“You’re here early,” Ernest commented, as the door opened and Ludwig walked in, taking off his gloves and leather jacket.
“I could say the same of you, o pre-eminent and illustrious leader,” Ludwig said, smirking and bowing sarcastically. By this time, he was putting on his glasses and taking his script out of his backpack. “What are you here so early for?” he asked, thumbing through his script without looking at Ernest.
“Julia needed help with her lines,” Ernest explained. “I was going to run through them with her. You know how much she’s struggling with English, bless her.”
“Running lines, eh?” Ludwig asked, disregarding the last part of the statement and winking. “So, that’s what they’re calling it now, is it?” he asked.
“We’ve been over this, Ludwig.” If normal people blushed slightly across their cheekbones when they were embarrassed, then Ernest was extremely abnormal, because he coloured violently right down to his clavicles.
“Yes, yes,” Ludwig said, dropping the subject. “No public sex, or at least none since Tannhauser’s party, yes?”
“So. Why are you so early?” Ernest asked. “You usually don’t arrive until ten minutes in,” he said, offering Ludwig a rather self-satisfied smirk.
Ludwig resisted the urge to stick his fist through Ernest’s nose, and chuckled. “No – you simply have unrealistic expectations. Mostly of my scooter’s ability to start more than once a month without sacrificing something to a god of some form.”
“You still haven’t got a new one?” Ernest said, with a tone of disbelief. “I keep having visions of your current one falling apart on one of the back roads between your house and here and your body being found weeks later by a dog walker.”
“Hera is chugging along quite merrily, thank you,” Ludwig replied, throwing a glove at Ernest, who dutifully threw it back. “She’s just a little slow.”
“And just a little un-roadworthy? Why not just get a car, Ludwig? Your scooter’s smoke clouds arrive about five minutes before the scooter itself, dear.”
As he spoke, Ernest started coughing violently, and collapsed into the seat beside Ludwig.
“Ernest?” Worried, Ludwig put a hand on his back.
“I’m fine,” Ernest reassured him, trying to ignore the metallic taste at the base of his tongue.
Looking at him, however, Ludwig could easily see that this was far from the truth. While Ernest had always been thin and pallid, he almost looked limpid now, with dark smudges beneath unusually lifeless grey-green eyes, and he was wearing unusually thick clothes for him, especially for early summer when the days were still warm in the evenings.
“Ludwig.” Ernest’s voice was severe, but he sounded frightened.
When Ludwig looked back up at his face again, he saw why.
Before Ludwig could say anything about the blood running down Ernest’s chin, however, the older man had bolted. Ludwig heard him sobbing in the prop cupboard a moment later. Ludwig followed him, concerned for his friend’s health.
Ernest was curled up as small as he could make himself (which was very small – he was only about five foot two, five foot four in his Die Lustige Witwe costume, and was light enough for Ludwig to pick up one-handed and sling over his shoulder), on the mortal remains of a chaise longue that Ludwig could never remember seeing before, let alone using as a prop, his head in his hands as he cried.
“Ernest?” Ludwig crouched down in front of the chaise longue.
Ernest was coughing again now, though, his head long and inclined away from Ludwig, but at least he wasn’t crying anymore, because Ludwig wasn’t exactly sure how to deal with that.
Once Ernest had stopped coughing, Ludwig got up from the floor and sat down beside him, and wrapped his arm around him. “How long have you been sick?” he asked, resting his free hand on the back of Ernest’s head.
“I don’t know,” Ernest whispered.
Ludwig sighed, taking off his glasses and looking down at them. “And… what’s?”
“Tuberculosis,” Ernest said. “I’m not contagious any more, but I’m still drowning in my own lung fluid and blood.” Ernest hadn’t taken off his glasses while he had been crying, but he removed them now, and polished them on his shirt, before putting them back on. Ludwig pursed his lips as Ernest continued. “I’m not getting better.” His tone was measured – but he still sounded scared.
“Obviously tuberculosis is treatable,” Ludwig said.
“But I am markedly getting absolutely no better.”
“And… worse?” Ludwig tried to keep the fear from his voice.
“No. I’ve… I’ve plateaued.” Unable to look Ludwig in the eye when he lied to him, Ernest turned his head away.
“I am. I promise,” Ernest said, looking at him now.
The two of them sat in silence for a few minutes, Ernest sniffing quietly to himself and Ludwig unusually quiet, until the door opened again, and the two emerged, to see Julia and Lisa, looking slightly concerned (in Julia’s case) and amused (in Lisa’s) to see their respective boyfriends emerging from a prop cupboard together.
“I won’t say anything to the ladies if you don’t, dear,” Ludwig said, winking and taking Ernest’s arm, which caused the blond man to chuckle wanly.
“…And with that,” Ernest said, shrugging Ludwig off and going over to Julia. She had clearly noticed that he’d been crying, but either didn’t want to know why or was too polite to comment.
Ludwig, however, had a lot to say to Lisa, but he was in too much of a screaming hurry, his girlfriend having to half-jog to keep up with him. Ludwig paused once they were out of the room to let her catch up.
“What’s wrong with Ernest?”
“Where do you want me to start?” Ludwig asked, sitting down on one of the sofas in the theatre’s lobby. Lisa sat down beside him, leaning against him. “Because there are a fair few places I could.”
“Well, call me curious, but what were you doing in the prop cupboard?”
“He was crying. I went in there to make sure he was okay and not chucking himself off a stepladder,” Ludwig said, before realising that saying that would make Lisa more curious, rather than less.
“Poor dear…” Lisa said. “What’s upsetting him?” she asked, looking up at Ludwig.
He quickly leaned down and kissed her. “I don’t think he’d want me to say exactly – but he’s quite ill,” Ludwig explained quietly.
Lisa’s eyes widened. “Is he…?” She left it unsaid, but it was obviously that she wanted to ask if Ernest was dying.
“No, no. Or at least, we don’t think so.” Ludwig sighed. “Tuberculosis. He’s not contagious, but he is fragile, physically and emotionally.”
Lisa nodded slowly. “Poor thing. Does Julia know?”
“I don’t think so. Or if he has, she hasn’t let on,” Ludwig explained.
“What should we do about it, then?” Lisa asked.
“Nothing. He didn’t want my help in the first place, and I don’t think he wanted it after the fact. I was there, and if I hadn’t been then he would have got over it in private.” Ludwig sighed, leaning forwards and resting his head on his hands. Lisa leaned over and gently lifted his chin.
“Don’t worry yourself about it,” she said gently, resting their foreheads together. “It won’t help either of you.”
As they talked, the door opened and Julia ran in, looking panicked and speaking fast in German. Lisa ran over to try to calm her and find out what was wrong, while Ludwig went through to the theatre.