F.I.N.E.

Dec. 30th, 2011 08:32 pm
ambrmerlinus: Portrait of a young white man with a flowing blond mohawk, in profile. (Default)
[personal profile] ambrmerlinus
wooo original fiction! ~3000 words, trigger warning for mental illness and self-harm

---

The first call came at two in the morning, just as the drag show ended. Thankfull Patience stepped offstage, intending to wash up, change into pajamas and sleep in the van, but a distinctive ringtone from the depths of her false cleavage stopped her dead in her tracks. She hustled into a corner to get out of the way of all the other queens and pulled her phone out of the front of her dress. A glance at the caller ID was all it took to transform her from Thankfull Patience, gender-bender extraordinaire, to Mordred Ambrose, big brother.

"Hey Merlin, what's up?" Mordred said, careful to keep his tone lighthearted and devoid of the dread welling up in his chest. A passing stagehand did a double-take, surprised by the deep voice coming out of the queen who'd been singing in a lovely falsetto scant minutes earlier.

"How was the show?"

The voice on the other end was small, high-pitched, and tinny, its calm nearly as forced as his own. He indulged himself in a low, calming sigh.

"Well," he said as he strode down the hall to the communal changing room. "It went well. Against all odds, this crowd enjoys David Bowie wannabes butchering classic 80s rock. How are you?"

"My marker ran out of ink," she said.

"I'm very sorry to hear that," said Mordred.

"Hmm," she said. All was silence for a few moments as Mordred gave his face a cursory wash, not bothering to check the mirror for leftover smudges of makeup.

"You're up late," he said when he returned to the line.

"Not really," she said.

No, probably not, thought Mordred. Insomnia was not a new trick in his sister's repertoire. Neither was carving equations into the floorboards under her bed, or pulling out her hair strand-by-strand to count it, or biting her fingertips until they bled. The official diagnosis was delusional disorder, though Mordred wondered if there wasn't some anxiety co-morbidity in there as well. Then again, he'd been forced to drop out of college before he could attain his bachelor's in psychology, so his opinion probably wasn't very valuable from a medical perspective.

"Anything else to report?" he said, keeping his phone pinned between his cheek and shoulder, which left both his hands free to pack up his cosmetics bag.

"No," she said, her voice even smaller than before.

"You okay?" said Mordred.

"I'm fine," said Merlin.

"Okay," said Mordred. "I'll let you go, then. Get some sleep."

"Mordred?" she said.

"Yes?"

"You still love me, right?"

Mordred blinked. "Yes?"

"You don't sound very sure."

"No, I'm sure," Mordred reassured her. "I just didn't expect the question is all. I love you very much."

"Good," said Merlin, then almost as an afterthought, "I love you, too."

Mordred opened his mouth to question her further but she'd already hung up. He glared at the screen as though it were the phone's fault.

"Trouble in paradise?" said Anna Conda, nee Keith Smith, one of six other queens in the changing room. S/he was watching Mordred' reflection in the mirror as s/he removed hir false eyelashes.

"No," Mordred lied. "We're good.



The second phone call was made by Mordred, once he'd changed into something less ostentatious and walked out to his van. Black jeans and a Sonata Arctica t-shirt made the perfect metalhead disguise when combined with his shoulder-length auburn hair and matching goatee. All he needed now was a "nobody knows I'm a drag queen" button and the illusion would be complete.

Mordred reflected on this and smiled to himself as he sprawled in the back of the van, scrolling through the contacts on his phone. He'd removed the third row of seats and filled the space with scraps of memory foam. A few blankets and throw pillows on top, and he had a comfortable nest. Showers at the YMCA kept him smelling respectable, and the club owners didn't mind if he parked overnight. Perhaps he could use a "nobody knows I'm homeless" button, too.

His twin brother, Luke, fared somewhat better. He lived in an actual house with an actual wife. Their father would be so proud.

"'Lo?" said Luke after the fourth ring.

"Sorry to wake you," said Mordred, "but I've just received a call from our sister."

Luke took a while to answer. The silence was filled with the rustling of bedsheets, then footsteps, then the quiet shutting of a door.

"Yeah," Luke said. "She called me first. I think she got us confused."

Mordred sighed, staring at the ceiling of his van.

"Anyway," Luke continued, "I gave her your show schedule. Figured you'd be out by now. What'd she need?"

"Nothing, as far as I could tell," said Mordred. "She said her marker ran out of ink, but apart from that she was…"

Mordred bolted upright.

"Oh my God," he said. "I'm an idiot."

"From time to time, yes," said Luke. "But why now?"

"She told me she was fine," said Mordred.

"Fine, or F.I.N.E.?" said Luke.

"I forgot to ask," said Mordred.

Luke let out a sigh identical to Mordred's.

"But I shouldn't have had to, is the point!" said Mordred. "She can't tell us apart, she can't remember if people love her or not… Of course she's F.I.N.E.!"

"Do Mom and Dad know?" said Luke.

"Fucked if I could tell you," said Mordred, laughing bitterly. "When did you talk to them last?"

"Christmas," said Luke.

"This past Christmas?"

"No, a couple years back."

"…Wow," said Mordred.

"Don't worry about it," said Luke. "Did she say if she was planning anything?"

"No, just her marker's out, how was the show, did we still love her."

"Okay. I'll borrow Seth's van tomorrow and head up."

"I'm going now," said Mordred, climbing over the backseat of the van.

"What?" said Luke.

"I'm driving up," said Mordred as he crawled into the driver's seat. His knees caught between the steering wheel and the seat, and he cursed under his breath as he got himself unstuck.

"Mordred, it's two in the morning—"

"Exactly," said Mordred. "I can be in Maine by noon."

"Mordred," said Luke, his tone more urgent, "if Dad catches you…"

"We'll burn that bridge when we come to it!" said Mordred, grinning as he turned the keys in the ignition.

"Mordred!" said Luke.

"See you in Maine! Love you bunches!" Mordred blew his phone a kiss, hung up on his brother, and tossed it onto the passenger's seat.



Mordred stared down the aisle of markers, blinking like a stunned puppy. Perhaps he should have gone to Target instead of Michael's, and let the lack of selection make his decision for him. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes, rubbing away the ache of driving all night. It didn't really work, although he did get purple eyeshadow residue on his palms for his trouble.

He was the only customer in the store this early in the morning, which was probably for the best. Even dressed down in skinny jeans and knee-high boots, he tended to attract attention; "catching eyes," as Merlin would say. Plus he was pretty sure there was glitter in his goatee.

But back to the markers.

The only constant in the equation was the color. No matter what he picked, it had to be lime green. He was certain.

After another ten minutes of agonizing back-and-forth arguing in his head, he went with the "buy everything" option. Forget the cost. The universe would provide.

Even if it didn't, his little sister was worth it.



The canary-yellow Dodge caravan streaked northward on the highway, with Mordred in the driver's seat and the markers tucked securely into the shopping bag on the passenger's seat. He'd stopped short of buckling them in. It was difficult, concentrating on the road rather than the puzzled face of the Michael's cashier he'd left behind or the mental state of his sister ahead of him, but he managed.

He was halfway through the White Mountains of New Hampshire when his cell phone went off. Mordred waffled between ignoring it, answering while driving, or pulling over to answer and losing valuable time in the process. The last option seemed safest. He couldn't help his sister if he was dead, and in her current state, ignoring her would not end well.

When he did pull over, suddenly enough to make the beaded curtains and makeshift clothes racks in the back of the van jangle together like a box of fine china going over a cliff, he found a text message waiting for him.

"im sorry im sorry i dont know what i did but im awful and im sorry and i didnt mean it and you probably hate me"

He didn't have time to finish reading the first message before the second one announced itself, and the jingle from the second was cut off by the incoming third. In the middle of composing his reply, he was interrupted by the fourth message: 160 character's worth of "im sorry."

"You're not awful," he finally managed to type. "I love you very much. I'm on my way. Don't worry."

She'd worry anyway, of course. He tried not to think about it as he set his phone aside and pulled back onto the highway.



Mordred parked the canary caravan at an abandoned barn and hoofed it down the dirt road. It was well-shaded by trees, so the heat was no bother, and his heels were platform, not stiletto, so the rocks weren't a problem. If there was one thing Mordred could do, it was walk a mile in heels.

The farmhouse was as he'd remembered it, bright white paint that hurt to look at in full sunlight, surrounded by vibrant summer green. His mother's station wagon was in the driveway; knocking on the front door would not be an entirely safe option.

Fortunately, by the age of twelve, he had mastered the art of climbing the trees that grew next to the house. The sugar maple by the upstairs bathroom window was particularly amicable, easily scaled even in heels as long as he held the bag of markers in his teeth.

Mordred crept down the upstairs hallway. The row of identical white doors were all equipped with skeleton-key locks. Mordred had been picking them since he was eight.

"Merlin?" he said, easing her door open a crack.

Her room, too, was unchanged. While the hall-facing side of the door conformed to the eggshell-on-sky-blue pattern, the inside was jet black, as were the four walls. The ceiling, meanwhile, was lime green, as was the shag rug on the floor, the sheets and blankets on the bed, the beanbag chair in the corner, the bookshelves against the walls, the desk by the window, the butterfly chair in front of the desk, and the too-large t-shirt hanging off the wiry frame of the young woman seated in said chair.

"Hi," said Merlin, staring at the ceiling with her knees curled up to her chest.

Mordred glanced over her knobbly knees, her sunken eyesockets, the way the bones in her wrist threatened to come through the skin, and winced. Merlin was seventeen, yet she could pass for an anorexic ten-year-old.

"When was the last time you ate?" said Mordred.

"Yesterday," said Merlin.

"When was yesterday?" said Mordred as he stepped into the room and quietly shut the door behind him.

"Can't remember," said Merlin.

"Well that's no good," said Mordred. He sat on the edge of the bed, facing Merlin. "What's in the fridge?"

"Apples," Merlin said. "Monterey-jack cheese. Gallon of milk. Baby carrots. Chicken thawing for dinner."

"Mom still makes dinner, then?"

"She leaves it by the door."

"Why?"

"Told her I was busy. And I have been," she finished with a glare.

"Never called you a liar," said Mordred. "What are you busy with?"

"I was designing new arms," she said. Mordred could see the aforementioned designs over her shoulder, pages and pages of graph paper covered in blue pencil spread out on top of the desk, all detailing fantastical cybernetic attachments, the stuff of Merlin's daydreams for as long as Mordred could remember. "But I had to switch over to reminders."

"Reminders?" said Mordred.

Merlin uncurled herself, revealing a partly-crumpled spiral-bound notebook tucked against her flat chest. She plucked it with two boney fingers and placed it carefully in Mordred's outstretched hand.

He flicked through the notebook. Every page was covered in lime-green ink, spelling out phrases like "just keep breathing" and "don't panic." Certain sections had been completely obscured by lime-green blocks. The last few pages used had a particular acrostic,

Fucked-up
Insecure
Neurotic
Emotional

repeated over and over before becoming interspersed with and eventually devolving entirely into the sentence "you are loved," growing fainter with each instance until the ink ran out entirely, leaving off with "you are lo." Mordred swallowed thickly.

"Where's the rest of it?" he said in the lightest tone he could manage.

"The marker died," said Merlin.

"Well," said Mordred, holding up his shopping bag. "That's an easy fix."

Merlin's sunken, too-wide eyes flicked from her brother's face to the bag and back again, bewildered and uncomprehending.

"These are for you," said Mordred. He handed the bag over.

Merlin peeked inside, her expression filling first with wonder, then with glee. She squealed in delight.

"Thank you!" she said, hugging the bag to her chest. "Thank you so much!"

"Think that'll tide you over for a bit?"

Merlin nodded.

"Okay," said Mordred. "Try and eat something, please?"

She nodded again.

"I can't stay," said Mordred, and hated himself as Merlin's face fell. "But I do love you. Very much. You can write that down if you'd like. You've got the ink for it now."

He stood. Merlin dropped the bag of markers and launched herself at his torso. She should have knocked the wind out of him, made him stagger back a step, but she hit with the force of a falling leaf, and felt about as brittle as she wrapped her skeletal arms around him and buried her face in his chest. Mordred hugged her back, as gingerly as possible, lamenting the feel of her bones under his hands.

"I miss you," Merlin mumbled into his shirt.

"I miss you, too," said Mordred. He pulled away gently and ruffled her hair; easy to do from his height, since she'd never grown past five feet.

"Luke's coming by," he said. "And I'll see you again before the year is out. I promise."

Merlin nodded, blinking back tears. Mordred swallowed the lump in his throat and let himself out.



He'd closed the door and was heading down the hall back to the bathroom when the sound of footsteps up the stairs made him pause.

"Mordred?" said a woman's voice. "What are you doing here?"

"Just passing through," said Mordred, turning around with a tight smile. At the head of the stairs stood his mother, book in hand. She'd aged somewhat in the last five years since he'd left, mostly in the form of crow's feet, but she seemed healthy enough. "The apples in the fridge; are they granny smith?"

"Macintosh," said his mother. "Mordred, what in the world—"

"Get granny smith," said Mordred, nodding towards Merlin's door. "She'll eat those. You can slice 'em if you'd like, just don't peel them."

"A growing girl can't live on apples," said his mother.

"She can't live on air, either," said Mordred, working to keep his tone patient and level.

His mother scowled and crossed her arms. "I've been leaving dinner outside her room every—"

"When was the last time you saw her eat?" said Mordred. "Hell, when was the last time you saw her? Spoke to her?"

"I asked her how things were going!" said his mother. "She said she was fine!"

"Of course she did," said Mordred. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I must be going. The queer agenda simply cannot be delayed."

He brushed past her in the hall, gently moving her aside with a hand on her shoulder, and trotted down the stairs. His cover was already blown, no sense bothering with the tree.

He regretted his bravado when he stepped out the front door and came face to face with his father.

The man looked as he had five years ago, same smart business suit, same side-part in his artfully styled auburn hair with a hint of a wave to it. The only differences were a few streaks of gray that served to make him more severe-looking.

"Perhaps I am mistaken," his father said slowly, and Mordred's shoulders stiffened at the sound. "But this does not look like a child who has learned the error of his ways."

"Appearances can be deceiving," said Mordred.

"Indeed," said his father. He looked Mordred over from head to toe and raised an eyebrow at Mordred's boots. "What brings you back, then?"

"Nostalgia," said Mordred. "But never you fear, I'm on my way out."

"So you haven't changed," said his father. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but Mordred almost thought he saw a flicker of regret in the angle of the old man's eyebrows. Whatever it was, it lasted less than a second before the disapproving glare resumed.

"Tragically not," said Mordred. He started to sidestep out of his father's path.

"How have you been?" his father said.

Mordred paused. He could stand here and hash it out with the old man, tell him where he'd been and what he'd been up to. This time, he might even disapprove silently and let Mordred finish a sentence.

Or more likely, it would all degenerate into another shouting match on the lawn like the one that had gotten him disowned in the first place. One that Merlin would most certainly be able to hear through her window.

Mordred resisted the urge to look up at the second floor as he considered the risk. Merlin was seventeen, eighteen in a few months. No longer a minor, bringing her across state lines wouldn't be a felony. He could apply for welfare, get an apartment in the meantime, call in some favors with friends, talk the issue over with Luke, find some place for her to live where he wouldn't have to be an acrobat to get in to see her. Some place where someone would give a damn whether or not she ate, where someone would notice that she was Fucked-up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional.

It was only a few months. An argument could wait.

"I'm F.I.N.E., Dad," said Mordred. "Just F.I.N.E."

With that, he turned away and began the long walk up the road back to the canary caravan.
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ambrmerlinus: Portrait of a young white man with a flowing blond mohawk, in profile. (Default)
ambrmerlinus

February 2012

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