and everything that was them was in those boxes, save for the comforter that was looking darker and healthier every day. But Gilbert said he wanted to burn it when they got home, and Ludwig didn't ask why. It wasn't really theirs any more. It belonged to this place, so it did not get a box to go home in.
Gilbert was talking. Ludwig turned his attention away from the dust and the absence of books.
"-and ice cream. You didn't move my comics, did you?"
Ludwig snorted, reaching out to gently flick his brother on the forehead. "Please. I value my limbs staying where they are, thank you very much."
Gilbert scowled and swiped at Ludwig's hand, but a moment later wormed back into the pillows, a satiated grin on his face. "Good. Glad to see my threats still hold water."
"Water's about all they can hold," Ludwig deadpanned, and picked up their last book from the side table. He could feel Gilbert watching him as he flipped open to their page and just as he opened his mouth to begin reading, his brother spoke.
"Who made myths so much more real than life?"
Ludwig glanced up from the page, his finger still marking the spot. "Pardon?"
Gilbert waved distractedly at the book. "Myths. Gods turnin' girls into cows so they can fuck them. Women eatin' pomegranates and havin' to live in Hell because of it. Guys stabbin' their eyes out 'cause they screwed their moms… You gotta wonder why that stuff's more easily remembered than the mundane."
Ludwig smiled softly. "The mundane is every day. It doesn't beg to be remembered."
Gilbert turned slightly to stare up at him, an odd smile on his face as well. "…When I was little, I wanted to be-"
"The Awesomer," Ludwig said in despair, groaning quietly. "You wore that damn cape all the time. I still haven't forgiven you for making me your arch nemesis. 'Doctor Dull'."
Gilbert laughed, muffling the noise against his hand. "Yeah. That. It just seemed so… important." He covered his eyes with one pale wrist and gave a shaky sigh. "I just… I never thought I'd grow up and wish to be anythin' but special."
Ludwig reached out and rested his hand over his brother's. "Bet a career as Doctor Dull isn't looking so boring after all," he said lightly, trying to drag Gilbert away from that quiet place he would drift towards far too easily nowadays.
"N-Nah…" Gilbert moved his hands to grin up at his brother, his expression wavering slightly. "Don't want to take your champion title away from you."
Ludwig rolled his eyes and leaned forward to butt his forehead against Gilbert's. "Glad to know you can still be a jerk to me," he muttered, but the words held no malice.
The dark red in Ludwig's vision faded as Gilbert closed his eyes.
"Glad to know you can still be a total buzzkill."
Ludwig pulled away, glancing down at their book again.
Gilbert pulled the comforter up to his chin.
"In their boxes."
Gilbert gave a quiet sigh. "Okay. Last one."
Ludwig slipped his glasses on.
"'From its own wreck the thing it contemplates; Neither to change nor falter nor repent; This, like thy glory, Titan! Is to be Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free; This alone Life; Joy, Empire, and Victory.'"
Gilbert awoke, and he was alone. He sat up, blinking wearily in the darkness, the curtains drawn too tightly to let in even the smallest drop of moonlight pierce the veil. He flopped back down against the bed, but then immediately sat up again, his eyes wide. He felt the mattress beneath him with his disbelieving hand. He knew these sheets. They were red. A color he didn't have to see to know.
But he was alone. He had to double check and make sure, but the other half of the bed was stone cold. Gilbert slipped out of bed, memory guiding him in the darkness as he grabbed the latch on the door and stepped out into the hallway. His bare feet and toes dug against the cool hardwood floors as he padded down the hall, thin hands trailing over the walls, counting the familiar doors.
It was dark. But he was home.
He walked down the stairs, skipping the last two as he always did, and he couldn't remember getting home. But there was a light on past the kitchen and it drew him close like a moth to a flame. The television in the living room was on, and a reading light as well, and all Gilbert could see of Ludwig was one of his feet sticking out past the couch, covered in those stupid wool socks he liked to wear. This particular sock was red and purple, and Gilbert couldn't think of two colors less suited for one another. He made his way into the living room and sat down on the coffee table and watched Ludwig sleep. It had been a long time since he'd seen his brother asleep. Or had it? It could have been just last night and he simply might not remember.
Ludwig stirred, his blonde hair falling into his eyes, and Gilbert tried to think of how he could have gotten here. Not in the living room. He wasn't that lost. In the house.
Ludwig shifted again in his sleep, and then opened his eyes-a slit of blue behind the wheat blonde threads. He closed them again almost immediately as he yawned, socked feet stretching out in front of him before falling back against the sofa. He turned towards Gilbert, who was perched on the edge of the table, and slowly blinked.
"Hello," Gilbert said.
"Hello," said Ludwig.
The house was quiet again for a moment before Ludwig sat up all the way, rubbing the back of his neck as he mumbled, "Time's it."
Gilbert glanced around the room, but the spot on the wall that normally housed the clock was just a darker circle against the lighter wall. "No idea," he admitted, since he hadn't any.
But Ludwig glanced at the VCR and grumbled again. "Four in the morning." He turned and raised an eyebrow at Gilbert before his face softened. "Hospital nightmare again?" he asked quietly.
Gilbert frowned. "Maybe. What're those?"
Ludwig looked startled for a moment but then he said slowly, "Those nightmares you get… where you're still stuck in the hospital. You always wake me up afterwards. …Are you feeling alright?"
Gilbert checked. "Yes. I think so."
Ludwig gave a quiet sigh and held out his arm. "Come here. You're acting off."
Gilbert obligingly moved forward to worm his way between Ludwig and the back of the couch. He butted his head underneath Ludwig's chin like how they used to sleep before he'd gotten so sick.
"…When did I-… when did I come home?"
"Over half a month ago."
Gilbert frowned. "I don't… remember…"
He felt Ludwig sigh, the rumble of his chest as he spoke. "The doctor said you might have some… retention problems. But it shouldn't be permanent."
"Retention problems," Gilbert repeated, splaying his pale hand against his brother's chest. "Is that why my mind feels like a steel sieve?"
Ludwig chuckled, and Gilbert felt the soft brush of lips against his forehead. "Probably."
Gilbert sat still for a moment, listening to the unfamiliar sounds of his familiar house. "…So… Am I… am I better?" he asked quietly.
Ludwig stopped breathing for a moment, and then let out a rush of air. "You really don't remember."
Gilbert shook his head. "I told you," he grumbled, gently punching Ludwig in the stomach.
"Ow. Use your words, Gilbert," his brother grumbled. "I can't keep track of whether or not you're playing the 'amnesia card' just to get me to buy you things."
Gilbert grinned, his brother's voice dispelling some of his anxiety. "Does it work?"
Ludwig shifted uneasily, his blue eyes sliding shut. "…Of course it does."
Gilbert laughed again, propping his elbow against the arm of the couch and resting his chin in his hand to stare down at Ludwig. He trailed a finger down the bridge of his brother's nose, and Ludwig furrowed his eyebrows and halfheartedly glared up at him.
"That tickles," he complained, but made no move to swat Gilbert's hand away.
Gilbert snickered. "You always were a pushover, Bruderlein. Didn't even have the guts to shove me away that first time I jumped you."
Ludwig's face turned as red as the stripes on his socks and his eyes flicked to the side. "Y-You were drunk," he mumbled. "I know better than to try and get you to calm down when all the blood in your system has been replaced with forty proof alcohol."
Gilbert moved his finger to trace his brother's lower lip, red eyes raking over the younger man's face. "…Are you sorry you didn't?"
Ludwig reached out and grabbed his brother's hand, pressing a gentle kiss to the pads of his fingers. "Don't be an ass," he murmured, "You know rhetorical questions irritate me."
Gilbert shivered as Ludwig's dry lips brushed over his palm. "W-Wasn't bein' rhetorical," he muttered. "You can be a hard guy to read."
Long fingers buried themselves in Gilbert's hair as Ludwig pulled him close, his blue eyes strange in the dim light. "I've had enough of reading for a while," he said quietly, and Gilbert barely had time to roll his eyes in fond exasperation before his brother's lips captured his own.
There was no knock on the door. No tread of white shoes on tile. No IV lines tangling or brittle bones to break. Free of the cloying smell of antiseptic and the rattling in his lungs, the pain in his arm from where needles bit into flesh as he had tried to move freely and pretend to be normal again.
They pulled away for air, Ludwig's chest heaving and Gilbert sat up a bit, licking his lips. He grinned and dug his fingers into his brother's shoulders as he purred, "So… what are we doin' tomorrow?"
Ludwig groaned and ran a hand over his face. "Don't tempt me, Bruder… We both have a lot of work to catch up on…"
Gilbert just smirked. "Work, huh… wouldn't it be faster if we got it done… together?" All he got in response though was another weak glare, and he laughed.
"What did I tell you? Total pushover," he drawled, tugging Ludwig's hand away from his face. "I'm surprised you-"
He stopped, tilting his head to the side, his red eyes narrowed. "…You hear that?"
Ludwig blinked, but remained silent. After a moment he glanced up at Gilbert, a worried frown toying with the corners of his mouth. "No… I don't… I don't hear anything."
"It's a buzzin'," Gilbert said quietly, glancing around the room to try and locate the noise. "Tiny. Like a wasp caught in a jar…" The seconds ticked away silently, but Gilbert didn't move, his entire being focused on the isolated sound.
Ludwig sat up, and Gilbert obligingly let him, sitting on his brother's lap with a small frown. He started a bit as Ludwig's hand grazed his cheek, and
Gilbert turned to glance questioningly at him.
Ludwig had a worried expression on his face, and his voice was low as he asked softly, "Where did you go just now?"
"Go?" Gilbert smiled. "I don't go anywhere." He yawned and leaned forward to rest his head against his brother's shoulder. "I probably just have a headache," he mused aloud. "Sometimes I hear buzzin' when my brain starts to-
Ludwig hoisted his bag and fought off a yawn. The arctic blast of air conditioning made him wince as he walked into the hospice, and he suddenly wished he'd brought his winter coat. Maybe Gilbert wouldn't be such an asshole this time and actually share his blankets.
Ludwig nodded to the nurse at the reception and headed to his brother's room. He pushed open the door and then stopped. The boxes were gone. And the shelf. And the comforter. He frowned and headed over to Gilbert's bed, plopping down in his chair. He reached out to tap his brother on the shoulder.
"Gil? Where's your stuff?"
Gilbert just let out a weak groan and Ludwig's heart sank. He sounded awful. Ludwig moved to the other side of the bed and crouched down so he could see Gilbert's face, asking quietly, "What is it? Are you not-"
Watery brown eyes glanced at him from under the covers and Ludwig staggered backwards, his heart in his throat. "S-Sorry…" he muttered, quickly picking himself up off the floor. He glanced at the lump underneath the covers and left the room. He let the door shut behind him and leaned against it, clutching his bag to his chest. The hospital traffic passed him by, a blur of white and blue. And pink.
Ludwig followed the pink smudge until he caught up. He grabbed her arm and wrenched her around, and her clipboard and a few other things that were balanced atop went flying.
Maher's face was as impassive as always as she glared at him, but Ludwig dragged her out of the flow of people and gurneys and IV stands and sickness and he gripped her arm even tighter.
"Where is he."
Maher's eyes just narrowed. She wrenched her arm out of Ludwig's grip and shoved her way through the mob to grab her things off the floor. Ludwig almost felt guilty.
She walked back towards him, her back ramrod straight as she plucked a small cardboard box out of the pile of things in her arms and pressed it into Ludwig's hands.
He took the box, a questioning look on his face.
Maher looked away. "…You asked where he was."
Someone must have pulled the plug on the noise in the world. All that remained was static, and they'd just left the record spinning, spinning on the turntable, the needle poised above.
Ludwig held the box in his hands and forced himself to look at it. There was a white label. The white label had black writing.
Ludwig had to read it twice, because he couldn't remember ever having seen those letters in that particular order before. And he had to double check.
ID Code# 2011200004367
A gentle touch on his arm pulled him away from the numbers and letters, and Ludwig glanced down to see Maher's face, the same as always for the briefest of moments before she broke. Tears rolled down her face as she clung to his arm, and suddenly the sound was back, the needle had fallen, and Ludwig could hear her crying.
"H-He wouldn't let me call you," she sobbed, "I tried and tried but he wouldn't..."
Ludwig was only dimly aware that his back was now pressed against the wall. All he could feel was the box in his hands.
"…It's so light," he said quietly, turning the cardboard box over in his hands. He looked at Maher, not really seeing her, but going through the motions all the same.
Maher wiped at her eyes and shook her head. "Burned. All of them."
Ludwig stared at the box again, his voice wavering slightly for the first time. "…Even his books?"
Maher shook her head.
Ludwig felt cold.
She made a quiet noise and then frantically fished around in the deep pockets of her scrubs for a minute before pulling out a battered looking envelope. She carefully set it down on top of the box, the nail polish on her fingernails chipped and broken.
"I-I'll be at the front desk… if you need me," she said quietly, her voice shaking a bit. Then she left, her uniform a speck of pink among the whites and blues.
Ludwig watched her go, the box growing heavier with every step she took.
Don't leave me alone with it.
He staggered to his feet and hurried down the hallway to the bathroom, where he bolted the door behind him and sank down to the floor. He sat perfectly still for a very long time, and the box grew heavier in his hands. It was too much. He had to shove it away.
It skittered along the floor for a bit before tumbling to a halt. Ludwig stared at it, but the box did not stare back. Its four corners were each at ninety degrees. Its brown surface the same color all over. So plain. It looked nothing like him. Just a plain cardboard box. With a white label and black writing and a pile of ash inside.
Ludwig stared at the box and then crawled forward to pick the thing back up. He held it against his chest as he glanced at the letter that had fluttered to the floor. He kept the box in his lap as he opened the envelope with an unsteady hand.
His brother's scratchy handwriting greeted him and Ludwig set the box lovingly aside, his mind completely blank.
There were a lot of lines scratched out. So many that the paper on the other side was blackened.
I guess most people start these kinds of letters with some sort of campy shit about how much they're going to miss so and so or for their loved ones to not blame themselves and blah blah.
But I was never one for convention. Right, Bruderlein? See, I decided a long time ago-right after we started reading that damn whale book (ugh) -what I wanted to have happen when this… happened.
The worst part was the thought of you having to see me like that. You always looked so goddamn sad when you looked at me, and I didn't want you to have to see me one step worse, if you know what I mean. Corpse-like is one thing. Me as an actual corpse… no. Plus I didn't want to chance you going all Romeo and Juliet on me and trying to make it with my sexy yet sadly extinguished carcass in front of the whole morgue staff-
Ludwig let out a choked noise that was halfway between a laugh and a sob, and furiously wiped at his eyes so he could keep reading.
-and so I made sure to write in my will that I wanted to be cremated the moment I was gone. Like, the second that stupid machine flat-lines, bam. Into the oven with Gilbert. Didn't want my darling Bruder to have to see his big brother all sickly and nasty looking and dead in some goddamn hospital bed. It's not as pretty and clean as it is in those stupid-ass dramas.
...And I know this is gonna be hard, but I want you to burn everything at the house too. Everything that doesn't have value, of course. That shit you can sell. But things like my clothes, books, that stupid plastic cup I like to drink out of… I want all of it burned. The only thing I'll let you keep is the pictures. I even gave you one ahead of time, providing Maher remembered to stick it in the goddamn envelope like she was supposed to.
Ludwig frowned and checked the envelope, and sure enough there was a picture inside. He carefully fished it out and studied it, the corners of his mouth pulling up slightly even as a few drops of water splattered onto the photograph. He absently brushed them away.
It was a photo of them, of course. On the top of a mountain in Garmisch. He remembered that day. Gilbert had complained the entire way up the mountain, even though the water had been so blue. Robin's egg blue. And the canyon was cold and the spray made the rocks shine like they were flecked with glass. They'd walked up and up. Past huge sprawling plains with cows lazily meandering about, black and white whales in a sea of green. Past huge trees that framed the distant, snow capped mountains, making them look like pictures in a cheap hotel room. Past the tiny cabin at the end of the switchback path that sold bottles of beer and soda and little sandwiches that looked like they'd been made a decade ago. At the very top of the mountain, beyond the little tourist hut, the trees had suddenly ended, and there was a meadow. A thousand different flowers and grasses, and not another soul in sight. There was a tiny cabin, obviously abandoned, but Gilbert had eagerly peered through the windows, and claimed he could see a chair with a book on it. And a pipe that was still smoking. Ludwig had ignored him and set about taking pictures, Gilbert twirling in the background and singing very off-key about the hills being alive with the sound of… something. He couldn't remember.
But then Gilbert had suddenly grabbed the camera and propped it up on the jagged wooden steps. He fiddled with some buttons before grabbing a very disgruntled Ludwig and forcing him to sit down in a small clearing, the mountains looming in the background. Ludwig barely had time to assess what was going on before Gilbert was next to him and drawing him into a long, involved kiss. Ludwig's eyes had slid shut automatically and his hand went up to bury in his brother's hair. Until he heard the camera shutter click. He'd proceeded to try and shove Gilbert away, his face on fire, but his brother had just snickered and said it was too little too late. The fight had progressed from there, until they were both lying in the small clearing, chests heaving as they struggled to stop laughing. Gilbert had blamed it on the thin oxygen. Ludwig had blamed it on Gilbert. They'd taken the ski lift back down the mountain. The fare had come from Gilbert's wallet.
The picture in the envelope was one of the last ones the camera had taken. They'd had to throw out quite a few that just showed the very edges of their figures as Ludwig chased after Gilbert, bellowing to give him back his reading glasses or so help him he was going to shove the albino down the mountain and save them both the trouble.
The picture just showed them both sitting in that clearing. Gilbert's arm was draped over his shoulder, and his brother was grinning broadly and obviously in the middle of lecturing him about having fun or public displays of affection or removing the stick from his ass, and Ludwig was staring at the older man with a look of what was most likely supposed to be feigned boredom on his face. And would have looked the part, too, if it hadn't been for the hint of a smile playing about his lips. And they were both dusty and dirty and the picture was slightly out of focus and a bit overexposed-
Ludwig brushed a few more drops off of the picture as he picked up the letter again, keeping it a safe distance away so he wouldn't ruin it as he continued to read.
…like she was supposed to. You remember Garmisch. Or as I like to call it, 'Ludwig's self inflicted death march of shame'. I just never thought you'd go to such painful lengths to punish me. That's what you were doing, right? You know how me and the outdoors get along. Part of me wanted to throw myself into that creepy radioactive river and just be done with it.
…But as always, you made it impossible to hate anything we were doing. I tried my damndest to be a brat that day, you know. Just to make you give up and turn around. Like that time we went to Salzburg and you tried to make me visit Mozart's house but I said I'd rather go back to the Criminal Museum in Rothenburg and be shoved in that iron maiden for a few weeks than go in, but somehow we ended up inside and I found those machines they used to use to make the sound effects for operas. You remember? And I made that kid cry and those mothers weep and it was the best damn part of the entire trip.
I want to say something selfish like 'Never go back to those places again'. Because I don't want you to have new memories of them. Memories where I'm not in them. I guess that's why I'm letting you keep the pictures too, even though I know you'll probably be a terrible brother and ignore my last wish and probably end up keeping everything and moping for months on end like some tragic Greek heroine. But I'm letting you keep the pictures for the same reason I ordered myself to be well flambéed by the time you get to the hospital. Because that's how I want you to remember me. The me in those pictures. That's when I was happy, Burderlein. I guess that's why I kissed you that first time too, although I was way too smashed to really remember the details. I was just… happy.
And that's all I really wanted to tell you, I guess. To not be sad. Because you made me a hell of a lot of things other than happy. Pissed off. Sarcastically amused. Exasperatedly fond. Irritated beyond belief. So angry I wanted to rip your liver out and force feed it to you. …Ashamed.
But you never made me feel sad. So I was kind of hoping to return the favor.
I don't know how long I've been here. Hell, I could go tomorrow for all I know. But what I do know is that you will never break your promise. Every day. Right, Bruderlein? Every day until I either get better and can burn this note with all the vindictiveness I can muster. Or until the day you read this.
And if you are reading this, then you probably have… well, what's left of me. Kind of sad isn't it? I thought about going with one of those spiffy urn things, but I don't want you to keep what's left of me around for long. You don't need that kind of reminder.
…But if it's not too much trouble, I do have one last thing to ask of you, and then I swear I'll stop making ridiculous demands from beyond the grave. And yeah, it was sobering as fuck having to write that.
You don't have to do this. But if you ever end up going to that place again… the place in the picture… that's kind of where I'd like you to leave me. You remember the cabin, right? The one with the chair and the pipe that only I could see? You can leave me there. I liked that place. It was worth the death march up. That picture has been the only thing keeping me from just… pulling the plug. Metaphorically, of course. I think if I ripped off these stupid sticky things on my chest the most that would happen is that I'd lose a layer of skin and then have to go around with circle shaped scabs on my chest. Very attractive.
And I'd ask that you burn this letter, but I know that just reading that line probably made your weak-ass heart go all a pitter-patter with anxiety, so I'll spare you. Just like how I'd ask that you sell Groβvatti's house and use the money to pay off your stupid school loans.
But I won't ask you to do that either. I've asked enough of you, Bruderlein. Too much.
The rest of the sheet was blank. And Ludwig had a brief moment of panic as he rifled through the pages, trying to find something else Gilbert had written. Anything else.
He almost missed it. The words were tiny, and crammed into the bottom corner on the back of one of the pages. But it was still Gilbert's handwriting. Still barely legible and smudged beyond belief. Thirty words crammed into the corner of a page. And no words had ever made him cry more.
I could never tell you this in life, Ludwig. But death makes all of us braver.
I love you, Bruderlein.
Every day I live, I always will.
"The climb up this time wasn't nearly as bad as I remembered. Probably because I didn't have you hanging off my arm half the time, trying to get me to pull you up."
Ludwig glanced around at the small meadow, eyes carefully avoiding the small clearing. He set the cardboard box down on the rickety steps of the cabin.
"Not nearly as impressive during fall though," Ludwig muttered, pulling his scarf tighter around his face. "Amazed it isn't snowing yet."
He glanced up at the window of the dilapidated cabin, and after only a moment, gave in. He clambered up on a small rock halfway buried in the earth next to the house and peered inside. He gave a quiet laugh and hopped back down, heading over to the cardboard box.
"You were right," he said grudgingly, "There is indeed a chair. A pipe, too. Although it wasn't smoking. But it… it might have been."
Ludwig fell silent, and for a long time the only sound rushing over the meadow was the wind. Cold and unrelenting with no trees to tame it.
Ludwig picked up the box and opened it with calm deliberation. He carefully picked up the bag that held his brother's ashes, and felt the cold burn his face even more as a few quiet tears streamed from his eyes. He gave a pathetic laugh and scrubbed at them with his gloved hand.
"I'm sorry," he murmured, still laughing brokenly. "I know I promised you I wouldn't cry, but… but you're in a bag, Bruder. A plastic bag like the ones we have at home that we put our sandwiches in to bring up to this goddamn mountain. …The ones… I have. Only a little over a year ago when you were here with me and I wasn't standing on the top of a mountain alone and talking to myself like a crazy person."
His voice rose a bit on the last part, and echoed dully against the mountains towering in the distance.
"…I wish I had been brave enough for the both of us."
Ludwig pressed his hand against his eyes, and smiled bitterly.
"I wish I still had you with me. And I wouldn't care how much you'd mock me. I'd still tell you. Every day until you got sick of it. Every day until you knew it was okay to say it as well. Every day I visited you. Every day I woke up with you beside me, I'd have told you."
Ludwig let his hand fall to his side, and stared at the bag for a moment. His fingers suddenly moved to untie the small piece of twine holding the bag closed. He undid the knot, and held the bag in his hands as the ashes ebbed and flowed with the biting wind. The bag grew smaller and smaller in his hands, the wind tugging and coaxing his brother's remains to follow it, until there was nothing left but a few fragments of bone. Ludwig let the fragments fall to the ground where they clattered about for a moment before falling quiet, indistinguishable from the thousands of bleached rocks that lay scattered about the field.
In death we are brave.
Ludwig carefully folded the bag and placed it back inside the box.
The box went inside his bag.
His bag went on his back.
Ludwig turned around and returned the way he came, the wind buffeting his hair and caressing his cheeks.
And Ludwig tried to remember what it had been like before. When there had been flowers in the meadow, and cows like lazy sharks patrolling the grass on the mountain. And rivers of eggshells and his brother's laugh and the pipe in the cabin that let off little tendrils of musty smoke.
But all that remained was the wind. And little fragments resting atop the earth. And him.
So he left.
And all that remained was the wind and the bones.
"This is the one you want?"
Gilbert nodded and glanced nervously about the room.
"Sure," he said quietly, his voice a mere skeleton of itself. "Anything."
Ludwig gave his brother a reassuring smile, but picked up the book without comment.
"Where should we start?" he asked, flipping the huge tome open and glancing at the table of contents. "There's an appendix. An introduction-"
"The beginning is always good," Gilbert said, his voice exasperated, but somehow a bit more like himself, even in this odd place.
So Ludwig opened the book to page one, and began reading from the beginning, holding Gilbert's trembling hand in his own.
"'Call me Ishmael,'" Ludwig read, his lips quirking up into a smile at the look of forced boredom already settling in on Gilbert's face. He gave his brother's hand a gentle squeeze as he quietly whispered, "Be brave, Bruder. We'll get through this."
All he got in response was a baleful stare, but the pale hand gripped his just a bit tighter. Ludwig smiled and continued reading, his voice echoing to the empty rooms beyond.
"Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet… then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can…'"
The steady voice muted by a pitch black comforter on the bed.
Twenty five books on the shelves.
The yellow wallpaper.
Quiet bones in the earth.