AN: Thank you, Kaybug150 and catseye348 for your reviews. I'm sorry everyone that this part has taken such a long time for me to edit and put up, I've been terribly lazy recently. I hope you enjoy this, this final part of Secrets.
"Memory is the only way home." – Terry Tempest Williams
He felt like he was stuck in a thick grey cocoon, too heavy to shift. Light couldn't seem to filter through, but echoes of strange sounds swam in his ears. When he could, he listened to them, holding weakly to these signs of life; idle conversations not aimed at him, the buzz of a large building.
A woman crying.
He had no way to judge time, but it seemed she visited more than once, in the perpetual yesterday. Not too long ago, or why would the memory of her tears stick with him when nothing else did? But he couldn't help her, couldn't even remember why he should.
There was touch, too, sometimes: unseen hands that broke through the cocoon and impersonally folded over his limbs or clutched at his hands. They lifted him sometimes, limp and helpless as a doll without its stuffing. Even if he could have remembered how to use his muscles, he didn't seem to be a part of the idle flesh; not enough to interfere with its rearrangements. He couldn't recall how it might be any other way.
He wasn't bored or restless; awareness of the world outside his cocoon waxed and waned without his aid. It meant nothing to him. Until one day a nurse bent over to check him, and he realised he could smell the sweet, fake scent of her perfume. He didn't like it; far too fussy and floral.
He didn't realize, then, that a change had occurred, but as time – still impossible to measure – wore on, it became clear that the cocoon was fading.
Something was wrong. Slowly, oh so slowly, he grasped the thought. There should be more than grayness. So long oblivious to sensation, he began to grasp at it when it came. The sound of cars or sirens or birds through the window – not that he knew what they were, then. A sharp trill of laughter with the hands that came to make his bed. An astringent smell in the soap they washed him with.
Then, one day, a sentence. "He sounds like he's no good, Diane, I'd leave him if I were you…" The nurses walked out of earshot, then, but he didn't notice; he was too entranced by the words. Words, yes, that was what they were! They had meaning, they weren't just sounds.
The cocoon was only paper-thin, now, just enough to keep him one step back from his wasted body; there was no impediment to him listening, with a curiosity that was almost eagerness, for more.
The nurses might have been surprised to know how much attention was paid their bored chatter.
"Can you pass me the – oh, thank you."
"I think we'll name her Adele."
"She says, one more slip like that and I'm on probation."
"Did you hear they're getting a divorce?"
"Have you got an aspirin on you? My head today is unbelievable."
"One, two, three, lift…"
He soaked it all up like a sponge, barely knowing why. Then, one day, came a breakthrough.
"How are you today, Philip? Good, I hope. We're just going to change your sheets now."
"Do you always talk to them like that?"
"Oh, if I remember. Studies have shown that they can still hear, you know."
He disregarded the rest, latching possessively onto one word.
That word was – him. He was Philip. He knew he was. Philip…
And knowing who he was led Philip to another realization: something was missing. It wasn't just the cocoon, now all but gone, but still keeping him bound back from action; there was something really missing. Someone. Someone should be here with him, wouldn't have left him…
He had to find them.
From that moment on, Philip was awake – however little his body responded. He made persistent attempts to do something, anything, move just once – attempts that were far more exhausting than they should have been. The first time he managed to fully open his eyes was a triumph, if an unwitnessed one; he stared with blank puzzlement at the white ceiling, but then he had to sleep, letting weariness pull him back again. But not for long: it was only the next day that his restoration was noted by the nurses.
Philip had been dozing, if that was the correct word to use in his somnolent existence. One of the regular nurses' visits roused him; the woman briefly checking on his well being paused for a moment by his bed. A human presence; perhaps someone who could help him find what was missing.
He opened hazy eyes, fixing his gaze to a turned-aside black pony-tail. She had to see… she had to… With great effort, he forced his wasted muscles into action, moving his hand, closing his fingers weakly around her wrist.
She turned brown eyes to him, and cried out in shock.
Philip Lordan's case really was remarkable, nurse Maria Burden reflected as she walked down the corridor towards his room. He'd been in the 'hopeless' ward for nearly two years; even now, scars under his hair, one even emerging onto his forehead, gave mute testimony to the serious skull fractures he'd sustained. Recovery from so persistent a vegetative state was rare, and yet in the past few weeks he'd made remarkable progress.
From the day he'd reached out and touched Maria's wrist, he'd improved by leaps and bounds. He'd slowly regained motor function, seeming even from the beginning to understand simple instructions and urgings. Speech itself was so slow to return that they'd feared brain damage at first, but Maria had always known it couldn't be true; his eyes were far too alive. The tests they'd given him with shapes and colours had only confirmed this.
Most astonishing, of course, was when they'd given him pen and paper. At first he'd barely seemed to know what they were, but then – to hell with the simple line drawings the doctors wanted! The first thing he'd drawn had been a rose, awkward but plain nonetheless. Since then he'd drawn a whole series, each more skilled than the last.
And then he'd progressed to faces.
Most were easily recognized; small, clever sketches of the staff at the hospital. One was not, though it appeared over and over; a slim face, with high cheekbones, a solemn mouth, wistful eyes, and long, dark hair. Sometimes smiling, sometimes crying; sometimes a body joined it, roughed-in lines, but usually just the face, that Philip would gaze at with such worry in his eyes.
Everyone wondered who the mysterious subject could be, but it seemed a hopeless query; for try as they might, no one could find anyone from Philip Lordan's previous life.
Six months ago the hospital had changed their filing system, replacing as they did so a good many staff. So they had his details – name, Philip Lordan; age, 29; blood type, AB neg; admitted after a car crash two years previous, and blah blah blah blah. They had all that, but somehow all the really vital information, next of kin, contact details, everything, was lost to the ether. Not even the billing details had given them a clue; his health insurance form was not forthcoming. In her desperation, Maria had even tried simply calling every Lordan in the phone book, but all assured her that they had no such son or brother.
If only they could use visitor's records to trace someone; but their computers told them the sad truth, that no one had visited Philip Lordan in almost a year.
But now that Philip was hesitantly starting to talk, Maria had decided it was time to jog his memory, find the mystery behind his constant portraits. To this end she had unearthed from a deep storage room the meager belongings that had accompanied Philip to the hospital. A wallet, a bunch of keys, a small sketchbook, and that was it; she just hoped it would be enough.
"Hi, Philip," she said as she walked into the room.
He smile. "Hi, Maria," Philip replied carefully. He was sitting up in bed, the table before him showing another picture; the stranger again, this time holding something that looked a bit like a violin. That interested Maria; they'd already discovered that on top of his artistic skills, Philip knew quite a bit about classical music. Perhaps here was another clue to his past.
"Do you like music?" she asked, touching the violin. Clumsy still, but even a fool could tell he must have been so skilled before the accident had made his fingers so weak. Someday hopefully he'd get all that back again.
"He does," said Philip, looking at the picture. Then he frowned. "I think."
"Who is he?" Maria asked. This direct questioning hadn't been tried much before; Philip had only just become articulate enough for interrogation a few days ago, and they hadn't wanted to worry him.
"He should be here," Philip said, the same distress on his face that marked it every time new visitors entered his room. "I don't know why he isn't. I need him to be here, or I'll start doing stupid things again."
Well, this was interesting – if unenlightening. "What kind of stupid things?" she asked persistently, but Philip just looked upset.
"I don't remember," he said. "I just know that - things would go wrong, and I'd be unhappy, but I'd just keep making the wrong choices until someone stopped me..."
Well, that wasn't the most coherent answer she could have wished for. Time to move on. "I found these today," Maria said, offering him the possessions. "They're yours, from before the accident. Would you like to see them?"
Hesitantly, he took them, laying them gently on his table. He stirred the keys with a fingertip, not showing much recognition, but when he opened the wallet, Maria at least caught her breath. Tucked inside was a smiling photo, unmistakably of Philip's stranger.
"It's him!" the redhead exclaimed. He gazed at the small photo raptly, and then picked up his half-completed sketch to compare the two, pursing his lips a little. "More technically correct, perhaps," he murmured appraisingly. "But what it gains in accuracy it loses in feeling." Then he blinked, as if surprised by the flow of words. Maria grinned, pleased at how her stratagem had already succeeded in returning some personality to the man.
But apart from the photo, the wallet was dull; money, credit cards, a few receipts that recalled nothing to Philip's mind. Finally it was the turn of the sketchbook.
Maria had been correct in crediting him with great skill, it seemed; the pictures in the the book – flowers, flights of fancy, friends or strangers – were amazing, the soft pencil a better medium for art than anything the hospital had supplied. "I know them," Philip said, gazing at a sketch of a couple curled together on a sofa: the laughing girl had curly hair and a face like that of the stranger; the man had freckles and a puckish expression. "They were friends of ours."
Maria might have questioned the use of the plural, but Philip was already flicking on towards the last occupied pages of the half-full sketch pad. There was another quick drawing of the stranger, eyes half-closed and sleepy, long hair ruffled, covered with a blanket and hiding behind a coffee cup. Philip stared at it for a long moment, as if trying to catch hold of the peaceful morning scene that had birthed it. And then he turned over to the last page.
If Maria hadn't been a nurse for ten years, the detail might have made her blush, and if she'd had any doubt after Philip's obsession that he and the stranger had been lovers – well, this portrait removed them.
The stranger was asleep, it seemed, and naked; the sheets he lay on were probably very aesthetically pleasing, but they did next to nothing for his modesty, only tangling around an arm. Lovingly drawn, and lovingly gazed at, now; Philip touched the little white rose sigil beside his signature in recognition. "Huh," he said wryly. "David would kill me if he knew I'd let anyone else see this."
Maria thrilled with excitement, and Philip's green eyes went wide with elated joy. "I know who he is!" he exclaimed. "I know his name. He's David Ashton, he's a violinist… These – are our keys, we live together." His happiness abruptly dimmed. "Or – we did. Two years ago. Before the accident." The nurses had told him about the car accident, though Maria knew he still found it difficult to grasp. Philip turned his gaze on her, half desperately. "He must have visited," he said. "He must have! David wouldn't leave me alone like this."
Maria hated having to dash his hopes. "Philip, there's only one person on record as having visited you," she said quietly. "That was a woman, called Katherine, the records say. And even she hasn't visited you in over a year."
"I don't know a Katherine," Philip said listlessly. "No one ever called Katie 'Katherine'…" Suddenly he flicked back to the picture of the smiling couple. "Her. That's Katie. Of course she'd visit me. But why wouldn't David?" He was so pale, he looked like an agitated ghost. "He can't have died," Philip said. "He can't have died in the accident. We need to have our happy ending."
Maria couldn't stand to see him so worried. "I'll find out for you," she promised. "I'll find him."
Slowly, Philip calmed down. "Thank you," he said, but he couldn't quite disguise his lingering anxiety. "Thank you, darling."
And Maria withdrew, hoping that the return of memory and personality was worth the pain further revelations might bring.
After seeing the sketchbook, memories swam back to the surface more and more. Convivial evenings with friends, scattered through the years, holidays and parties and long nights full of sex and whispered confidences. His aunt he remembered one day with a rush of grateful joy, and alongside her his cold, faceless parents, and how he had run from them.
Always the good seemed to bring along the bad; along with happiness came screaming nightmares of hatred and pain, of crumpled bills dropped mockingly onto his body, of bloodstains on his lover's arms. Confusing and conflicting, until he didn't know what had truly happened and what he'd made up. All he knew was that he needed David to come and make it alright.
David was never far from his thoughts, pencil still skating out his face in every mood, the lines of his graceful hands, the reserved poses of his body. Remembering with a smile his lover's modesty, he kept to himself the way that body could soften in total trust, a love he'd never found in any other bedmate – those memories of others that returned to him entirely eclipsed.
He needed David there. Without him he argued with his doctors, irking them with uneven progress, flaring up or sulking when they tried to get answers from them. He'd never had patience except with David – though he could hardly say 'never' with his memories still so one sided – and every time his weakened legs or arms gave out during physio he wanted to throw it all aside, find something easier to do instead. Rebuilding a life was too hard without his lover, his muse to inspire him.
But more than anything else, he was worried, fearful down to his bones. He knew that something must be wrong, or David would be by his side in an instant. Even before they'd been lovers – memories now his precious, hoarded jewels – he recalled the way David had always been there all those times he needed help, quiet and soothing when Philip's instability became too pronounced, always ready with no questions and with searching eyes to hold him up… Why, when his lover was in a coma, would he suddenly stay away? Why hadn't he been at his bedside, reading him poetry, playing him music? Philip knew that if it had been reversed, he would not have stayed away; he'd have been there every day, telling David all his plans for their life after he woke up – and fearing the nights, when who knew what desperation and aimlessness might lead him into.
Philip shuddered. Many of the memory-dreams that came back to him now were too ugly to tell anyone about – even his ally, Maria. He wondered, in his darker moments, how David had ever been able to love him if he'd know the repellent whole. Every day he shied away from that part of himself, wishing for distractions, but every day without David he failed, until he was flirting bitterly with everyone who'd permit it and snapping at anyone else.
When was David going to come?
True to her word, Maria found the years-old newspaper article about the car crash. Philip still wasn't back at strength on reading, but he managed to take in the salient points: head on collision; involved parties William and David Ashton and Philip Lordan; William Ashton a paroled prisoner previously convicted of attempted murder of his son. William Ashton dead, other parties in critical condition.
The article made him remember – not the crash, but the trial, the fear and hate with which David mentioned his father. Photos of bruises that made him sick to his stomach, and made him fiercely glad that William Ashton was dead.
Critical condition… Philip wondered for one hideous, world-churning moment if David had died after all, but Maria assured him not. She'd found his medical records, even found his phone number.
"Two years is a long time," she tried to caution him. "He might have moved on, Philip."
But Philip remembered the way David would repel flirtation, would cringe away from any touch save his. Remembered, with a fury as fresh as the first time, being told how badly he'd been treated, and remembered the scars on his arms that had bled a little more when Philip looked away. "There's no way," he said. "Not my David. Love doesn't fade, not even after two years." His eyes still held all his faith in fairy stories, coupled now with desperate fear. David had courted death for so long before Philip had met him; would love alone, without Philip's presence, have been enough to keep him whole? Could that be why he never visited?
"I'm going to call him," he said; the entire hospital staff wouldn't have been enough to hold him back from the phone. He dialed in the half-familiar number, and only the thought of how terrible he'd look with red eyes kept him from crying when he only reached an answer phone. At least the voice was David's; hearing it again was an almost physical jolt, and the names he spoke roused a host of memories in him – though he bit his lip and clenched his fists to hear the exhausted pain in his lover's voice.
He couldn't leave a message; sometimes the only possible way was face to face. The hospital called, too, but they had no more luck than Philip – though they left messages aplenty.
"I need to find him," Philip told the staff stubbornly. "I am going to find him." David had been so afraid of being selfish that he'd tried to oblige anyone with the least claim on his affections, only ever resisting with blank, cold obliviousness. Philip was the opposite; he'd burn through any objections to get to what he wanted, even if he destroyed himself in the process.
"You're still recovering," Maria protested. "You aren't ready to leave the hospital yet. Give it another week or so, I'm sure he'll respond…"
But she was wrong, they all were. The phone number he'd half-recognised had felt right in his fingertips, and other knowledge had returned with it. Their address, the picture of an ugly country cottage in the entrance hall of their apartment building, the number of his old mobile phone. When he touched the credit cards in his wallet, he remembered that he always used the same pin number, 5683, because the letters on the pad spelt out the word 'love' and David meant 'beloved'.
He was still weak and thin, but he remembered his lofty disdain for sport in school and those who excelled at it, and knew he'd never been strong; he remembered the way David had used to remind him that coffee wasn't enough to stop him losing weight, even if he was in a fit of artistic inspiration. He could look in a mirror and feel almost normal.
Almost: that was the key word. Being in a coma didn't leave lines on the face, thank whatever deities were listening, but he was still two years older and thinner and paler. He'd shaved off the reddish stubble that two years of indifferent care had left on even his consistently beardless chin, and Maria had consented to lend him just a touch of eyeliner to bring life back to his face, but the clothes the hospital had provided were nothing like as flattering as Philip would prefer.
And nothing, but nothing, could reconcile him to the scars.
David had always had scars enough on his arms to mirror the scars on his past, and as long as Philip wasn't repulsed by them he didn't seem to mind – however assiduously he hid them from the rest of the world. But Philip had always been perfect, save for the passing ugliness of bruises or grazes from his secret life. He'd been so vain of his perfection, his one saving grace and the curse that dogged his footsteps… he didn't know if even David's love could make him forget the jagged white scar across his torso (the one he now kept his shirt buttoned tight to conceal) or the subtle ridges under his hair, where his skull had fractured. Worst of all was the line that emerged from his hairline, running towards his left temple; the only thing that held him from despair was the fact that his hair, overdue for a cut, fell down to cover it – and, of course, the fact that he was far more focused on finding his David, making sure everything was alright. On giving them the happiness and peace that he'd promised.
He left the hospital, as it said on his records, against medical advice; promising to check back in in a few days if everything fell apart, but privately not meaning a word of it. He wouldn't let it go wrong.
He caught a taxi from the hospital, assured that the money in his wallet would suffice even if the credit cards no longer worked; even from behind the protective car window, it was like venturing into a strange and dangerous world. It seemed hard to believe that he'd once fitted in with them, walked so boldly down the streets, smiled at strangers.
Well, he had. And he would again. Just to prove it to himself, he straightened in his seat; when the taxi stopped at a traffic light he blew a kiss to an old lady on the sidewalk. She smiled, and waved in reply.
But all this was just a distraction, and as they neared David – home – Philip was too tense to wink at the passers by. He climbed out of the taxi with as much grace as he could muster when his heart was pounding exultantly, and barely remembered the petty matter of the fee. Even as he handed it over, his eyes were latched onto the caller system by the door, seeking out the button for 33, the one with the neat card saying 'ASHTON' beside it. His memory hadn't led him astray; though once his own name had been written there, too, still there could be no doubt. Just three floors up from where he stood, David was waiting.
Up the stairs and along the hall – a path he'd walked over and over in his head. His breath shook as he slid the key into the lock; what if it had been changed in the past two years? But the key turned with an ease that was out of keeping with two years of storage, and Philip stepped inside to find the lost half of himself.
It had changed. Some of it was only to be expected; the blue and green cushions on the sofa had faded, the curtains by the window looked more worn. A memory came, like a bubble popping in his mind; how he'd stolen on of Katie's silk scarves to loop the curtains back with, to get more light for a picture he was painting. Where was that scarf now, he wondered? More to the point, where was his easel? It had always been set up at the window, next to the music stand that now had sole pride of place. David had accused him of being like a cat, needing the sunshine, and he'd been affronted; he hated cats, for the way they persistently clawed and shed all over his clothes.
There were other things missing as well as the easel. All his paintings were gone from the walls, the shelves stripped of many of his books. A lump formed in his throat; had David divorced him from his life so utterly? How could he? Pride said that David could never have stopped loving him; common sense agreed; but insecurity pointed out that the real world was seldom as easy as a story book.
An unlikely compromise lit into his mind. Perhaps the crash had given David amnesia, and he'd forgotten Philip? He hated the idea, but it was the only explanation that he could bear. And perhaps, just perhaps, if David had forgotten him, he wasn't so very unhappy.
But Philip couldn't hide from his eyes the cigarettes on the windowsill, the half-full ashtray, and he remembered with a lurch how cigarettes and knives had been, with David, more or less interchangeable. He remembered, dimly, that one horrible week, when cruelty and abandonment had driven David to within an inch of suicide, and he could hardly credit it that their relationship could have been forgotten so easily.
There had been a faint noise in the background; Philip only recognized it as a shower when it clicked off. He turned to look at the bathroom door, waiting for David to emerge… wondering what her would say… imagining already their blissful reunion.
The door opened, and David walked out, still patting his hair dry with a towel, another caught around his waist. Why wasn't he checking his appearance in a mirror, carefully trying to look his best? Philip knew David only ignored that step when he was depressed, and his stomach constricted.
David hadn't seen him yet, wasn't looking as he traced the familiar path to the bedroom; Philip drank him hungrily in with his eyes, the realness of him, the life. Saw every scar over his chest with grief that he hadn't been there to watch them mend; saw the too-many scars on his arm with a quick spark of horror. There was hardly any unscathed flesh left.
"Love, you promised that you'd stopped," he whispered, and David turned quickly to look at him, guilt and pain all too clear on his face – but none of the shock, the love and joy, that Philip wished for. Dismayed, he spoke again. "I've come back," he said, smiling – hesitant behind the brightness. "Aren't you glad to see me, darling?"
But David ignored him, acting as if there was no one there at all, and for the life of him Philip couldn't guess why.
Usually David had nothing but distrust of psychology, but he had to admit that Richard's 'holiday' had helped. Not that he was in perfect mental health – far from it. Richard hadn't even broken him of the cutting, not entirely. But he'd become a little more stable.
"Baby steps," Richard used to tell him with a sad smile. "Even baby steps are better than nothing."
They'd even talked about medication. Anti-depressants wouldn't help; both of them feared the side-effects more than the problem. Hesitantly, David had raised the question of anti-psychotics.
"Do you need them?" Richard had asked seriously.
"Maybe," David replied, but he couldn't explain his hallucinations; much less could he explain his terrible dependence on them.
Perhaps Richard saw all that anyway. "Anti-psychotics might very well affect you as badly as anti-depressants," he said. "Unless you really, really need them, I'd prefer not to have them prescribed."
And when David was there, it hadn't been so bad. He still dreamed of Philip, still saw him in crowds, or occupying empty chairs in whatever rooms David sat in – but none of them were cruel, most of them were silent, and he was having enough trouble managing to hold on to himself whenever he visited Richard's shelters, rather than his home, that he yearned for anything of his lover to lean on, even if it wasn't real.
In any case, David's hallucinations weren't the main object they were dealing with, and his other issues had to take precedence.
So it was that whenever Richard wasn't busy, they'd talk hours away; when he was otherwise occupied, he left David with various of his friends and colleagues, cheerful, soothing people who had the power, like Richard, of understanding the unspoken words, and the ability to draw him out of his shell. Though he still had yet to tell any of them about the darker secrets; he didn't really think he'd ever be able to, he'd held to his silence for so long.
Support groups certainly didn't work. Not only was he too reserved to bare his soul to even those who might empathise – not when he didn't know them – he couldn't stay objective; hearing other people's stories just made him draw parallels with his own until he was half sick with it. He didn't want to have to tell people; he wanted them to understand without words, in an instant connection. Richard told him that only a few rare souls could manage such a feat, but that didn't make it easy to accept.
One thing they did agree on was that David would be wise not to try dating again any time soon. "You'd only hate him for not being Philip," Richard said gently. "And until you manage to work on your sexual dysfunctions, you're just going to run aground anyway."
David flushed; he was modest enough that telling Richard about his lack of passion and enjoyment even in bed had been mortifying. "I never had any problems with Philip," he muttered.
"Philip would have rather cut off both hands than hurt or scare you," Richard observed. "That was clear to anyone. But few people will be that careful, so you find it harder to trust them." He paused thoughtfully. "Besides, judging from what people used to say about him, it'd be hard not to enjoy yourself with Philip," he added, and David was even startled into a flushing grin.
But Richard did not mean for David to become a recluse; before he was willing to release him back home he extracted a solemn promise that David would make an effort to go out and meet friends at least once a week. "I know you're depressed," he said. "I know you're tired all the time, and you can't be bothered, and it all seems too boring and useless and dull for words. But you need the human connections."
"I've never been good at making friends, though, at meeting people, and being sociable," David protested. Before Philip, he'd always been too afraid of leaving himself vulnerable to attack and exploitation, and after – who else had he really needed?
"Then you'll have to exert yourself, won't you," Richard said firmly.
David was listless in both his agreements and objections, only inspired to improve himself by Richard's skilled cajolery and his own nightmares, but in spite of this, within a couple of months he had recovered himself enough to return home. The apartment he'd shared with Philip had lost the almost visible taint of Eric's memory – although he doubted that he'd soon be able to meet with the man, he planned on sending an apology – and now it could again be a refuge, however hollow and cold it seemed without love to warm him.
There was dust on the surfaces, but no nasty memories with it; he cleaned it up without a pang. There were messages on his answer phone, but they made no sense; why should he have any wish to contact the hospital where Philip had died? Even the thought gave him nothing but pain. He deleted them.
His friends – even Lisa, despite her divided loyalties – celebrated his return, and he tried his hardest to live up to Richard's advice and be outgoing, but he felt stiffly false. The thought of continued efforts was awful – though he knew it was for the best.
But all he wanted was Philip. No amount of therapy could lessen that ache, even if he smiled a little more, and phantoms dogged his footsteps a little less.
Or – he'd thought they did. But the reprieve did not last for long; only a few days after his return, his hallucinations, for so long silent and discreet, regained their voice.
He didn't know what had prompted it; perhaps the rooms of the apartment were too empty and full of memories after the fresh companionability of Richard's house. Whatever the reason, he got out of the shower one day, vaguely thinking about when he should go back to work, and there was an image of Philip in the living room, uttering a reproach that scalded him to the heart with guilt. Katie and even Richard could scold him almost without effect, but the same words from the man he loved – or even his shadow – could almost have destroyed him.
But even the first rebuke could not measure up to the next comment for sheer anguish. "I've come back. Aren't you glad to see me, darling?" And the hallucination was smiling, that unsure smile that only David saw…
When had his subconscious become so cruel? To taunt him with the one thing he wanted more than anything else, the one thing he could never have?
Gritting his teeth against tears, he turned away, finishing the walk to his bedroom. After a brief moment, the hallucination hastened after him; David could hear his footsteps.
"I can tell that you recognize me," he said, voice half hurt, and half pleading as David struggled into clothes. "So why won't you speak to me? Why won't you look at me?" He reached out to catch one of David's bare shoulders; he gasped at the sheer solid familiarity of it. Why did his mind have such power to deceive? "Why didn't you ever visit me in hospital? Why didn't you run to me when I came in today? You were the only thing I could think of, ever since I woke up; before I could even remember your name I remembered how much I love you. I thought you'd be the same; I thought no amount of time could change that." His voice trembled a little, his lips twisting in an attempt at blasé pride, and David remembered the week of hell, where he'd ignored the tremble and focused on the anger, where they'd torn each other to shreds before they could find mercy. "Was I wrong?"
David had been listening only unwillingly to this perplexing, heart-rending accusation, shirt only half on, but now he lifted teary eyes to Philip's face. "Of course I still love you," he said. "How could I ever stop? Oh, God." He twisted away, shirt forgotten as he sat heavily on the edge of the bed. He covered his face with his hands, shoulders shaking. "Why do you keep haunting me?"
The hallucination knelt before him, catching his hands and holding them. His face was a study of worry, and so beautiful – but not the perfect memory that always seemed to return. This version of Philip was older, thinner, less immaculate than he'd prefer: realer. But David couldn't believe it; he knew what was real, and he knew Philip was dead.
"What are you talking about?" the apparition asked him, frowning. Philip tried never to frown, he worried so so over wrinkles – but David's troubles could always knot his face in distress. "Haunting you? How could I haunt you? I've been in a coma for two years." He touched the side of David's face wonderingly. "It feels like I've only been away from you a few months. It must have been much longer for you. But they said you never visited."
"How could I visit?" David asked, crying now. "Why are you doing this? You're dead! No matter how much I want it to be otherwise, you can't be back. You're just another hallucination!"
Philip – the hallucination, David fiercely insisted to himself – sat on the edge of the bed and wrapped David in his arms, an action so familiar and comforting that David couldn't pull away from the self-deception; he leaned into the embrace, hiding his face against the solid-seeming shoulder. "I miss you so much," he whispered.
And Philip held him close, as if not knowing what to say.
In truth, though he was distracted by the immediate need to comfort David, by the sweet joy of holding him again, Philip was terribly distressed. He wracked his yet insufficient memory for possible causes to David's strange behaviour – but found none. David had always been secretive, defensive, prone to depression; all traits that had made him inexplicable to his fellows. But never before had he been so… Philip had never wanted any less to use the word 'crazy', but it fit sickeningly well.
David thought he was dead. That was a big enough problem for anyone to absorb. But more than that, he hadn't been surprised when his supposedly dead lover returned to him; his use of the word 'haunting' suggested it had happened before. And that meant… Philip's heart clenched. David had never been schizophrenic – but two years' absence changed many things.
"I'm real," Philip insisted. "I'm here. Could a hallucination hold you like this? Could it?" Maybe it could – who knew how deep into his own fantasies David had retreated? – but Philip was hoping not. "Please, I don't know why you think I'm dead, but it's not true! I need you to be alright, to believe me, to be strong for me, love, because without that I don't know how I'm going to rebuild my life." He laughed, a little shakily; still too worried to make it smooth. "You know you're meant to be my Prince Charming."
David shuddered, holding to him even closer, as if afraid he'd vanish into air if he loosened his grip. "I didn't want to believe that you were dead… I dreamed once that it was a lie. But everyone was giving me their condolences, and in all the therapy I was in they told me I had to accept it and move on… And I know that there's something wrong with me, I know that, I see things that aren't there, so I have to keep it under wraps. I have to not give in to it. It would be so easy just to believe that the hallucinations are real, but I can't." He was sobbing quietly between sentences, breath tearing in his throat. "I thought I was doing better, but maybe I'm not, because usually the hallucinations don't touch me or hold me or tell me pretty lies, and I wish I could believe it but I don't… I don't want to go back to hospital. I had enough of that, after you died… I can't believe you, even though I wish I could. Even though it's killing me to manage all alone, without you… Because no one understands, and they hurt me without meaning to."
Philip felt his hopes shattering; only the fact that whatever else happened he still had David in his arms kept his heart from cracking with them. "I'm so sorry," he said. "So sorry I couldn't be with you like we both needed. But it's going to be alright now. Whether you believe it or not, I'm back now, and I'm going to stay. I've always said that if we had each other we could make it work, no matter what. You thinking I'm dead is something of a blow – but hey," Philip laughed a little. "I've always said that love is more powerful than the grave, anyway. I guess now I just have the chance to prove it."
David matched his laughter, reluctantly moving away from Philip's shoulder and scrubbing a sleeve over his damp eyes. "If anyone could prove it, it would be you," he said wistfully. "I don't believe it – but I'll take any shadow of you I can get. You always were too good at persuading me." He lowered his eyes again. "Besides," he whispered. "All my hallucinations fade away eventually."
Philip saw the forlorn look in David's face, and kissed him gently. "Not me," he promised. "You're the other half of me. I've got no reason good enough to let you slip through my fingers again."
For the rest of the day and much of the night, they talked; talk interspersed with soft, half desperate caresses. David told Philip snatches of his lonely two years, sheltered from grief by a warm, if illusory, arm; touched on suicide and self harm, playing restlessly with a cigarette until Philip threw it away with a dire glance at the ashtray. He talked about Eric, voice half breaking with guilt at his faithlessness to his love and his cruelty to the replacement; when he spoke of that final night, Philip's eyes filled with sympathetic horror, needing no finished sentences to know what had gone wrong. He held David gently, stroking his hair, and murmured, "Oh, love, why take my silence with your own? One's enough for anybody."
David told him about the hallucinations, the cruelty and the sweetness of them; and it tore at Philip that his image had been made the instrument of torment, even as it selfishly, irrationally squeezed at his heart that anyone could love him that deeply, crave him so much, memorise him well enough to call up duplicates from a forlorn and broken subconscious.
In return, Philip told David about recovering from a coma, the pictures he'd drawn of David before he could even recall the name… He showed David the sketchbook that had brought back so much. "I remember that one," David said, as if surprised. "You only used to use it for traveling, because it was small. That picture of me…" Touching it with a finger, he blushed to see himself to scantily covered. "That was from when we visited Richard, once. He teased us in the morning, when we came out of the room so late, saying it was lucky that his walls are soundproof. I think he was sad, though – you know how Richard has trouble finding girlfriends."
"Yes," Philip said softly. "Yes, I do remember that."
Philip confessed the gaps in his memory, and how they troubled him; for hours, he and David reminisced together, their happy years; forgotten jokes and passing dramas that sparkled like jewels as they reclaimed them.
David told Philip that he couldn't bear him to just fade away, and let the gold of these memories slip away back to silt, to the crushing weight he'd borne alone for so long. There were tears in his eyes, and Philip brushed them away. "I've told you and told you," he said. "I'm real. I'm not leaving you."
But David shook his head. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I've lived too many lies to believe you."
Not even a relieved reunion could stem the need for food, of course; as they ate, Philip made another hopeful attempt to convince David. "This is real food; you made it yourself," he reminded him. "And I'm eating it."
"Not much of it," David said lightly; not that either of them were particularly rapacious in any case, appetite worn away by their respective troubles.
"You sound like one of my nurses," Philip complained. He might have said his mother – but in truth he doubted that either of his parents had shown much concern for him. Certainly what little he'd been able to piece together of his childhood had not been warming – and he remembered far too many glimpses of the confrontations that led to him running away… but enough of such wandering thoughts. "It's real food, and I'm eating," Philip returned to the point. "Can a hallucination eat?"
David looked troubled, fork stirring uselessly at the plate. "It's true that none of your behaviour fits with my other hallucinations," he agreed, soft voiced. "But that just frightens me, because I don't want to go any more crazy. I don't want to be put away. So I just have to take this as my own private bubble of unreality – a holiday, if you will – and tell myself that when I step out of this apartment I'll be sane again, the world will be real. Or as sane and real as I ever am." He gave a faltering smile. "I can't admit that you're real, though God I want to, because I can't afford to lose grip with reality entirely – no matter how much I love the bubble."
By the end, his voice was breaking, and Philip reached out to him. "It's not just a holiday, it's forever. It's not going to vanish when you wake. But I won't try to convince you any more, not if you don't want me to."
David could see the pain in the shadowed eyes and the lips turned down at one corner. "I hurt you. I'm sorry," he said wretchedly. Philip didn't point out the painful illogic in apologizing to a dream.
They left the plates on the table and retreated again, continuing their talk between softly explorative touches in the bedroom, testing the limits of imagination and the changes wrought by years. Finding the marks on Philip's forehead and chest, David's face tightened. "Scars," he said, as if the word was too cruel to think of. "How could you ever have scars?" Guilt in his voice that even in his subconscious he could be so unkind as to mar his lover.
"You have more scars than me," Philip pointed out. "And I've still never seen anyone more beautiful."
Questing touches didn't turn into anything more – not with them both new and fragile from the harsh memories that came lurking in the shadows of the soft. Instead they lay together, talk ceding the way to peaceful silence in the dark. The curtains weren't closed, and dim light settled on David's face, showing his half open eyes. Philip touched his cheek.
"I'm afraid to go to sleep," he said quietly. "Afraid that despite what you say, in the morning you won't be here." A tear slipped down his cheek; sadness too recently all-consuming to have been soothed away yet. "Loneliness is too high a price to pay for sanity."
It was useless to make any more promises; Philip just kissed away the errant tear. "I won't sleep if you won't," he said. "Let's last the night out together."
They might not have lasted the entire night, but they made a valiant effort; it wasn't until late the next day that Philip woke up to the sound of the phone ringing plaintively in the next room. Opening his eyes, he saw that David had awoken before him; he could feel the possessive need in the grey eyes resting on his skin. It almost matched his own.
"Are you going to answer that?" he asked, voice blurry with sleep, and David shook his head.
"I'm happier staying here with you," David replied – the 'for as long as you'll stay' an unspoken addition that Philip heard clearly nevertheless.
"That the world could be emptied but for us," Philip sighed wistfully, snuggling closer and kissing David warmly in greeting. "Good morning, love. Please note that I did not fade away during the night."
David even managed a genuine smile at the joke. "I was holding pretty tight," he said. "You'd have found it difficult in any case."
"No tighter than me," Philip promised, stretching luxuriously and tangling the blankets around him. "Oh, how I hate to get up! But I need a shower. I'm still wearing yesterday's pants, and you know how I hate to be slovenly." He hesitated, feeling a reluctance to leave David's presence that must surely equal his lover's. "Come with me," he asked. "I'm not going to dissolve with the water, but that doesn't mean I don't want someone to hold on to."
David looked uncertain. "It's been a long time since I…" he began awkwardly, but Philip stopped him before he could finish.
"We have forever, love, however little you believe me. It's just a shower." It wouldn't take long before the frantic relief of reunion ceded the way to less innocent pastimes, but for now Philip was happy just to hold him, to rest his head on David's shoulder and try to recapture his two stolen years.
After the shower, David slipped modestly into clothing that Philip anxiously thought two years' passage had made looser on him. He himself was less well provided for, eyes on the empty spaces in the wardrobe as he followed David in his towel. "What happened to all my clothes?" he asked in a small voice that could not quite rid itself of remembered vanities. "Should I – just borrow yours?" It wouldn't be the first time, and when he had David he could feel no other lack, but – he did like his clothes, however out of date the fashions must now be.
"I put them away," David explained quietly. "After you – after you –" It was even harder to say the words now that he had what he'd always so desperately wanted; the return of his lover, however fictitious. He steeled himself. "After you died, I couldn't bear to have them around. I thought it might make me forget you if I couldn't see your things. But I couldn't bear to throw them away." Philip touched his arm with soft fingers, and a wavering smile won its way back to his face. "Come on, I'll get them." The smile was gone again. "The ghost's out now anyway, so it's pointless to hide them away."
Philip hated to see David sad, and it made him feel hollow that his lover would not recognize him as the truth no matter how he tried. So he caught David's hand and kissed his fingertips before following him, with mounting anticipation, to the cupboard where his boxes waited.
It was like discovering an ancient treasure trove, but all the sweeter for the reclamation. Philip made a noise of delight as he drew out his easel, forgetting his quest for clothes as he reverently set it up by the window again. "As soon as I get my fingers back in shape, I'll paint you something," he promised David. "Our walls are looking kind of bare."
"That's because all your paintings are in there, too," he explained, watching quietly as Philip began to tug out the canvases, propping them up against the walls and furniture to be admired before diving back in to retrieve the boxes. All the colorful ghosts of Philip he'd found too painful to keep near him, rushing back into his drab and empty life.
Philip had found one of the boxes of clothes, and was casually disarranging the neat piles as he looked for an outfit, tossing those items he deemed unsuitable to drape over the backs of the chairs and sofa. "It looks like there was an orgy in here," David noted wryly, stepping around a decadently sprawled pair of jeans to retrieve his box of cigarettes from the window sill.
"An orgy of people with impeccable taste," Philip agreed, looking contentedly around at the chaos he'd introduced. But then his eyes fell on the lighter in David's hand. "No. Absolutely not," he said firmly. "I refuse to have my clothes all smell of cigarette smoke. Put it away, love."
"But –" David twisted the box between his fingers. How could he explain the itch he had for them, just out of reach?
"You've quit before, you can do so again," Philip told him, but then his expression softened. He'd finally managed to find a pair of jeans that was still appropriately tight on his thinned frame; pulling them on, he walked to David without fastening them. "Love, you know why I hate it."
David did know, and the memory made him cringe with guilt as, in his mind, Philip whispered about his nightmares, lips moving against the skin of David's shoulder, fingers tightly clinging to his; Philip's nightmares were cruel enough to scare them both. Lying on a bed in the half light, the stranger poised above, the cigarette held negligently between two fingers, the cold eyes considering, calculating, just before the hand dropped… Philip didn't have any scars by the time David knew him, but still the nightmares continued.
"I know," he whispered. "But I've been doing it for so long, Philip…" Quitting would be too painful, even in this dream of life he'd entered into.
"I'll help you," Philip promised. "Like I'd make you do it on your own." He closed the distance between them and plucked the lighter and cigarettes away. He kissed David softly of the lips, and then pushed open the window, flinging them out into the street below, the separate cigarettes slipping out of the box mid-flight, scattering on the ground.
David watched them go without a protest, numb fingers unresisting to the theft, but his expression was faintly lost as he watched them disappear; remembering all the other times he had tried and failed.
"None of that," Philip chided, stepping close and touching a smile back onto David's face. "I'm here this time. Aren't I better than nicotine?"
David caught his lips in a kiss; try as he might, Philip could not quite turn away the taste of pain in the caress. "You're better than any addiction I could have," he whispered. "And far more dangerous." But he made no move to break away, letting his hands wander around Philip's waist, playing over the soft bare skin of his back. And Philip smiled as he moved to the task of distraction, and to see, if he tried hard enough, if he could wipe away the taste of pain that two years of loneliness had driven in so deep.
When David woke up the next day, he was afraid to open his eyes, half-certain that the sweet dream would have ended, as all dreams must. The last scars of Eric's touch, dark memories of knives in lonely places – all had been chased away by thoughts of yesterday, passion and tenderness and sunshine and love that David thought he had lost all capacity for since Philip's death. Certainly no one but Philip – or his ghost – had ever been able to make David forget himself, lose himself in hedonism and the pleasure of the moment. Philip, with his sinful fingers and a touch that knew everything.
But now – now that he'd spent two blissful days and nights in this unparalleled unreality, now that he'd almost, almost begun to accept that this hallucination – if hallucination it was –was not going to disappear like its fellows… well, now Philip would have gone again, and David would be alone.
A faint, sleepy noise of contentment disturbed his thoughts; dreaming fingers brushed his skin, and David's stubborn eyes flew open. Philip was still there, sleeping peacefully, midmorning sunshine on the pillow bringing a trace of colour back to his pale cheeks.
A moment later, the sound that had made his lover stir registered on David's mind, too; in the next room, the phone was ringing shrilly. Automatically, he slipped from the bed without disturbing the sleeper, and found a robe on the floor to cover his bare skin – but then he hesitated. All yesterday he and Philip had let the phone buzz out into silence; what would it hurt to do so again? And if he left the room, what was to stop Philip from vanishing while his back was turned?
He paused for long enough for the machine to pick up; as he loitered indecisively in the doorway, he could hear his sister's anxious tones.
"David, it's Katie," she began unnecessarily. "Are you there? Are you alright? Why aren't you answering anyone's calls? You're really worrying me. I'm going to come over."
Halfway through the message, David was already moving, his fears of being woken from the dream superseded by those of being discovered in it. Hastily, he picked up the phone, just before the dawdling Katie could disconnect.
"It's me," he said quickly. "Sorry, I overslept, only just made it to the phone. I'm absolutely fine. Scout's honour."
"David! Oh thank goodness. You were really scaring me." Relief turned rapidly to anger. "Where were you yesterday? Didn't you remember that you were meant to be meeting me and Tom for lunch? Why didn't you answer the phone?"
David thought about what he'd been doing at lunchtime yesterday instead of going out, and flushed hotly, grateful that Katie wasn't there to see it. Still, he'd probably had more fun. "Sorry," he said sheepishly for the second time. "It just completely slipped my mind. I was… preoccupied yesterday."
"Preoccupied with what?" Katie asked with predictable persistence, a switch back to the more familiar concern. "Nothing's wrong, is it, David?"
"No, no, nothing's wrong," he soothed her. Unless you count my total descent from sanity as 'wrong'… he added silently to himself, but as his eyes moved around the room, he couldn't help smiling in spite of the bitter thought. There were empty coffee cups in the kitchen, an easel in the window, half finished pencil sketches abandoned on the table and a battered black top hat sitting on the sofa next to a pair of jeans and a single silk glove. There were bright canvases all over the bland walls, and everything in the flat seemed to suddenly have come alive.
"Nothing's wrong at all," he repeated, realizing with some surprise that it was true. "Katie, I'm – I'm happy." He said the words almost with wonder; it had been so long since he'd had an opportunity to voice them. Oh, being with Eric hadn't been one long slog of misery (and somehow it was easier to think of him now than even all Richard's therapy had managed) but it hadn't managed to inspire in him this deep, fresh joy, filling him with light right down to the tips of his toes. "I'm really happy." He didn't even have the lingering doubt of Philip's impermanence, for there he was in the doorway, hair sticking up and eyes still blurred, absently holding a tangled bedsheet around his hips as his only covering.
Trust Philip not to bother with real clothes, or even a robe, when he could get away with depraved decadence instead. Probably the only reason he'd grabbed the sheet was that he'd heard talking, and wasn't sure if David was alone.
Then he realised that Katie was still talking, and he wrenched his attention back to the phone.
"You're – happy?" she repeated, sounding half incredulous, half ecstatic. "What happened?"
The hallucinations had always been his most vital, feared secret; telling her the truth could only lead to trouble, particularly when the illusion seemed so seductively real. David could not find it in himself to be ashamed of the pleasure he'd found in his self-deluding dream, but it certainly was no safe subject to share.
"I don't know, Katie," he replied guardedly. "I just am. I slept well, maybe that's it."
Philip brightened to hear the name of who David was talking to, and he stepped forward, still trailing his sheet, snapping his fingers for the phone. David shook his head vehemently; passing the phone to no one would make Katie suspect – and worse, it would shatter this bubble of beautiful madness that he'd built.
"Please? I really need to talk to her," Philip said in an undertone.
"No," David whispered back stubbornly, ignoring the faint hurt in those green eyes for the refusal.
"Who are you talking to?" Katie asked curiously. "Is someone there with you?"
"Just thinking aloud," David said hastily, hating the way some of his happiness wilted, like an exotic hothouse plant exposed too long to the outside world, when he saw how the words cut at Philip, the way he hid his winces behind a shrug. David slipped an arm around his waist and held him close, relaxing again when the body against his couldn't stay stiff for more than a moment – even if he still wouldn't relinquish the phone.
Katie thankfully dropped her questioning, but her invitation – just short of a command – to join her and Tom for a meal today instead was hardly calculated to go down well. Nor was her reminder that it was 'doctor's orders'.
"Another day, Katie," he temporized. "It's not that I'm being deliberately antisocial, but – I'd just prefer to be on my own today. I get the feeling that my good mood won't be very robust if I try to do too much."
"I'm plenty robust," Philip whispered into his other ear, voice tickling with laughter over the subdued tone at the lack of acknowledgment. "Feel free to do as much as you like to test me on that." David pinched him, trying to listen to his sister's reply.
Perhaps, after David's sincere avowal of happiness, Katie didn't feel the need for concern; in any case she allowed the conversation to end with only a token protest, leaving David to the warm embrace and the sad scrutiny of his illusory lover.
"Why wouldn't you let me speak to her?" Philip asked quietly, the laughter faded again. "Why wouldn't you go out? I could have gone, too. Tom and Katie are my friends, I remember that; after two years they should surely be glad to see me, like you were." Gently, he touched David's cheek, looking deep into his eyes. "Or is it that you still don't believe I'm real? I'd hoped after yesterday… last night…"
David bit his lip; it was true that Philip – or his ghost – was just too convincing, and he'd come close… But his doubts and fears were too deep-rooted for even that wonderful night to overcome. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I can't. I can't give you the phone, I can't leave the apartment myself, because I have got to believe that doing so would breach the bubble. I can't be insane, Philip, I just can't; I don't want to lose my grip on reality, just – check out, like Evans did." Even speaking the name made his breath catch painfully. "I have to believe there's an escape route. Even if I know I might not ever be able to take it."
"So we're just going to hole up in here, and shun the outside world?" Philip asked lightly, though his green eyes were steady on David's, smoothing away the ridges of pain in his voice and face.
"Until the world comes to reclaim me," David said. "Yes."
A smile, rueful and teasing, tilting on the lips and purring in the eyes. "What happens when we run out of food?" Philip asked. "I don't think I could bear to resort to cannibalism. You're too beautiful for anything less than gourmet cookery, and I lack the necessary skill." David chuckled, winning a proper grin back from Philip. "We could always rob the neighbours, I suppose…" he mused aloud.
"No need," David assured him, following his words with a kiss on the cheek, sealing the promise. "Katie did some shopping for me last week, just before I got back from Richard's. She knows I never bother, so she really stocked up. The worst that can strike us is scurvy, and we should be able to stave that off with orange juice."
"Oh, good," Philip said, smirk fading into soft solemnity. "Then if it's what you need, I'll become a hermit here with you until we're ready to rebuild our life. After all – once I found you, I never really needed anything else."
"Why are we doing this, again?" Tom asked as he followed Katie up the stairs. "I thought we talked about the whole 'respecting David's privacy' thing."
"I'm doing this because David hasn't been answering my calls," Katie retorted. "You're doing this because you insisted on following me around to tell me off."
"He said he's happy!" Tom protested. "That's more than anything we can do."
"He's even been blowing off Richard," Katie countered. "Richard, Tom! And whenever he does pick up, I swear there's someone else there. I just want to check on him."
"He wouldn't be with Eric again," Tom said, correctly interpreting the worried wrinkle between her eyebrows. "Or anyone else. You're fussing over nothing."
"Well, we'll see," she murmured, starting up the corridor towards David's door.
Tom grabbed her arm to halt her; when she gave him a querying look she could see that his usually smiling eyes were almost solemn. "If you didn't have to worry about David all the time," he said quietly, "Would you think about what I said? About treating what we have more seriously?"
Her eyes hit the floor. "Tom, it's – you know I can't, not with David like this. You know he won't look after himself half the time." She sounded so uncomfortable that he let go of her arm.
"Yeah, I know," he said wistfully. "Let's not bother about it. Hell, most guys would envy me, with a fun, pretty girl who doesn't want me to commit…" He sighed. "Come on. We were going to check on David, so let's check on him."
They walked up the corridor in a tired, half-awkward silence that lingered uneasily as Katie jiggled the lock open. She sighed in relief as they were finally able to step into the more comfortable room, with a different subject to pursue. "David? David, are you here?" she called, but as her eyes swept around the room, she faltered into silence. "Oh my God," she whispered. "What happened?"
A slow smile broke over Tom's face. "It's wonderful," he said, eyes shining. "It looks alive again. It looks like it used to." As she watched his eyes rest brightly against a landscape of blues and greens and stark pewters, Katie remembered with a stab how Tom had been so besotted with Philip before Katie had met him, yearning after the redhead even though Philip only had a heart for David. She'd felt much the same, once – but while Tom gazed at their surroundings in delight, Katie felt only foreboding.
"He packed this away," she said anxiously. "I watched as he packed it! Why would he take it out again?" The room was a tumble of treasures, from clothes no one had yet found freedom to fold away, to idle trinkets on the shelves, to the sketches dropped on the table and pinned to the easel, the careful rainbow of neatly capped paint-tubes, and the brushes drying next to the sink. "Why would he do all this? David can't even draw! It looks… it looks…" Her voice trailed away, too frightened to continue.
Tom's smile was fading, now. "It looks as if Philip's come back," he finished softly, eyes grave and dark with worry.
A spasm of guilty knowledge hit Katie, and she thought of Philip as she'd last seen him, in that last painful visit more than a year ago. She'd been through with begging, then, for a miracle that would never occur; through with feeling a pulse in his wrist and railing at him that, though alive, he would not rise and help her. She'd said her goodbyes, and tried to forget; tried to put her dreadful secret out of mind as she watched over her grieving brother.
There was no way, they'd said. No chance. No magic medicine or angel's touch. Not with that level of brain damage.
She was a fool to even think it.
Even though she still remembered one of Philip's favourite movies, The Princess Bride, balanced now on the top of the TV. Remembered that line from it: "Death cannot stop true love." If death couldn't, what chance would a coma have?
Such thoughts were a cruel foolishness. Katie shook them away, eyes shining with concern and self-blame. "Where's David?" she muttered. "I have to know if he's alright…"
While Tom turned a black velvet top hat over and over in his hands, she started for the bedroom door. It opened before she got there, and David stepped out, wearing only his pyjama bottoms, looking sleepy and rumpled and suffused with soft contentment.
This last quickly disappeared as he looked up to see his hovering intruders, however; fading into shock and chagrin and a slow, numb despair. "K-Katie. Tom." He stumbled over their names. "What are you doing here so early? I was just going to get some coffee…"
David was trying to act natural, casual, to ignore the unwonted disorder in the room – but either Katie had gotten better at reading him or he'd gotten worse at dissembling, because she could hear the haste and jerkiness of his words, see the way his eyes skittered guiltily over the damning evidence sprawled through the room.
Well, she wasn't going to let him get away with it this time. "What is all this?" she demanded, sweeping a hand around her. "I thought you'd put this stuff away."
David's eyes slipped away from his sister's, resting on the picture-covered wall. "I wanted to look at them again," he explained awkwardly. "I – I know it's a mess. I should tidy up. But the pictures… I haven't had pictures on the wall for ages, and I – miss them. I've been – thinking about Philip a lot, the past few days. I took everything out to help the memories." A smile lit his face; not one of his forced or rueful efforts of the past two years, but shy and happy and trusting. Like the smile he'd worn when he first told Katie he was in love, all those years ago. "They're good memories," he said, and Katie wanted to run to him, fling her arms around him and sob on his shoulder that after two years, two horrible lonely years, she had her beloved older brother back again.
She restrained herself, barely. She could not push her luck, not yet.
"Not that I'm not delighted for you," Tom said, his voice filled with all his quick warmth once more, "But what brought all this on? Kind of sudden, isn't it?"
Katie thought the same. It couldn't just be Richard's influence; David had been better after his holiday, but not that much better, surely. This was something else.
The trust in David's face had vanished with the smile, back to reticence again. "Oh, I don't know," he shrugged, the nonchalance looking fake. "Maybe my mind just switches on and off when it pleases. Or," another lightning smile that thrilled Katie to the bone, even as the bedroom door began to open again, and even as the words chilled her in a foreboding echo of her thoughts, "Maybe sometimes miracles happen."
She'd stopped begging for a miracle too soon, was her first, ridiculously distant thought as a second person slipped from the bedroom.
Her second thought was pure, horrified shock. She only dimly heard Tom's choked gasp from beside her; only from the corner of her eye did she see the blood drain from his face until his freckles looked like they'd been drawn onto wax. Her mind was taken up with buzzing incredulity, her knees buckling until she fell hard against the back of the sofa.
"No…" she said, voice a cross between a moan and a whisper. "It's not possible. Not after so long…"
Tom's voice was as ashen as his face. "Philip?" he said, staring in shock at the newcomer. "How can - you're dead."
There was a short silence that seemed long in the tension, and then Philip's hand dropped away from the door. He stepped forward as far as David's shoulder, trailing gentle fingers down his back. If Katie had had any doubts of his identity, this crushed them; only Philip had ever been able to touch her brother with that much unconscious tenderness.
"Hello, Tom," he said. His voice wasn't as flippant as Katie recalled it, quite; but then, this was a serious occasion. "Katie." His expression was odd and slightly closed as he looked at her, and a lump of guilty secrets filled her throat, half smothering her. "I heard voices… when no one brought me any coffee, I decided to investigate." He spoke more to David than to the other pair. Just as it always had been.
"They can see you," David whispered back to him, eyes shining like they never had for anyone else. "It isn't just me. It's real. It really was just a coma..."
"I've never broken a promise to you," Philip told him. "I never could. I'm as real as you are. And that should be enough to last us."
"No..." Katie said again, voice louder but more fragile, eyes filling with helpless tears. "No, they would have told me if you'd woken up!" Then she clapped a hand over her mouth, eyes widening at her indiscretion. She looked at Philip in mute appeal for his silence, his forgiveness; his eyes were cold and almost puzzled as he slowly stepped away from David, only holding his hand for support.
"You know," he said slowly, "At first I didn't know why David never visited me in hospital. Why the only name attached to my file was Katherine Ashton." There was no more flippancy in his voice at all, and his face was tight. There were no games left in him, no lazy jokes or flirting smiles; only his eyes still burned. This was a Philip rarely seen; it scared Katie like she'd thought her teasing, amiable old friend never could. "When he thought I was dead, I didn't know what to think. You knew I wasn't; surely he must, too. I knew there was something wrong then, but I couldn't find out what. We had - other concerns." The emerald gaze left Katie, softening as he gave a quick smile to the man next to him - but he was all barely held back fire when he returned his attention to her. "Now I find that it wasn't just David who thought I was gone. Tom, too, was in the dark. Did you not tell anyone that I was alive, Katie? Did you let everyone believe I'd died of my injuries?" Katie was crying now, silent tears that did nothing to hide the shock and betrayal on David's face, the confusion and dawning horror on Tom's. "I remember little bits from my coma, you know," Philip continued inexorably. It might have been a conversational tone but for the way it shook with heat at the edges. "Just snippets. A woman crying. Saying 'I'm sorry'. Care to explain, Katie?"
His eyes were furiously, blankly accusing. Katie could hardly bear it; she didn't dare look at David's eyes, for how much worse must they be? "You used to call me 'little sister' ," she said inconsequentially. "You'd take me clothes shopping, and only let me buy blue or green clothes. You taught me to waltz. When I was underage you used to invite me to parties, make me vodka and lemonades, and tell David it was just soft drinks."
A little of the anger faded from Philip's eyes. "Yes, I remember some of that," he agreed, voice calmer. "You still have to explain."
"I didn't want to do it," she said. "I didn't... I used to sit by your bed, telling myself I'd do anything if you woke up. Anything. Give all my money to charity, become a social worker - whatever it took to settle the karmic debt, I'd pay it if you just woke up. I used to pray for it, even, though I knew you'd hate it because you think religion's a crutch..." Her voice trailed away for a moment before she found the thread of the story again. "They told me it wouldn't happen," she said dully. "That you were gone. Brain damaged too badly to wake up. No hope. They said - maybe I should break the news to David." Her shoulders shook; she covered her face with her hands, trying to shield herself from three accusing glares. "I did it for the best!" she cried out. "I thought - I thought that if he knew, David would spend all day beside your bed, never leaving, never living. I thought he'd get over you!" Her voice was anguished. "A year, two years, three... however long it took, I thought that eventually he'd be alright. Like he was before you. He was alive, and pulse or not, you weren't. I just wanted him to live." A long, long silence. "I'm so sorry," she whispered. "I am so, so sorry."
Hesitant footfalls, and then there were hands on her shoulders, gently bracing. Katie looked up, speechless with gratitude, to see Tom standing next to her. "You -" she began, but any sentence she thought of would be simply too pathetic. She hadn't David's pride, perhaps, but she still wasn't ready to abase herself.
Tom replied anyway. "I think you were stupid," he said succinctly, eyes holding a martial sparkle at odds with his even voice, "But we can talk about it later." His words weren't comforting, but at least they were frank; and the arm supporting her was strong enough for Katie to finally lift hopeless eyes up to the men standing opposite her.
Philip's eyes - a blessed wonder - held something like understanding, and even the first edges of resigned, reluctant, bitter acceptance. But it was clear he had no sympathy to spare for her; never one to try and shoulder too many burdens, he focused on the most important: David.
Katie's brother was looking at her with a kind of sick denial, clinging to Philip's hand as if it was the only thing keeping him together. "How could you?" he asked her, voice so full of disbelief and venom that Katie flinched.
"They told me there was no hope -" she tried feebly.
"There's always hope," Philip corrected her. "You can't ever lose track of hope."
David's eyes rang with cold fury. Katie remembered seeing him like that only once, just before the dull crack of their father's fist against his mouth turned his expression back to numbness. Just before she fled from the room, dismissed by a quick glance from those blank grey eyes.
But now she was the antagonist, not the protected, and there was no way she could take the frost from his gaze.
"You lied to me," he said. "You lied. It hurt so much I used to wish I could just die in my sleep. I missed Philip so much I began to see him everywhere I went, every time I closed my eyes. You could have stopped it any time, you could have spared me that, but you let it go on for two years. God!" He let off a bark of harsh laughter. "And I never suspected... no grave, no date of death, no lawyers, but I swallowed it all because I never thought someone who was meant to love me could be so cruel."
"I - I didn't know -"
"Didn't know that I'd want the truth?" David asked implacably. "Didn't know that I'd want to make my own decisions? Didn't know that you shouldn't be playing the puppet master with my life?"
"I did it for the best!" Katie appealed again. "I just wanted to protect -"
"It's not your job to protect me!" he snapped.
"Yet it was your business to protect me?" Katie demanded. "Never letting me do anything, wrapping me in cotton wool, because you were afraid of Dad hitting me instead, so you couldn't be the martyr, the saviour? Alice could take it, why couldn't I? And then lying to me about all your problems, hiding everything... Why couldn't you let me help? I wasn't such a child that I wouldn't have tried. All I ever wanted was to help!"
David turned away. "I'm sorry you felt smothered," he said coldly, miserably. "But - I was a messed up kid, and I thought that if I could keep you safe I could at least make some kind of difference. I - there was this boy, in the hospital, when I was younger. He wanted my help, and I didn't give it. It was the worst thing I've ever done, and maybe I wanted to make sure it would never happen again. And maybe then it just became a habit."
His words might be regretful, but his tone was curt; it sharpened again to a razor edge as he continued. "And forgive me if I don't think not telling you how I used to self-harm and didn't take my pills, or not letting you know what it feels like to lie on the floor and think that maybe the next kick is going to make you pass out or throw up, trying not to listen to the way your own father is swearing at you... forgive me, please, if I don't think that's quite on the same level as you telling me that the man I love was dead."
His voice was sarcastic and so angry that it made Katie fold as if from a blow. Tom caught her, but he pressed his lips together, not saying a word in her defense. Instead it was Philip who took steps to end the tirade, though his motivations probably had little to do with love of Katie.
"David, love, don't do this," he said gently, touching his lover's cheek. "You're not vicious. You don't hurt people."
Another bitter laugh. "Yes, and Katie doesn't tell me that you died," he retorted.
Philip kissed him, seemingly oblivious to their audience, and held him close. "I'm not dead, so what does it matter?" he asked. "You're not that person. You don't want to be malicious."
After a moment, David nodded silently, hair falling down over his face as he bowed his head. "Go away, Katie," he ordered her. "Me and Philip have got each other to look after, and I don't want to look at you."
Katie was weeping as she turned blindly towards the door. "I'll call you," Tom promised sincerely as he walked with her. "You don't know how good it is to see you. Or how weird." He smiled ruefully, hand steady on the small of Katie's back.
Philip smiled back, diverting just enough attention from David to make it as charming an expression as ever it had been. "Do," he agreed. "You can bake me something pretty and decadent, and we can talk about the last two years."
Katie couldn't say anything to either of them, and when she darted a glance back, they were too wrapped up in each other to even notice her looking or acknowledge her departure. Ignored, as ever, and now despised as well.
She could hardly look at Tom for shame once they were in the hallway, the door thankfully closed against her brother's anger and Philip's quiet blame. "I'm sorry I lied to you," she said, sniffing, trying to wipe her streaming eyes. Would any of them ever understand? Tom had been kind to her, but then Tom was a nice guy, too nice to abandon her. His acceptance might last just long enough to get her safely back to her flat before he disappeared. Well, it was alright for him; no one was going to hate him.
"Oh, Katie," he said with a sigh, not quite looking her in the eye. "Did you not tell anyone? Why would you take all that upon yourself?"
Her head jerked up at his tone. "Are you - are you sorry for me?" she asked incredulously. He was! The bristling light had gone from his eyes, and he actually looked concerned for her. "Why aren't you furious, like they were?" she asked. "I thought that - after what I did - you'd be washing your hands and walking away."
"Then you're an idiot again," he said, regaining his usual brisk tone. "The first time for making the wrong decision, the second time for thinking that'd be enough to make me hate you. Come on, Katie, you know I don't change my mind so easily."
It was true; while on the surface Tom could change his moods with unpredictable abruptness, underneath he was as constant as a rock. When he'd decided, in his first year of college, that he was in love with the two years older Philip, it had taken him forever to move on and accept the lesser position of friend. It had taken even longer for him to fall in love with Katie and stop playing the field, but once he'd done so he'd hung on, tenacious despite her intransigent refusals to make anything more of it.
"Besides," he said, a grin lighting his face. "This is a happy day. Stop crying, Katie, and just think; something amazing happened. We have Philip back again. David will be happy again. Lisa may even forgive us for ganging up on Eric. And now you have no excuse not to move in with me."
Katie managed a damp laugh, and a tiny smile. "Philip's back," she repeated, the smile growing as she said the magic words. It faltered a little when she spoke again, but an uncertain happiness was better than tears. "I once thought that if Philip woke up, it wouldn't matter if David never spoke to me again. As long as he was happy, I wouldn't care." She sniffed once more, rubbing the back of one hand across her cheeks to rid them of the stiffening salt. "I'll stand by that. If he's happy, I'll be okay."
Tom grinned, and kissed her on the cheek, but his eyes were determined. "He'll speak to you again someday," he said with resolution. "If I can't get along with my own siblings, I can at least make sure you don't suffer the same."
Tom was as good as his word about calling; now that David no longer doubted the evidence of his own eyes, Philip took the call, and the way he laughed at unheard sallies made David feel as if the two years of solitude were no more than a dream. Tom visited the next day, and insisted on hugging and kissing Philip in greeting, just to prove that he was solid flesh. "God, you're thin," he exclaimed afterwards. "You and David are a pair of skeletons, I swear."
"Well, I haven't had a square meal in a couple of years," Philip said lightly. "Unless you count David's cooking - which, though better than mine, I'm not sure really fits the description." David gave him a mock scowl, and he laughed. "So that's my excuse - what about David?"
The scowl dissolved, and David laughed as well at the lack of pain in his words as he replied. "Oh, I just missed you too much."
Tom shook his head. "Well, as soon as Philip starts to get used to rich food again, I'll bake you a cake," he promised. "Thinking of that - have you been seeing a doctor, Philip, or have you just been holed up here with David since waking up?"
Philip grinned unrepentantly. "The latter," he admitted. "But I'll call the hospital tomorrow."
So the conversation flowed on, with more ease than it had in the two years Philip had been gone. They clasped hands as they sat together on the sofa, and David could see Tom smiling at them. He smiled back; all was right in the world.
No mention was made of Katie until Tom was on his way out the door. "She really is sorry," he said directly. "She loves you both very much."
David's face hardened a little; even with Philip counseling forgiveness since the previous day, he couldn't unbend. "You know what she did to me," he sad, sad and frustrated and still angry. "How can I forgive her?"
Tom sighed a little and left; David took silent refuge in Philip's arms.
It seemed that word traveled fast among their friends; the next day Lisa turned up without announcement, took one look at Philip and flung her arms around his neck. "You're alive!" she exclaimed.
Philip made a rueful face. "I'm going to get very tired of hearing that, aren't I?" he predicted.
Lisa laughed as she released him. "It's just so hard to believe," she said. "Maybe it's a good thing that things never worked out with Eric."
David winced. Tactless as ever, the bright happiness in her face meant that at least he could hold no grudge - that, and Philip's arms around him. "Things would never have worked with Eric," he said tersely, but any ghosts of distaste that Richard and time and joy had not quite worn away were laid to rest by Philip's reassuring murmur in his ear.
"I don't think Eric and I would get along well," Philip said, voice all sharp at the edges.
Lisa grimaced her agreement. "Well, luckily you'll never have to find out," she said pragmatically. "He's seeing some pretty intern - female, in case you cared - at his work now, and he's not likely to come anywhere near David again. Not after all those words they had."
David couldn't help the pain from appearing in his face at this recollection; after two years' accustomed presence, not even Philip could smooth it away all the time. "I know I treated him badly. But I can't - forgive him, after what happened," he said with difficulty. "Even though I know that if - I'd been able to be honest with him, it wouldn't have happened. So - it's my own fault, I know, but I can't forgive him for being the instrument. And I don't think I could see him again. But - maybe you could tell him that I'm sorry for what happened."
Lisa looked at him for a long moment. "You really are different when Philip's back," she said as if surprised. "Watching you hiss and spit at Eric when things ended, I didn't think I'd ever hear you act so normal about him."
David made a face at the backhanded compliment, and Philip smirked as he waved them all to seats. "Thanks, Lisa," he said dryly.
"Think nothing of it," she said airily, placing herself in a chair. "So. When are you coming back to work again, now that you're not crazy anymore?"
Lisa didn't stay long after her stock of work gossip ran dry; soon after extracting a promise from David to at least consider taking up work again, she suddenly realised she was late for a date and breezed from the apartment. After she was gone, Philip let his head sink onto David's shoulder, leaning in for comfort.
"We didn't do much with Lisa, did we?" he asked with an uncertain note in his voice that David knew he was one of few to ever hear. "Before the accident?"
"Not really," he replied. "Why? Do you not recall?" Philip remembered most things, now; certainly David had restored to him clear memories of their years together. But there were still blank spots that he knew Philip hated. Always determined to be independent, despite his brittleness...
Except with David. "I remember her name, her face," he said, comforted by the thought that he couldn't be missing much. "Who she is. But nothing that we did together."
"She was more my friend than yours," David assured him, and Philip relaxed, only leaning on him now out of laziness. "And more a colleague than anything else. When we finally pop the bubble and call your old college, you'll have a few of them to talk to, too."
"I'm not sure I have my old skill back yet," Philip said pensively. "Or enough intact memories to tutor again. And I don't think I could stand the loss of face in being turned down for my old job."
"They would never be so foolish," David promised him. "And - you know the rest of the memories might never come back. You can't wait forever, just in case. At least you have the vital bits."
"Most people aren't missing huge swathes of their first fifteen years," Philip said wryly, though without much bitterness.
"From what you told me of your parents, it isn't much of a loss," David pointed out. At least he'd had Alice for a while; who had Philip had to take the sting from his father's disdain and his mother's indolent neglect?
"But I still remember the bad times," Philip whispered. "Before my aunt took me in, before you. Why do I still have to remember them?"
David knew too well the way Philip could wake shuddering, haunted by the faces of strangers in the dark. "I know," he said softly, tightening his arms around him. "It's not fair. It's never fair. But I'm here."
It was almost a week after Philip's debut back into the real world, and David was tuning his violin while Philip quizzed himself on Caravaggio. It was the kind of domestic scene he would have thought an unattainable dream until recently, and he hummed a dance tune to himself as he tested the too-long ignored strings.
But his reverie was not undisturbed for long; Philip, lifting his head from his book, suddenly spoke. "I don't think anyone's told Richard that I'm back, yet," he said in surprise.
David put the violin down, trying to remember if Tom or his sister had his friend's private number - he didn't often hand it out. "No, I don't think anyone has," he said slowly.
"What's wrong?" Philip asked, catching the hesitation. "He'll be thrilled - won't he? Why wouldn't he be thrilled that a marvel such as I has returned to the light of day?"
David smiled at the self mockery, but his voice was still touched with worry. "I'm not sure he'd believe me," he admitted, half shamed by the honest truth. "I sort of told him that I was seeing visions of you. Well, not really, but - you know Richard."
Philip nodded. "The man might as well be a seer," he agreed wryly. "Even with someone as impenetrable as you."
"Exactly. And I know it's easily proven, but - I don't want him to worry over me. He's done enough of that while you were gone."
"Old Mother Richard," Philip muttered. "We should have gotten him drunk more in college. Given him a little all-important irresponsibility." He shook such musings away. "Well, I'll call. And just so as not to give him a heart attack, I'll pretend to be a hospital staff person, calling up concerned parties." David nodded thoughtfully; now it was brought to his attention, he too was itching to tell his friend the good news. Philip gladly abandoned his book and picked up the phone, dialing the number David recited to him.
"David?" Richard picked up almost immediately, and the man so named, hovering at Philip's shoulder to eavesdrop, winced guiltily at the anxiety in his voice. "I'm so glad you called, I've been worried. Why haven't you called me lately? I left messages..."
Richard trailed off, and Philip smoothly filled the gap. "Actually, this isn't David Ashton, I'm simply calling on his behalf," he explained. "Don't worry, it's all good news. Am I speaking to Richard Woodwalk?" David had to admire the dissembling, the perfect administrative voice; the drama club had been out a good member when Philip had more interest in painting the backdrop than acting in the plays.
"That's correct. Now, what's going on?" Richard had never been tolerant of beaurocracy where his patients' wellbeing was concerned.
"I'm a representative of Brightside Hospital," Philip lied blithely. "You may recall that David Ashton and his partner were involved in a nasty car crash two years ago, and were initially treated there?"
"I knew that..." Richard was speaking more slowly now, evidently confused.
"Well, at the time there was a - truly deplorable hitch in the transfer of information." Philip's voice lost some of its polish as he approached the revelation. "People were informed that Philip Lordan had died of his injuries. In fact this is - untrue."
There was an incredulous silence, strained with hope even over a telephone line. "What do you mean?" Richard asked, not quite steadily.
Philip drew a breath. "He was in a coma. For nearly two years. It was thought that there could be no recovery, but medical science has its limits; he recently woke up."
"Oh, my god," Richard whispered; for a man who thought humanity was more important than organised religion, his voice was remarkably reverent. "Oh, this may be the best news I've ever heard. How is Philip? Is he alright?"
"He's fine." Philip's triumphant grin made David smile back. "A few lost memories... a few scars..." His face clouded, then, his free hand coming up to rub at the disfiguring mark on his forehead. David caught his hand away, and would have kissed the mark to show how little it mattered, but he knew Philip hated the reminder even worse, loathed the spectre of pity even more than his marred perfection. He kissed the fingertips instead; Philip's smile returned gratefully to his face. "But there's nothing serious," he belatedly continued. "I'm as splendid as I ever was, Richard."
A short silence greeted the disclosure, followed by a single, wondering word. "Philip?" Then came a peal of celebratory laughter. "Philip! To think that you could talk so long and me not recognise your voice! And no wonder you're calling from David's phone - of course you'd be with him." Laughter subsided to a sigh of relief. "I have never been more happy for you both," he said sincerely. "You have been sorely missed."
Philip reached out, running his fingers through a lock of David's hair. Not even Richard would have been able to picture the soft look on his face. "So I hear," he said seriously, his jesting tone gone for an instant.
Then Richard asked, with newly remembered indignation, "How did this mistake happen, then? It's not on, letting people think you're dead."
David couldn't help hearing the question, and as a lead weight thunked sickly into his stomach, he wished he hadn't chosen to listen in. Silently, he moved away from his post at Philip's shoulder, giving the hand that reached for him only a perfunctory parting touch as he walked into the bedroom and closed the door.
Behind him, Philip called "David -" and took a step after him before remembering Richard and slumping into a chair. "Sorry," he said. "He's a bit upset. I'll go after him in a minute, but he'd feel guilty if I just hung up on you." He sighed, rubbing his hand over one cheek as he thought about the mess Katie's machinations and his own miraculous revival had made. "This is going to sound dreadful, Richard, but - it wasn't really an accident. Katie knew all along, and she just told everyone I was dead, because she thought it would be easier on David for me to be dead rather than in a coma."
There was a long pause before Richard spoke. "Shit," he said at last - Richard, who barely ever swore. "How's David taking that?"
"Badly," was the grim answer. "I've never seen him so angry with anyone. Not even that time in college, you remember, when he found out that one of the people in our class had - had - you know, before me and David..."
"I know," Richard said. "Really, worse than that?"
"He won't talk to her," Philip said. "Won't even mention her. When her name's said he just goes all cold and leaves the conversation, like he did a moment ago." Katie had called, once or twice; David had just hung up the phone when Philip passed it to him. She'd not dared to visit, though Philip knew Tom tried to persuade her. Even when Philip pleaded on her behalf - even after the wrongs done him, not quite angry enough to countenance this level of rejection - David would turn away, refusing to soften one inch of his grudge. "He says she caused him more pain than anyone else in his life," Philip repeated neutrally. "I don't know if he'll ever forgive her."
"Devil take the girl," Richard said in asperity. "And him, too. Never met anyone as stubborn as him - not even you."
"Thanks, Richard," Philip said with a roll of his eyes.
"You're welcome. You can say goodbye to me now without David fretting, I'd guess. Why are you still talking to me when you should be taking good care of my boy?"
Philip laughed. "He's my boy again now, darling. I've taken him back." And then he put down the phone and followed his lover into the bedroom.
David was shuffling through the few books kept in that room as industriously as if he thought he had a hope of settling down to read. Philip pulled him away from that pretense and kissed him softly.
He kept to himself all the things that he wanted to say about Katie; they had always known to be gentle with each other's scars.
Philip contacted his old artist friends and ghoulishly threw himself a Lazarus party, getting Tom to make him a cake shaped like a tombstone. The next day he began working on a small series of pictures to showcase his returned skill for a friend who owned a gallery, and a month after that he sold his first new painting - if only for enough money to buy one very fancy dinner for him and David - and was offered his old job back. David had warily returned to the working life shortly before, and he smiled every time he returned from some engagement party or charity function to find Philip exhorting the air over the poor standard of the papers he was meant to be pulling up to scratch, and when he was in college art students hadn't needed extra tuition...
"Just because your artistic genius started almost as fully formed as Athena from the head of Zeus doesn't mean you should be judgmental, love," David chided him, pushing a portfolio onto a different part of the table so he could sit down.
"I suppose not," he allowed, his critiques softened by the kiss of greeting he stole. "Besides, I at least had your beautiful modeling to inspire me - all this poor soul seems to have is the ugly old men from Life Drawing class. Yecht." Thoughtfully, he tapped his chin. "I think I'll tell her to invest in a hot boyfriend and a digital camera like mine."
David laughed at him. "So long as you don't go showing her what you have stored on yours," he said warningly, knowing how Philip kept track of his lover's 'modeling work' (more self conscious now, with the scars across his torso that hadn't been there last time his lover painted him) along with his more decorous landscape shots.
"Of course not," Philip promised. "She doesn't deserve anyone as beautiful as you to look at."
But though with Philip's return everything seemed to go more smoothly - even painstakingly trying to build up the savings that David's recurrent depression had eaten away at seeming sweet when there was once again a future to save for - the months of happiness still left one thing stubbornly unfixed.
David's first implacable fury might have faded with the days, but his obstinacy had not. Not once had he talked with her since learning of her treachery; he avoided all places where she would be likely to go, and if they met anyway he would not even exchange a civil greeting. Tom persisted in his efforts to mention her in conversation, but found the subject consistently ignored; and while David couldn't ignore Richard or Philip, they found him similarly intransigent.
"Hasn't this gone on long enough, love?" Philip asked one day after a coffee with Katie had left him pitying the pain in her face despite his firm alliance with the opposing side. "You love her. What she did was awful, but you can't change it now by refusing to talk to her."
"Over two years of hurting me, she didn't even weaken," David replied, weary and sad and sick of the often-raised discussion. "I can't forget that, Philip."
Richard told David that it wasn't healthy for him to estrange himself so thoroughly from one of his basic anchors. "You don't make friends easily, I know," he said over the phone one night. "And those you have you need to keep you balanced. Just because you have your other half back with you doesn't mean you should go closing off the lesser connections. It may be hurting her, but it's doing more harm to you. That's not just your nose - that's an arm at least that you're lopping off out of spite."
"I'm not doing this just to punish her," David replied, ruing the fact that Richard's sharp intuition of his motives was blunted by phone lines. "It's just - I don't know how I can trust her, don't know if it's safe to love her anymore."
"Oh, David," Richard sighed a little. "Good people can do stupid things, hurtful things, but that doesn't make them bad people. I thought we sorted that out after Eric."
"That's different," he said. "I loved Katie. I didn't love Eric." David wished Richard could come visit, so he could justify himself in person, so his friend could see how happy he was even without his sister and maybe he wouldn't worry so much.
As the months rolled over, however, David found it hard to avoid Katie entirely when the combined efforts of their closest friends were mustered against him. When he wandered an art gallery to see one of Philip's pictures that had been put up there - "Well, he is my friend and he happened to have an empty place... though I admit, that picture is rather good..." - Katie was there too, nervously watching as David kept his eyes on the pictures furthest from where she stood. When David and some of his colleagues agreed to play in the park to raise money for children's cancer, Katie was standing next to Philip to catch their opening number, pouring change into a collection bin. On his birthday, that winter, she sent him a package containing a dark blue scarf; Philip insisted it looked beautiful on him and so he wore it despite the giver.
But although he found himself encountering Katie far oftener than mere coincidence would allow, David could rarely be pressed to exchange even a few curt words with her - and familiarity could not cause his grudge to soften.
Once she called after him "David, please!" and his retreating steps almost faltered as he felt an unexpected rush of pain. Afterwards he leaned on Philip's shoulder and said it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair that she could hurt him so much and still make him feel like the villain for not being ready to forgive her, and that night he had nightmares of Evans calling out "David, please!" in the dark and him not going to help; only sometimes it was Katie and he didn't go to help her, either, and he woke feeling sick - until Philip kissed him good morning and took his worries away.
It wasn't more than a few weeks after that that Katie came to visit for the first time since the argument more than six months ago - or at least, the first time that David had been there to see it.
"I'm going out," he announced abruptly as soon as Philip invited her in, circling her warily where she stood by the door looking uncertain, and dodging the hand she reached out to him in protest.
"Don't you dare buy cigarettes," Philip warned him, and, half-formed intention dying away, David fluttered a guilty hand in farewell and wandered aimlessly in the direction away from the nearest shop. By the time he returned, Katie had left, and Philip's expression was determined.
"Katie's engaged," he announced without preamble, and David nearly fell over where he was slipping off his shoes.
"To who? To Tom?" he demanded, realising with a jolt that was almost akin to regret how much his anger with her had separated them...
"Of course to Tom," Philip said. "They've been going out for four years, been exclusive in all but name for two, been officially exclusive for one, and have been living together for four months. In case you've been ignoring Tom as thoroughly as I think you have." He lifted his eyebrows, and David flushed slightly.
"Alright, you've made your point," he muttered. "I should pay more attention to my friends."
"No, love," Philip said. He walked over and put his arms around David to make sure he'd listen. "My point was that you need to make up with Katie, because she is your much loved little sister and because it means a lot to her to have your support and because you'll regret it forever if you don't sort things out in time to give her away at her wedding."
David's heart twisted. "All I need is you, and I'll be happy," he said softly.
"And you'll always have me," Philip promised. "You won't lose me again, I swear. But she's your family. That's important, too." His voice turned sad. "I don't even remember my parents except a little, and maybe that's good and maybe it's not, but whatever you do, don't waste what you've got!"
David never could say no to Philip, but on this occasion he found it almost equally impossible to say yes. As the date fixed for Katie and Tom's engagement party slipped closer, he still didn't apologise, feeling wretched enough about his inability to give up his grudge that Tom's quiet plea for a truce ached as much as Philip's disapproval.
"Please don't look at me like that," David asked him once, wanting to huddle with shame. "If she made you live those two years, you'd be angry with her, too."
"I know," Philip said, hugging him close. "And I am angry with her. But she's still your sister."
Richard wasn't any help either when David appealed to him for advice; in fact, he confessed early on that he'd already heard of Katie's engagement and would not be best pleased if David didn't lend his support.
"But I'm not ready!" he protested, feeling too old and too tired and bullied into breaking into vulnerable openness where people could all too easily shatter him all over again. He wasn't good at trust, particularly not where it had been betrayed.
Richard smiled a little; David could hear it in his voice. "Normally at this point I coddle my patients, tell them to wait till they're perfectly ready, wait as long as they like. But you already know that no matter how long you wait, you're never ready for anything. You do it anyway, because the only other option is regret."
David knew he was right; the greatest thing in his life - Philip - had arrived at a time when he was still too damaged to even think of a relationship. It had taken him two years to fight off his unreadiness enough to actually respond to Philip's flirtations, but by no means could ha have been considered 'ready' even then. And how much worse his life would have been if he'd never managed it... If only he could say he'd been so brave all the time.
"I have so many regrets already," he murmured. So very many, so unfaceable.
"All the more reason not to add to them," Richard said firmly.
After that conversation, David did resolve to speak to Katie, but though he tried, it was too difficult a task after the months of blame, and the days twisted by without words. On the day of the engagement party, he was barely even certain whether he could bring himself to attend.
"You have to," Philip said, and his phone beeped a text message of 'No regrets!' from Richard, and he smiled shakily and held his lover's hand.
"Even if I can't forgive her yet, I suppose I can do this one thing," he said. "At least - at least she apologised." For that bravery, she more merited forgiveness than David did for his sins.
Philip kissed his palm, and when at the party David smiled at Katie - an uncertain, unfamiliar smile - and saw her eyes shine with tears of relief, he thought maybe it wouldn't be so hard after all to make things alright again.
AN: A final and heartfelt thank you to all those who made it here. I hope you liked the story. When I handed it to my first loyal readers I had - mixed reactions to this ending, but after working on the story for about two years I couldn't find any other way to end it. I really hope it works for you guys too.
Please do REVIEW and tell me what you think. I love this story a lot, despite the intense frustration it caused me many times in the writing process, and I want to hear your opinions, complimentary or not.