The woods are awake, always. He can't see them, can't hear them, yet he knows they're there, just in his periphery. If this place had windows, there'd be trees outside; or rather, the antithesis to trees, a clearing-shaped hole where trees should be. But all windows to this place are really doors, and none of them open outwards. Not to the woods. Not to anywhere else.
Most of the time now he's here, in the Lodge – will be here, has always been here. Sometimes he's out there as well, but only when the doors open to him.
Just one man left, now, to open them. Sometimes. And even that is chancy.
The city's awake, always. He knows this, even though the glass is too thick for the noise to seep in. There's glass in his hands, as well, but not window-glass: hole-shaped bowl filled to the brim, which he gulps merely to empty it. He hates the glass, hates the smoky amber liquid inside. The man who used to be Cooper hates it. The one who pretends to be Cooper loves it, and the man who loves Cooper – loves who Cooper was – loves it as well, poured it in fact, and that just makes it bearable.
When he's out here, he's never sure how long he'll stay. The Lodge is always calling. Sometimes he barely lasts at all.
Under his feet, the tiles are ice, but he's used to that. What bothers him is the color. They should be beige and rough and solid. Wood, not tiles. Instead they're white and black, jagged crisscross of non-color, running off into all directions at once.
The black, of course, is never black. Just a shade of red too dark to tell the difference. He's sure of this. As sure as he can ever be of anything inside this place, which, admittedly, isn't saying much. And the red isn't red except when it's blood: his own, Annie's, Caroline's. Their mouths red, red like the knife that hovers, glinting. Faces white, like his own, those few times when he runs across a mirror. Or into himself.
Under his feet, the floorboards are warm, but his toes are still freezing. He doesn't mention it, though. The man who loves Cooper takes the glass from his hand, takes the hand to his mouth, turns it palm upwards. Kisses the inside of his wrist – halting nips trailing to where his pulse is – and sucks slowly on the base of his thumb. This is real, they both know it. He's sure of this. As sure as he can ever be of anything out here. The mouth on his hand is red, but it's good red, the red of the real world, not of the Lodge.
The man who loves Cooper is called Albert, and takes him to bed.
There's a couch in the Lodge. Sometimes it's empty and sometimes it isn't, and when it isn't, he may find Laura there. The Laura on the couch is not the Laura roaming the tiles, the one who meets him screaming. The Laura on the couch is sullen, quiet, except when she kisses him. He's never sure if she will, until she does. When she does, he hardly even feels it.
There's a bed in the room, and it isn't empty. His clothes are on it, and so are Albert's – the ones that didn't just fall where they dropped them. His shorts are still on, checkered white and black, and he pulls them down with shaky fingers. Watches Albert watch him, then do the same.
He's hard, which shouldn't surprise him, but it does. Hard as a rock, as the tiles of the Lodge; hard enough he's aching, and Albert's hand, when it palms him, is almost too much. He doesn't moan, he thinks, yet he must have. Then the hand is gone but there are lips, chapped and firm, replacing it. Tongue stroking, cautious at first, settling into a rhythm that fits him like breathing. He tends to forget what breathing is like.
When Laura offers, he mostly says no. Sometimes she listens and sometimes she doesn't, and when she doesn't, sometimes it's a relief after all. Her hands are white, and her dress, when she wears one, is always black. Slender hands, with sharp nails that rake and scratch his skin. Hands that are stronger than they look, as they take him to the edge and leave him swaying there.
"Now," she says, lazily, girl-shaped creature on his lap, and her hands are not a girl's hands as she drags him down to fall.
When Albert offers, he doesn't say no. He doesn't say anything, but his hands answer for him, threading their way down Albert's hips. He needs control over this, control or the illusion of it, whatever he can have. The only real thing he still controls, sometimes, and Albert, though they never talk of it, seems to understand. The fact, if not the reason. Not yet.
His fingers are cold, and he licks them gingerly, but the chill doesn't leave. Not now, not ever. He'll never know if it's that, or something else, that makes Albert gasp those little gulps of air like he does. Curls back his fingers to the sound of Albert's muffled groan in the pillow, and that, at least, he knows is his doing. Heat sharp in his belly, and from somewhere the Lodge beckons, whispers sweet nothings into his ear.
"Here," he says, then the fingers are out and he's in, rocking slowly. Still too fast, but he pants through it somehow, tries to draw it out. Measured breaths in the rhythm of whatever it is his hands are doing to Albert that makes him breathe like that, too. Albert on elbows and knees in his arms, man-shaped anchor where the precipice should be. He should be scared of falling, but he seems to have forgotten why.
All the Lauras scream at times. Laura the Banshee doesn't stop, and even the other Laura screams, relentlessly, when she comes.
"Come," Laura says, and she always does.
"Stay," Laura says, but he never will.
He never cries out, even when he wants to. He wants to now, but he holds it, lets it sharpen his focus as he thrusts. Shimmer of red at the edge of his vision – the Lodge's red, not the real one – tells him he's nearly out of time.
"Come," he says, hoarse, and then he does, clutching at Albert's thighs as the spasms take him, to the edge and across it. Struggles to hang on, match the rhythm Albert's trying to set, before he's gone and the man holding Albert is no longer him. Then Albert's hips jerk, and it takes him, too.
"Fuck," Albert says.
"Coop," Albert says, and then, "God. I love you."
He wants to say "Don't". He never says "don't", because it would break them.
"I know," he says, and of course he does. It is, he would say, what keeps him going, though there really is no choice to do anything else. "I love –"
When he opens his eyes, the tiles are white and black.