Carlton falls into his seat and buries his head in his arms. This was why he lied. This is why he pushed everyone away. Some things, some hideous, ugly things, were just too much to expect people to accept.
"Lassiter?" a deep voice calls out from the doorway. It's Ewing. Carlton has no idea how long he's been there or how much he's heard. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Carlton tells him, his eyes burning with unshed tears. "I'll be fine."
There is nothing that can lift Carlton out of the funk he's found himself in since his blow up with Shawn. Not the feel of the sun on his skin as the dank weather gives way to warming rays and spring breezes. Not the sound of his boss praising him for another successful acquisition. And most certainly not that fact that his co-worker Ewing has suddenly taken it upon himself to become Carlton's bestest buddy.
Alright, maybe that does evoke some curiosity. Carlton's not 100 percent sure of what's behind it, but he doesn't complain when Ewing starts calling him by his name nor when he offers to treat him to a sandwich at a nearby deli.
"What for?" Carlton questions. (He may not complain but he'll forever be suspicious of the man.)
Ewing shrugs. The gesture looks odd coming from someone who carries himself with an air of arrogance so thick that it could be considered smog. "Just thought you might be hungry; you've been cooped up in the library for hours."
Carlton declines. He knows (or is at least very, very, very sure) that Ewing's acting out of guilt. They don't talk about it, of course, as they're both still embarrassed. Carlton by the fact that Ewing witnessed him getting more or less dumped by Shawn, and Ewing by the fact he lead said dumper straight to him.
"Well," Ewing begins, as he backs away, hands shoved in his pockets. "If you get hungry, I'm right upstairs."
Carlton doesn't reply, just watches as the other man goes back to the main level and turns back to his stack of books. Ewing had been right about one thing; Carlton had become even more reclusive since the confrontation. He'd stopped doing his work at his desk and taken to camping out in the library. For some reason, Carlton is even more sensitive to stares than he's ever been. Once off work, he'd head straight for home. No stops to eat. No stops for gas. He can't even face the cameras at the ATM in his present state. He was the most miserable he's ever been in five years.
He slams the book he'd been thumbing through shut. It wasn't supposed to be like this. He had wanted memories with Shawn to use as relief during his bouts of self-pity, not for them to drag him down further.
Carlton sighs. He won't be getting any work done. Not here. Not where the one man he'd wanted more than anything else had looked at him with all the pity one would give a dying animal on the side of the road.
Carlton gathers his books, his papers and his misery and heads back upstairs. He decides to skip out on the rest of the afternoon. There is nothing he's working on that can't wait until tomorrow and he's certain nobody around the museum will miss him.
His desk is covered in books, file folders and papers, so he completely misses to the small magazine clipping placed precariously near the edge. And, as he carelessly tosses the pile of library books and papers onto the desk, he doesn't notice as the small slip of paper, its image completely black and white except for a lone bright yellow dandelion, flutters from his desktop and falls into the nearby waste basket.
Mornings are Carlton's favorite time of the day. They have that sense of peace and solitude that Carlton longs for during the rest of the day. While the rest of the world sleeps in, minds drowsy and muddled, Carlton exists in his own tranquil world. He can stand in his front yard, shoeless and unafraid, and simply be. His breathes in the early morning smell of wet grass and wiggles his toes in the damp, green blades. This is as bold as he'll be today and he relishes the freedom.
He has to head into work early today to make up for skipping out early yesterday, but for now, he enjoys the quiet of the morning. Carlton knows that the world is not as peaceful at 6 a.m. as he likes to pretend it is. He knows that a car could still drive by, full of gaping passengers. He knows that his neighbor could decide to get an early start on some yard work and come disturbing his retreat with his loud, growling riding mower. He knows that the anybody could go waltzing down the street and get a gander at the freak with the ugly face standing barefoot on the dewy grass.
He knows that because apparently someone already has.
There near the end of his front walk, sticking out from underneath his newspaper, are two tendrils of white ribbon.
Carlton shakes his head and gingerly picks up the paper. He breathes a sigh of relief. The girls across the street had been playing in his yard again. They'd held a mock wedding if the smashed bouquet of thick-stemmed dandelions were any clue. The bundle had been tied together tightly with creamy white ribbon. The workmanship is rather impressive for elementary-schoolers.
He knows the two pig-tailed girls favor his yard because of his well-kept flower beds and small stone fountain. (His yard is his haven and likes to dress it up as such.) The two acted out tales of romance and adventure on his lawn since their own yard was muddied and overgrown. Add the fact that he never bothered to chase the girls away and it was a wonder children from all over the neighborhood weren't tumbling across his lawn.
Carlton snorts at the pitiful spring of weeds. "At least they didn't mess with the marigolds," he mutters before kicking the flowers away.
Carlton wonders if he's gone from being cursed by God to becoming his new plaything. That's the only thing that can explain what he sees when he arrives at work later that morning. There, leaning back in his chair with his khakied legs resting on top of the scattered papers, is Shawn. He holds a hand above his eyes, which were again hidden by dark glasses, and tilts his head up to meet Carlton's gaze.
"What are you doing here?" Carlton asks incredulously.
"Nice to see you, too," Shawn answers curtly, looking him up and down. Carlton's self-consciousness comes out from hiding and hits him square in the chest. "You're a hard man to reach, Carlton. You know that?"
Carlton lowers his head. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Shawn swings his legs to the floor and spins around in Carlton's chair. "I've been leaving you messages since yesterday."
"Why?" Carlton mumbles. "Need to yell at me some more?"
"No," Shawn answers simply.
"Well, what do you want?" Carlton asks.
Shawn stands and turns to look at Carlton, his eyes unreadable behind his shades. "I have a question for you. That day Gus came by, you weren't with the doctor, were you?"
There's no use lying now. The man already hated him. "No, I wasn't."
Carlton wants to ask him why that was of any importance. Did the man need more reasons to despise him?
Shawn exhales loudly. "C'mon. We're going out for breakfast," he tells Carlton.
"I don't go out," Carlton mumbles.
"Today will be an exception," Shawn says firmly. He pushes the pile of papers Carlton had been studying the day before to the floor. "You owe me."
Carlton cannot believe he's doing this. He can't remember the last time he went to a restaurant. A real restaurant with hostesses and waitresses and busboys and noisy, staring patrons. True, it's only 9 o' clock in the morning and the only other patrons in the restaurant are an elderly couple sharing a carafe of orange juice, but the strain on his nerves is still excruciating. Shawn flits about the restaurant's trendy dining room easily, brushing off the hostess' offering of a small table near a large picture window for a small booth in a dimly lit corner.
Carlton guesses that the hostess lets Shawn get away with it because she finds him charming and good-looking. She smiles at him and tells him that their waitress will be along shortly. She forgets to give Carlton a menu before she leaves.
Shawn takes his time reading his menu, straining to see the small letters as he holds it close to his face. Carlton sits awkwardly, torn between wanting to help Shawn and wanting to bolt right out the restaurant's doors.
After about five minutes, Shawn drops the menu on the table and slides it over to Carlton. "Order anything you want," he tells him as he fiddles with his shades.
"I'm not hungry," Carlton tells him.
"That's a lie. You don't eat breakfast before work and you don't leave for lunch."
"How...how do you know that?"
Shawn shoots him a cocky smile. "A friend of yours told me."
"I don't have any friends."
"Don't be ridiculous, Carlton. Of course you do."
Their waitress comes bounding up to their table before Carlton can refute Shawn's claims. She is tall and long-legged and wears her gorgeous mane of red hair pulled back in a pony tail that seems to whip around her head at dangerous speeds.
"How are y'all doing today?" she chirps. Her eyes widen as she takes in the sight of Carlton's face and she quickly turns to smile warmly at Shawn. "What can I get y'all?"
"A three-egg omelet for me, with extra, extra, extra cheese," Shawn says, returning her smile.
The waitress gives small snort of a laugh. "No cholesterol worries, I see."
Shawn leans toward her and peers over the rim of his shades. "Not at all, ma'am. I'm as strong as a bull, steady and possess great stamina." Carlton rolls his eyes at Shawn's lecherous behavior. It has been confirmed: Shawn cannot not flirt.
The waitress' pony tail goes flying as she shakes her head in exasperation. "You're shameless," she tells him.
"That's one of my best features."
She smiles coquettishly before asking, "And what'll your friend have?"
The lascivious grin on Shawn's face twists into a frown. "Why don't you ask him yourself?"
The waitress blushes furiously before turning to look at Carlton. "I'm sorry, sir. What can I get you?" She holds her order pad like a shield close to her face, blocking Carlton's view of her eyes.
"Just coffee," Carlton tells her. She scribbles at her pad and zips away before Carlton can add more.
"Well, she was pleasant," Shawn drawls.
"She was normal, Shawn," Carlton tells him. "That's how most people react to me. My face isn't the most engaging conversation starter."
"That's why you lie about it."
Carlton can feel his stomach drop. "Is that why you brought me here? To laugh at me?"
Shawn shakes his head slowly. "Why would I do that?"
"Why do you think?"
Shawn doesn't answer. He stares at Carlton before sighing and reaching into his pants pocket. He pulls out a small, intricately folded piece of paper and places it in front of Carlton.
"What's that?" Carlton asks, defenses up.
"Open it and see."
Carlton grabs the thick paper and carefully begins to pull apart the folds. Shawn watches him as he flattens the page on the small table. An oil-pastel dandelion, waxy and bright, blooms from the center of the page. Its gold and yellow petals explode from the lime-green stem. Above the flower, someone had written a small poem in black ink.
Roses are prized
and dandelions are weeds,
but I'd skip the rose's thorns
for the dandelion's seeds.
"Dandelions?" Carlton thinks back to the sad bouquet he found on his porch this morning. "You gave me the dandelions?"
Shawn smirks. "I thought I'd hand deliver this one."
"This one?" Carlton questions.
Shawn gives him a look. "I got your friend from work to give you the first one. I got your address from Juliet so I could leave the others."
"What friend?" Carlton asks again. "You mean Ewing?"
"Do you have any other work friends?" Shawn asks him sardonically.
"Shawn," Carlton begins. His throat is tight and he can feel his pulse quicken. He rereads the short rhyme. "This...this doesn't make any sense."
Shawn gives him a sheepish grin. It's the first smile he's seen on the other man's face since all morning. "I'm an artist, not a poet."
"What does this mean?" Carlton knows better than to get his hopes up, but he feels them rising anyway.
"It means," Shawn says before sighing heavily, "that I'm sorry. Sorry for getting angry with you. And...I miss you. I want to be with you again."
Carlton can feel all the air rush out of his lungs. "'Again?' I thought you hated me," he says softly.
At that, Shawn removes his shades. He winces slightly before he raises his eyes to look at Carlton. "I wanted to. I tried to. But you're...you're hard to hate, Carlton."
"Why?" Carlton whispers.
"'Why?'" Shawn laughs to himself at that. "Because you have a nice voice. Because you hate Ziggy. Because you let me touch your face. Because you make me feel brave even when I know I'm not." Shawn looks down and begins to play with his flatware. "Need any other reasons?"
Carlton can feel his face go warm. "Don't tease me like that, Shawn. You can't feel that way."
"Why can't I?"
"Because," Carlton sputters. "Because my face...," he gestures dumbly at his crumbled cheek. "I look hideous, Shawn. I'm a monster. I can't take you out. I won't impress any of your friends...I don't deserve you" He chokes up as he says the last part. He's thought these things about himself dozens of times; he's never said them out loud.
"Do you believe those things, Carlton?" Shawn asks gently.
"Do you believe those things? When you look at yourself—yourself, not your face—do you believe all those things to be true? Because if you do," Shawn continues before Carlton can answer, "I'll let you get back to work and I'll never bother you again."
He can feel Shawn's gaze as it bears down on him and Carlton can only lower his eyes in response. Strong fingers clasp his chin and force him to look up.
"Look at yourself, Carlton," Shawn says softly. He's holding his shiny, silver spoon up like a hand mirror. Carlton can see his reflection on the utensil's convex surface. He turns away again. Shawn's fingers pull him back.
"Look at yourself, Carlton," he orders again. "Look at yourself and tell me you believe you're all those things."
"I've looked at myself, Shawn. I'm quite familiar with my scars."
Shawn rolls his eyes and thrusts the spoon closer to Carlton's face. "Look," he orders, "and tell me what you see. Tell me you're all those things you think you are."
Carlton looks. His face is even more distorted than normal thanks to the spoon's rounded and scratched surface. His nose stands out, pointed and prominent, as the rest of his face stretches toward the edge of the spoon. His eyes look huge on the spoon, even his bad one. His cheeks, however, become flattened and fuzzy.
"Want to know what I see?" Shawn asks him.
Carlton holds his breath.
"I see eyes. Gorgeous eyes that can apparently see beauty in everything except themselves. I see a mouth. A slightly crooked mouth that, nevertheless, can say and do the most amazing things." Shawn waggles his eyebrows suggestively before reaching out to grab one of Carlton's ears. "And I see some big ears. These are exactly like I imagined them."
Carlton exhales, slow and shaky. His heart feels like it's about to burst right out of his chest. He stares at the spoon and forces himself to see what Shawn sees. He sees his eyes, once his prized feature. The blue of his irises becoming a stormy gray on the spoon's surface. He sees his mouth. His frown is strong and disapproving on one side of his face, broken and weak on the other. He sees his ears. They're big, but they go well with his proportions.
But those things aren't all he sees. Carlton notices his hair. How it used to be inky black, but is now tinged with just the slightest of gray at the temples. He notices his nose. It survived the cancer and surgery relatively unscathed, but looks bigger thanks to the nearby sunken flesh. And for the first time in five years, Carlton sees himself. All of himself. His face, as it appears on that water-spotted spoon, is much more than his missing cheek bone. And if this is what Shawn sees, then maybe...
"You were angry," Carlton blurts out. "My face. It made you angry."
Shawn sighs. "I was angry about the lie. I was angry that you didn't think well of me enough to tell me about your face."
"You were disappointed," Carlton says quietly.
"That you didn't trust me," Shawn finishes. "If you had let me know the truth, Carlton, I would have let you know that it wouldn't have mattered. And, that I think you are amazing just the way you are."
At that, the most desired admission Carlton's ever wanted to hear, Carlton finds he can't keep the tears in. He knows he must look pathetic, silently crying in front of this man (worse, crying in front of a spoon), but the feel of his warm tears, of his lungs as he takes in deep gulps of air is cathartic. Shawn's fingers wipe the moisture away before moving to graze his sunken cheek.
"Like I keep telling you: You're too hard on yourself, Carlton."
Carlton can't think of a thing to say. There is no word in the English language for the combination of relief, joy and blinding adoration for the man in front of him that Carlton feels. He grabs the hand on his face and turns to press a kiss into the palm.
"I take it that means you forgive me?" Shawn laughs.
"There was nothing to forgive," Carlton says into the palm.
Shawn laughs again, bright and clear and oh so beautiful that Carlton never wants it to end.
It does though, at the sound of a throat clearing. Carlton turns toward the sound (still holding onto Shawn's hand) to see their waitress standing near the table, a tray balanced on one hand.
Pony-tail's face is flushed in embarrassment. She sets Shawn's omelet in front of him, accidentally bumping into his outstretched arm and quickly scampers away.
"Poor girl," Shawn sighs. "I can't help it. I break hearts where ever I go."
The smile on Carlton's face just grows bigger. "Guess I should be careful, huh?"
"No worries, Carlton." Shawn leans forward and places a kiss on Carlton's lips. He crooks the right side of his mouth to compensate for Carlton's wobbly smile. He pulls back, grinning, and sits down to eat his omelet.
And Carlton realizes, for the first time in five years he is happy. Not just happy, ecstatic. There is no other place he would rather be than sitting here watching this man eat. He leans forward to do just that before he notices something. "She forgot my coffee," he pouts.
"Girl's not very bright," Shawn says, mouth full of egg.
"You probably made her uncomfortable by getting all handsy with me."
Shawn smiles, his lips looking greasy and delicious. "Perks, remember?"
"Perks?" Carlton grabs Shawn's hand and returns it to his damaged cheek. He turns his face to nuzzle the other man's knuckles. "Yeah, I remember."
A/N: AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER FOR EVAH AND EVAH! Oh boy, it's finally over...I don't know what to think. Oh, I hope the ending was worth all the wait! A few issues with this chapter. Once again...pacing! I worry so much about the pace of the scenes. I hope things move in a orderly and well-timed sequence. And again...food! Maybe I should eat a snack before I write. And is that poem embarrassingly corny or what? *Hides face in poetic shame*
Anyways, I've learned a few things from this experience, peeps. First, shorter chapters would have meant more frequent updates. But would that have been more satisfying? Second, Shassie stories lead to proper-noun overload. I'd use just a simple "he" more often, but I worry people would have no idea who I'm talking about. Third, there is fine a line is there between heart-warming fluff and cavity-forming sap. But I wanted sappy and corny, so I guess I'm satisfied. And finally, never again am I writing in the present tense. I had an urge. I gave into it. I struggled to keep up with it. Never again.
I hope you all enjoyed! I know it didn't really seem like a big undertaking (only four parts and all), but I spent a great deal of time planning and thinking about this story. I just want to thank every body who stuck with this story, read it, commented on it, asked about it or even just stumbled upon it and thought "not half bad." Big fangirl hugs to you all! =D And now I'm off to nitpick and edit! Away!