so take me to the start Who: Gabe & Rafe. What: Rafe goes to his boyfriend for support, and together they investigate a new room. Where: Eighth floor, then fourth floor. When: Two days following this.
Gabe leaned back from his typewriter, the blank page scrolled in between the tongs a glaring reminder of what he was continuously unable to do. Teeth raked over his bottom lip, and he thought back to his phone squirreled away in the kitchen. Ever since Rafe had told him about the fourth floor and what had transpired there between him, Isobel, and Alice, Gabe had been unable to concentrate on anything other than worry over Rafe's mental state.
He scooted back from his desk, thumbs tapping at the edge of the wood as he debated attempting to push himself a little longer. Then he shook his head, rising, and made his way down the hall to the kitchen. Spot's tags jingled as the dog raised his head at his master's appearance.
"You wanna go for a walk, old man? Maybe we can get anjo to go with us," Gabe said, glancing and smiling at his pet before moving to where he kept his phone in the junk drawer of his kitchen. His heart sank only a little as he saw there were no messages; he took a deep breath, and tapped one out himself.
It was too long before a reply flickered on screen. When it did, it was far too short.
A few minutes passed, unmarked. Then another small chime, followed by a slightly more encouraging response. Can you take a break? I'll make tea.
Across the hall Rafael shuffled through his apartment, feeding his fish and glancing occasionally at his phone. Shadows pooled under his eyes, tender as a bruise. He leaned down over the colorful aquarium that housed Mr. Fishy II, staring into the water and watching the betta's vibrant fins unfurl. He watched the fish's movements, letting himself be lulled into something almost trancelike. He wished such relaxation would naturally lead to sleep. But though he had been exhausted for days, rest had eluded him entirely.
In the kitchen the kettle whistled sharply. Rafael did not seem to notice.
Back in Gabe's apartment, he tapped out a quick affirmative, saying he was on his way. He stuffed the phone, his wallet and keys into his pockets, glancing at Spot. The elderly dog had resumed his position on the floor, large puppy dog eyes pleading the case that he did not in fact need exercise.
"You win this time, old man," Gabe grinned, coming around the divider between his kitchen and living room. He squatted, hands coming under Spot's muzzle to give him a handful of scritches. "I'm gonna go check on anjo, but I'll be back. Don't get into my chocolate stash, OK?" Spot's rumbling sigh seemed to provide an affirmative, and Gabe wasted no more time moving from his apartment to Rafe's.
He knocked to announce himself, but directly on the heels of the sound he was already swinging the door open.
"Anjo?" He stepped inside, closing the door behind him; his brow furrowed at the sound of the kettle whistle. "Anjo, is everything OK?"
"Mm?" Rafe looked up from Mr. Fishy II's tank, blinking to clear the fog from his eyes. He smiled softly as his bleary eyes focused on his friend. "Oh, yes. Fine. I have masala chai or I could make a Cubano if you'd rather have coffee." He started into the kitchen without waiting for an answer. The kettle continued to shriek itself hoarse.
In the kitchen, Rafael took the kettle from the stove's eye, setting it aside. He propped one bony hip against the counter as he rummaged through a basket of teas and coffee beans. "How is the writing going?"
Gabe followed Rafe closely, concern written in every line of his mouth, every glance that went from Rafe's strangely slow and calm gestures to his strangely and overly calm face. His eyes were sunken pools of shadow, and the languid way he moved made Gabe think of a cartoon character moving through molasses.
"It's... It's fine." He drew closer to Rafe, a hand gently reaching out to wrap around a wrist and pull him away from the task of selecting a drink. "Anjo, are you sleeping? You look exhausted. If something's wrong, I want you to tell me."
"I…" The tip of Rafe's tongue flicked out over his lips. He pressed close to Gabe, his bare chest rising and falling with small, shallow breaths. His hands fell to Gabe's waist; Gabe's went to Rafe's upper arms, forever creating a link between them. "Not really. Not since the tent. I have these dreams, and... " He sighed. His gaze fell from Gabriel's to some meaningless point on his shirt. "I haven't really been able to eat, either. So I'm just…" He shrugged, glancing back to the little basket of coffees and teas. He tried for a smile. "Like I said, I'm getting pretty good at making cafe Cubano."
Gabe's mouth returned that smile, albeit one tinged with hesitation.
"Oh, anjo," he finally settled on as the various words rolling through his mind seemed either inadequate or unkind. Hands went up to cup Rafe's face, fingers threading back through the man's hair. "You can't live on just coffee, my love. We should go out, and... I don't know, maybe Panera or just a little shop with some good sandwiches. It's been days, how you're not starving I don't understand...
"For now, though, getting something in you is better than nothing," he added, his eyes falling back to the basket. His hands slid down, landing on Rafe's shoulders, then down to his waist. "I'll take a cafe Cubano...if you'll let me go get a bagel from my apartment." He turned stern eyes on the other man. "Half a bagel to start with, OK?"
Rafael opened his mouth to protest, but closed it just as quickly. He leaned forward, softly kissing Gabriel's cheek. "OK. I promise I've had a few things. Bread, and… um." Color dusted his cheeks. There was nothing else; meat or anything with a remotely similar consistency seemed to stick in his throat, and each time he had tried it, it had only ended in dry heaving over toilets, trash bins, and sinks. He kissed Gabe again, then pulled away, turning back to the basket behind him. He reached for the kettle and a cup, his hands seeking work to focus his sluggish thoughts.
"I'll have it ready before you're back," he promised.
"I'll hold you to that," Gabe replied, finding it more than difficult to leave the other man's side. His hands lingered on Rafe's waist, the small of his back, afraid he was going to start finding that bony young boy he'd known a long time ago; the one who insisted on saving and scrimping every last penny, that meals could be put off for as long as necessary, the one who made him feel as though he weren't doing enough. A smile flickered over his face, an attempt to hide the dark thoughts in his mind, and he finally returned the kiss Rafe had planted on him before quickly disappearing from one apartment to the other.
He shuffled through the bagels for a moment (eventually adding to it cream cheese, before being torn on which flavor of bagel to bring; he eventually settled on plain) and then was back in Rafe's apartment before too long. Moving to the kitchen, he helped himself to a plate and a butter knife, but did not dress the bagel. He carefully hip checked Rafe, holding the plated bagel in one hand. "I held up my half," he teased, wanting the whole scenario to be as normal as it could be.
"And I did mine," Rafe answered, leaning toward Gabe's touch.
An espresso maker sat on the stovetop, still steaming from its recent use. The kettle, forgotten, sat beside it. Rafe's smile was sincere when he turned back to Gabe, a small white cup and saucer held out for his partner. He traded cup for plate, glancing almost nervously down to the dry bagel. He turned away quickly, hoping against hope Gabriel had not noticed the anxiety on his face. He pulled his own cup and the toaster a bit closer to himself, popping one half of the bagel inside. Perhaps crunchy and dry it wouldn't stick so thoroughly in his throat. He put a smile on his face before he turned back to Gabe, and raised his small cup, clicking it against Gabe's in toast.
"So," Rafe said, after a bracing sip of his coffee. "What did I do to deserve a house call?"
Gabe shrugged, the movement tiny as he remained in Rafe's orbit. There was something wrong, something telegraphed by Rafe's movements and the fact that he was hiding his face, that Gabe couldn't entirely decipher, but he chose to not press the issue. He sipped at his coffee—delicious, always whenever Rafe was involved—a gently put a hand to Rafe's hip.
"By being you, duh," he offered teasingly, leaning against the counter while they waited for Rafe's bagel to toast. His hand moved to the small of Rafe's back. "I don't need a reason to come see you. And with everything going on, I'm having trouble concentrating, so..." He shrugged. "If I'm going to have writer's block, I might as well come spend it with you."
He went quiet for a moment. "Though now you've got me worried that I should be spending more time with you, because this definitely isn't healthy, anjo."
Rafael shook his head. He set his cup aside after another generous sip, then reached for the bagel that had less than neatly ejected itself. He ignored the crumbs that collected on the countertop, instead focusing on meticulously spreading a thin layer of cream cheese atop the browned crust.
"I won't turn down more time with you," he said, trying and failing for a teasing lilt in his tone. "But I'm—" Fine, he had very nearly said, but the word stuck in his throat as painfully as anything he had attempted to eat of late. He shook his head. Nervous fingers tore at the bagel, ripping small, hopefully edible chunks from its surface. "What if these keys don't go away like the other things have? What if Abel's not gone, he's just hiding in one of these rooms? He'd fit right in."
Once he began, exhaustion made sure he could not stop himself. Words tripped over themselves, blurred as much as his mind felt. "He invited us in, Gabe. We ate that. He knew what it was and just sat there, letting us eat—" He pressed the heel of his palm against his eye, so hard he saw stars sparking behind his eyelid. "Where else do those keys go? Are those places here? Are we standing in that tent now, and just can't see it?"
Gabe paled, listening, trying to find a spot to interrupt, and then it seemed like some dam had been broken inside the other man; English turned into Portuguese, Gabe only catching every other word as his fluency with the language had dulled. One hand went to Rafe's wrist, taking the butter knife from him, pushing the bagel away as the poorly-intended peace offering that it had been. He pulled Rafe toward him, making shushing noises, trying to calm the other man as much as he could.
"Anjo, anjo, just... breathe." He took Rafe's hands, holding him gently by the wrists, and brought them up to his face. "You feel this? Me? I'm real, all of this is real, and I just... Need you to breathe, OK?" Teeth scraped over his bottom lip as he groped for more words, something that would soothe this aching wound in his anjo.
"I went in one. With Obed. They're... they're like the dreams, anjo, they're only here when we let them be." He paused, studying Rafe's face, trying to judge how well he was getting through to him.
It was precisely what he had told Isobel, and yet now, turned on himself and his own rising panic, Rafael could not let himself believe it. He did not let go of Gabe, as though the rough scratch of his beard and the warmth of his skin were the only things keeping him upright.
"How?" His voice broke. His eyes burned, as though tears wanted to come, but he was stretched far too thin for even that. "How? I didn't let him butcher babies. I didn't want that. I can't control this and neither can you. Neither can anyone here. Why did you go in one, gato? You shouldn't have done that. You don't know what they are. You don't know who's in there."
"Rafe." Gabe sighed, and pulled the other man into his arms. His grip was tight, muscles shaking from the desire to shake sense directly into Rafe's mind. He let a few moments pass, where he hoped the silence was helping to clear away the other man's worries that had tightened over their environment like smog. Slowly Rafael's breathing evened out; there was tension in his bare shoulders and in the tight plane of his back, but it seemed to ease the longer Gabriel held him. Still he held his silence, listening to the steady beating of Gabe's heart.
"Obed invited me. After what you told me, I was curious. I wanted to know, so I could help you better." A hand came up and stroked the back of Rafe's head. "We couldn't control it, not when we were inside the room. We could only control what we did, anjo. And it was...it was amazing, what we saw."
"Amazing," Rafael echoed. "I…" He shook his head, thick locks of dark curls brushing beneath Gabe's chin. He sighed. His shoulders sagged. "OK. So maybe they're not all… that. The tent." He shuddered. "Does that change anything? How do we know there aren't more terrible ones than good? How do we know we're safe here?"
Gabe's mouth opened, and then clicked shut. There was no way he could provide that kind of security, not with the way the building was around them; and yet the building itself had never directly harmed them, only the people in it. The hand in Rafe's hair started down his back, feeling out each ridge of spinal column as the other man bent into him.
"Maybe we should go find out." The words were just as much of a surprise to him as they likely were to Rafe. "We're only as safe as we allow ourselves to be, anjo. I promise I'll do everything I can to take care of you. I can't... As much as I want to promise you that you'll always be safe, I can't. No one can. But I'm here. OK? I'm here, and I'm going to stay here.
"If you want, you could come spend the night, or however long, you want at my place? Or I can come over here, with Spot. He misses you, you know. Talks about you all the time." He grinned, pressing his nose into the crown of Rafe's head.
Rafe laughed into the fabric of Gabriel's shirt; his fingers wrapped tightly into the cloth, scratching at warm skin beneath. "Sure. I… you don't mind?" He pulled away, but only just, keeping Gabe's hands close. "Just for a night or two. I just need a couple of nights of good sleep…" He turned in Gabriel's arms, reaching for the cooling coffee now behind him.
"I could go," he said, his voice small. "If you come with me, I'll try one more. OK?"
Gabe nodded, quickly tempering the gesture to not seem overexcited. "Yes. To both. But you have to eat your bagel first, and I want to finish my coffee. And then we'll go. Together." He made no move to remove his hands or push Rafe toward the aforementioned food item, instead all too comfortable in the position they'd found themselves in. As Rafe brought the coffee to his lips, Gabe found himself settling his chin on Rafe's shoulder, trying to stay as much out of the way as he could while the other man moved.
"I never mind, anjo," he said, watching the light from a nearby window play over the planes of Rafe's familiar face. "I'll keep saying it until you get it. I have movies for days that will put you to sleep, and I rest better knowing you are, too."
Rafe smiled, nodding gently to keep Gabe's chin carefully in place. He leaned back against his friend, more comfortable in that easy embrace than he had been in days. Each bite he took was small, but they stayed down when he swallowed. The rest of their breakfast passed in quiet calm, and with Gabe by his side, Rafael steeled himself for what was to come.
Hand in hand they stood beneath the key-strewn ceiling, gazing up at its many offerings. Rafe's lower lip was pinched firmly between his teeth. He tried to keep an open mind as he studied each key, but it was difficult when his eyes were so drawn to that horrible spider leg, to the bright beads that made up its bow. He forced himself to look at others, carefully noting their shapes, materials, and decorations.
"What about that one?"
Rafe pointed to a bright silver key. Short hairs on his arms rose as he looked to the wolf's head at its end. It felt familiar, like a memory just out of reach; not a good memory, but something recognizable all the same. But that gave him pause, and he looked for another that might be a better fit. He pointed to a pale blue key pulsing with soft light.
"Or that one, I guess."
Gabe squeezed Rafe's hand, a thumb passing over the back of familiar, warm skin; eyes glanced up toward each key as Rafe suggested it.
"Whichever one you want, anjo. You can pick. Obed and I went and used that one," he offered, pointing to the chalk-white serpent key hanging from a simple leather thong. "But we can definitely do something we haven't done before." He took a few more steps forward, gently urging Rafe along with him, until they were under the first key Rafe had suggested. "You went to this one first; how about we just open the door and take a peek inside?" His free hand stretched upward, fingertips brushing the butt-end to make the wolf's head spin slowly in place as he glanced at the man standing next to him.
The idea had merit, and Rafael found himself more convinced the longer he stood under the turning key. At last he reached up and pulled it from its place. What he felt when he did was not a shock, exactly, but something subtly akin to it; again he felt a pang of memory, a moment of sadness that was his and not. He closed his hand around the key and looked to Gabriel, nodding his decision.
"If this even feels a little off," he said, "we're leaving. And we don't eat or drink anything."
He did not wait for agreement. He merely moved across the hallway, glancing first at Alice's door. But he did not want to use the key there, lest he open a portal to something horrid and leave her potentially stranded in such a place. He chose instead a door to an unclaimed apartment. He inserted and turned the key before he could allow himself a second thought. Then he gripped Gabe's hand and pushed the door open.
They stepped out onto hard-packed sand, a beach unlike any other Rafe had seen in waking life. The waves were low and gentle. A crowd had gathered in the distance; their heads were turned toward a ship still close to the shoreline. A fire had kindled on its deck, steadily growing with every gust of wind. Rafe squeezed Gabe's hand, and cut him a questioning look. The man squeezed Rafe's hand back, offering what he hoped looked like a supportive smile.
"Looks good to me so far, anjo. Why don't we go a little closer?" Gabe took a step inside the door, letting Rafe's hand loose in case he decided he didn't want to do this after all. But the moment he stepped inside the room, he was hit by the smell of the beach; salt, sand, surf, the tangy, fishy expression that was unique only to places where the land met water. Surely it would be enough to encourage Rafe to continue their exploration, and Gabe would be lying if he said he wasn't interested in what was going on here. Gabe glanced away from Rafe for a moment, toward the boat, curious as to whether they were sending it off for its virgin voyage or if the thing had just made landing after a long passage.
But he moved no further than that one step into the room; he looked back at Rafe, waiting to see what the other man wanted to do. He smiled. "You're in charge, anjo. Whatever you want to do."
Rafe's teeth worried at the swell of his lower lip. But the longer he looked at the scene before him, the more it felt like something familiar; something sad, but safe. Slowly his expression relaxed, and he found himself able to more calmly observe the scene before them.
His hand drifted apart from Gabe's as they walked. His steps quickened, carrying him ever closer to the crowd that watched the burning ship. He heard whispers in a language he knew he had no right to know, and yet everything he heard made perfect sense. He understood they were gathered to lament the passing of a loved one; one universally beloved, if the whispers were to be believed, as handsome as he had been kind. No-one spoke of how the young man had died, only that it had been unexpected, a tragedy that would echo through the ages.
Rafael took Gabe's hand again. "I think I knew him," he whispered. He looked to his partner, giving his fingers a small, tight squeeze. "Or… well. He did."
Gabe's brow furrowed, but he showed no hesitancy in Rafe's touch; his fingers wound with his partner's once more.
"You mean Freyr," he said, willing to say what Rafe was not. He felt like an intruder here; not necessarily unwelcome, but certainly uninvited. But if answers were there for the taking, he was going to help Rafe get them, whatever it took.
"Do you know who?" He asked, gently. Gabe took a step toward Rafe, closing the space between their bodies, his voice low and foreign sounding among whatever language everyone else was speaking.
Rafe was quiet for a time, only listening, his body drifting closer to Gabriel's in search of familiar comforts. The whispers continued, and Rafe closed his eyes to better listen. "Baldr," he said. He frowned, sighing quietly as he opened his eyes again. He brought his head to rest on Gabe's shoulder, both of them still staring out over the beachfront funeral. Gabe's arm immediately went around Rafe's waist. A few of the larger men had moved into the water, busying themselves with fruitlessly pushing the burning ship toward the sea. It did not budge. The flames leapt higher.
"Baldr is no-one we know," he said, blushing at the strangeness of the words on his tongue, knowing they were true all the same. "Loki, though…"
Freyr was not a name that came immediately to mind for Gabe, but Loki did. It was too relevant in popular culture to be mistaken. His mind drifted back to when Nish had showed him her paintings, and how she said she'd dreamt of Loki often. His hold around Rafe's waist tightened, just as much for his own comfort as it was for his anjo's.
"How so?" He asked, wanting the answers to be Rafe's and Rafe's alone, without his meddling. Rafael was quiet for a moment, still pressed close to his lover's side. When he spoke again, his voice was soft, nearly drowned out by the mourners around them.
"Nish. He's with her. We…" A shiver traced cold fingers down Rafael's spine. "We dreamed. Loki is cruel. I think he makes her cruel."
Gabe had no reply for that, having little experience outside of what Nish said she did and didn't dream about. His mind could not help but wonder if that was what made their relationship difficult, these...deities that had somehow become wound up in their everyday lives. A hand on Rafe's waist squeezed, trying to be comforting.
"I think we still have some say. You've seen Xochipilli," he offered. "I'm not that much of a slob." The attempt at humor seemed crass, and Gabe felt like he was walking on thin ice. A small smile twisted Rafael's lips all the same. "Are you afraid that that's what Freyr will do, to you? Because you're both... I'd say you're very well suited for each other, anjo. We are... We are what we are, because of what we choose to be, not because someone else is pulling our strings."
Rafael nodded. He liked this thought, though he could not say how much stock he put in it. Freyr had been a kind companion thus far, but there was no guarantee he would remain that way. There were other things, too, that tugged at Rafael, that made him worry on dark nights when he was alone. On a beach that should not be, watching a funeral that had only ever happened in stories, seemed as good a place as any to confess such things.
"I've read," he said, hesitant, "that he dies. There's one thing that protects him, and he gives it away, for love." He smiled. "I mean there are worse reasons to die. But what do you think that means for me?"
Again, Gabe found himself at a loss. He opened his mouth, then closed it, thinking better.
"I think," he started, slowly and carefully, "that it's something that happened a long time ago. That... these things, we know them as gods, because they were explanations for things people couldn't understand, before we had science and art and math, and... I don't know, the perfect brownie mix. And... Maybe we gave them life, because we cared so much. And we did things to them, like we do with any characters in a story. We made them powerful. We made them suffer. They became something more." He looked away from Rafe's profile, toward the burning boat and the men straining to force it to leave the beach. They had made no progress; the thing was simply too large.
"And then we didn't need them. We still enjoyed stories, but we weren't children anymore. Now, they need us. And maybe all of these things... the dreams, these keys, the changes, maybe we're just remembering what they remember. The things that made them what they are. We're in them, or they're in us... I don't know what that's about, or why. But I don't think that means you have to die, anjo. Freyr might be part of you, just like Xochipilli is part of me, like Loki is part of Nish... But that doesn't mean they are us." His grasp on Rafael tightened, pressing a hip into his side. A hand ran up from the man's waist to his chest, feeling his ribcage too easily.
Rafael remained quiet for what seemed a long time. The men at the boat moved away, replaced by others who found no more success. As he watched one failure after another he turned over Gabriel's words, weighing them against all he had seen and felt in his time in Pax Letale. Freyr would have liked that answer, of that he was certain; he could feel the warmth stirring in his chest at the thought, the joy of something that felt acknowledged and understood for the first time in a great while. He turned, raising his head, and pressed a kiss to Gabe's cheek. Gabe smiled.
"Thank you, gatinho," he said. He could find no other words to say, nothing that could possibly encompass all he felt in that weighty moment.
The crowd's murmuring grew louder. Rafe watched as they parted; concerned, he held Gabe all the tighter, his thumb hooked into one belt loop. A wolf approached, as large and as sturdy as a draft horse, a bridle made of living snakes fitted to its head. A giant of a woman rode on the beast's back. She wore mourning-clothes, and said nothing as she drove her mount into the crowd.
At the shoreline she dismounted, leaving the serpents to crawl on the neck and back of the wolf. Rafael's fingers tightened at Gabe's side, but the woman only walked into the water. The men there dispersed, leaving the jotun to her work.
"Goodbye," Rafe said, for the one who lived within him. Gabe remained silent, instead too awestruck for words as he watched her move the boat effortlessly; her arms made quick work of lifting it enough from its sandy bed to push it out into the waters proper. It sank, though never did the flames touch enough water to be quenched. The body on it, in the flames—this Baldr—continued to burn as the boat it drifted on started out toward the horizon. The giant woman remained standing in the waters, all frozen in place and in time as the only movement was water lapping gently onto shore.
It felt as if no time had passed at all, and yet their part in this moment was over. Sea and ship and shore all faded into nothing, and Rafe and Gabe were left standing in the fluorescent glow of the fourth floor hallway. Even the key was gone; there was not a shred of evidence that what they had seen was real at all. (Except perhaps the lingering smell of smoke, easily chalked up to Rafe's morning cigarette.)
Rafe squeezed Gabe's hand again. Shadows still lingered beneath his eyes when they met Gabe's own, but his expression seemed more at ease than it had before. He drew a slow, deep breath, and softly exhaled. "So… Panera? I'll drive…"
Gabe smiled, the expression softer than his usual. He kept that tenuous link with Rafe as they turned toward the elevator. "Sounds good, anjo."