Take Good Care

He tugged at lapels of his coat, pulling them more tightly around him against the cold breeze. He should have simply zipped it closed, but the zipper was broken, halfway up, and he'd never gotten around to repairing it.

Not this coat. Somehow, he never could get around to repairing this one. Even when he set it aside to take to the tailor's, or to remind himself to buy a new zipper and replace it himself -- he could, he'd learned many obscure skills like sewing in zippers and how to make soap and how to make his own gunpowder. Not skills he used often, but he had them all the same. Perhaps someday he would find himself on a game show, and it would come in handy that he knew, in one hundred and twelve languages, how to say "I want your daughter's head for a sacrifice." It had been learned to win a bet, as most such things were.

As the sun began to draw closer to the horizon, the orange and reds bled into the water. The temperature had begun to drop; it would drop faster as the sun sank lower. He would regret not having brought a warmer coat, when it was time to leave. But this coat was more appropriate for the circumstance. The salt and seaweed and saturated rocks filled the air and his nostrils with their scents; they didn't quite cover up the faint smell of vanilla and whiskey still infusing the cotton of his coat. Incense, and a drop of spilled liquor on the sleeve. When he'd stolen this coat out of that apartment, he'd known what he'd wanted it for. Why he kept thinking now, otherwise, he sometimes did not know.

The smell would vanish completely, someday. Someday soon, but for now he could still smell it, and for now that seemed to be reason enough not to launder the coat, not to repair the zipper. Leave it as it was, exactly, and perhaps it would help him hold on.

Perhaps not. But trying was enough, and made him feel as though the effort was worth the while. Surely his companion never called him on it, and sometimes, after their visits were nearly through, he would look over and catch sight of his face, see into those clear eyes, and see something which made him believe the effort was its intended reward.

Or perhaps it was just the coat itself, and nothing else would make any difference. Sometimes when the wind grew sharp he would tell himself to fix the zipper, already, and be done with it.

But then his companion would show, and they would talk, and days later when he got around to thinking of the zipper again, he would find himself no closer to actually doing anything about it as he had been, before.

He didn't know why it mattered so much to him. Surely *he* had never asked it of him. But something made him do it. Some impulse, some small compassionate thought that if it were him, he would appreciate the gesture. The sight, the scent, even the feel. Or even the gesture might be enough, and he could safely take the coat and wash the dying scents completely out....

He knew again that he wouldn't, when he heard again the soft voice behind him. He didn't turn as his companion joined him, standing at his side to stare out at the ocean.

"Hello," he returned the greeting.

There was silence for a moment, then, "How...."

His companion never fully asked. They both knew what he wanted to know, and they both knew why he could not ask it. He took pity, as always, and answered. "He's fine. As well as one might expect."

"Has he asked?" Another oft-spoken question. One which he hated answering.

"Not that I've heard."

There was silence, again, and they both let it last. He hated this question because he knew the answer the other was waiting for. The answer he'd been able to give him only once, the first time. Never since.

Sometimes he thought of lying, but knew it would be futile. Absurd, even, to try. Much as he might think they both wanted to hear it.

Sometimes that was as far as the conversation went. They would stand here and watch until the sun was gone, then would both turn and walk away from the edge of the water. Sometimes he would give more details, share stories since the last time, offer observations in response to more questions.

He was never allowed to ask questions, himself. He knew that without being told. Not that he would lose this if he tried, but they would go unanswered -- so why, then, bother asking?

Sometimes they would end up laughing. Sometimes they would stand silently together, one ignoring the other as he cried. Twice they'd cried together.

This time seemed to be one of those sad ones. The dark and bitter times that made him go back and want to scream his anger and frustration. He never did, and by the time he'd get back he would no longer really want to. But while he stood here, he would whisper to himself all the demands he'd wish he could make.

"Has he mentioned me?"

"No." He wanted to lie again, say yes.

"Have you seen...no, I don't suppose you would have. I don't suppose he ever had any pictures of me."

"He has the one," he pointed out. Then, "He hasn't taken it out, either."

There was a brief silence. Then, something new. "Would you ask him?"

"Ask him what?" Surprised, he glanced over. Found his companion looking straight out at the ocean, face almost impassive in its profile and waning sunlight.

"No, don't. I'm sorry -- don't say anything about anything."

He nodded.

There was more silence. The sun was almost below the edge of the water, and he knew it was almost time to go. Two more months before he would come out here again, two months of listening and remembering and hoping that this time, there would be something more he could say. Hoping that next time, he could say 'yes' to one of those questions.

"Watch out for him?"

"Of course." The ritual of goodbye had begun.

"Don't let him get away with anything."

He smiled, briefly. "I won't."

"Pester him, now and again."

"Definitely."

There was a pause, while the sun dipped lower. When only the smallest sliver remained, his companion said, "Take care of him." His voice broke on the words, as they often did.

"Always."

"Thank you, Wesley."

He turned, then, and stifled the reflect to hold out his hand. The insubstantial form of his companion couldn't have taken it, anyway. "You're welcome, Francis."

The the sun, and his companion, were gone.