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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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“Alright, that's the last of them,” Gene announces as they carefully set down a large pot of... something or other. The plant thwaps Robert in the face one last time as he lets go and steps back.

“You look like you're farming pot on the down-low,” Robert remarks, looking over the forest of greenery crowded into Gene's garage. It has a certain murder-in-the-conservatory charm.

“Could do, I suppose,” Gene says agreeably. “I wonder what the profit margin is on home-grown marijuana, now that it's legal.”

Robert wouldn't know; it's not his drug.

“Anyway, I appreciate the help. Although you know that now you've volunteered to help me take them out again on walkies between frosts, right?”

They've moved the entire portable cohort of Gene's garden indoors to protect it from the upcoming deep-freeze, which is apparently a thing that gardeners do—news to Robert, since he's never even tried to raise plants, and Marilyn had what could charitably be described as a 'yellow thumb.'

“I'll take it out of your hide later,” Robert promises, wrapping his arms around Gene from behind and sliding his slightly-numb hands into the pockets of Gene's coat.

Gene chuckles and wraps his hands, clad in mittens, around Robert's, then walks them back out into the front yard. “I still need to cut back the hedges,” he says thoughtfully. “That's a one-man job, but you're welcome to supervise if you like.”

“Hmm, I don't know. There's an infomercial marathon on TV today that I'd hate to miss.”

“It'll turn up on Netflix eventually,” Gene assures him. “And if it sweetens the pot, I made another batch of the Secret Small Family Recipe Spiced Cider. Just like Great-Aunt Google used to make.”

“You drive a hard bargain.” Robert squeezes his arms around Gene, and pushes his face into the warm crevice between Gene's neck and the collar of his coat.

Robert's feeling... stable. Not the brittle euphoria of his highs, but not like he's one misstep away from tumbling into the abyss either. Stable enough that he can bring himself to ask the question that's been on his mind, that he thinks he'll be able to handle Gene's answer, whatever that answer is.

“You said Alex was on lithium,” Robert says aloud. In his arms, he feels Gene tense. “How'd he like it?”

Gene's silent for a moment, then he draws in a breath and disentangles Robert's hands from his pockets. He keeps Robert's arm slung over his shoulder, but turns so he can look at Robert sidelong. His expression is apprehensive, because he knows that Robert's not comfortable talking about Alex, or his own issues, or—double your fun—the intersection between the two.

“He didn't,” Gene admits quietly. “To be perfectly honest with you. But... Alex's illness wasn't the same as yours.”

He tugs on Robert's waist, leads him up the front steps to the porch swing, and they take a seat, Gene fitted snugly under his arm.

“Alex's manic episodes were... more pronounced,” Gene begins slowly, rubbing a fuzzy hand over Robert's knee. “They were...” He struggles for a moment, then says, “Sorry, I've never really talked about this with anyone but Craig, and he already knew Alex, so I didn't have as much to explain.”

Gene tips his head back onto Robert's arm and says carefully, “Alex was also manic-depressive, but he enjoyed it more than you do. He got the depressive episodes too, of course, but for him, the manic episodes more than made up for it. They were these... intense swells of creativity. When he was overflowing with ideas and had all the energy in the world to make good on them. He loved what he could accomplish on a manic swing—the insights that came to him, the euphoria. How it made him just feel everything more powerfully, more profoundly—ten feet tall and bulletproof, listening to the music of the spheres.” Gene gives a short, sad sigh of a laugh. “Hearing him describe it, I almost envied him sometimes.

“And it was fine, when we were younger. It was just how he was—that sometimes he was passionate and creative, and sometimes he was quiet and withdrawn, and we'd gotten the hang of both sets of his moods. I didn't—” Gene breaks off, biting his lip while he pauses for a moment to arrange his thoughts. “A lot of people fell in love with Alex when he was on his upswings. He was just so much larger than life, handsome and talented and charismatic. But it was hard for people to stick around through his downswings, because he'd get... distant. And yeah, there were some rocky times when I was still coming to understand his depression, but once I understood that it wasn't about me, and I learned there were ways I could help him through it, I wanted to help him through it. I didn't just love Alex when he was feeling good, and I didn't stop loving him when he stopped being fun.”

Gene turns to look Robert in the face. “I'm not just here for the good times, Robert, I'm here for you. All of you.”

Robert is quiet, then turns his head to press his lips against Gene's hair because he can't hold his gaze. Robert wants to believe him—and he's getting there—but that's still a hell of a thing to promise. The only person who ever stuck it out with him was Marilyn, and by the end that was just because they were both too afraid of being alone.

Gene sighs and leans into him. “The problem was that as he got older, both sides started getting more extreme—that his depressive episodes were getting worse, lasting longer, and his manic episodes were... wilder. Losing touch with reality. It'd gotten to the point where he was having trouble holding down a job through either one, but he still enjoyed his manic episodes—they still made him feel good, like he could do and be anything. He didn't want to be medicated out of them, and so for a long time he resisted getting treatment.”

Gene lapses into silence then, until finally Robert asks, “What made him change his mind?”

Gene shifts. “Me. And Amanda. I—” He stops, leans forward on his knees and draws in a shaky breath. “I don't suppose you have any cigarettes on you?”

“You want one?” Robert's mildly surprised; he's seen old pictures of Gene with a cigarette in hand (in drag, which was also a trip), but he's never known him to smoke in the here-and-now.

“Please.”

Robert digs a pack and a lighter out of his jacket. Gene takes off his mittens to light one, then takes a shallow drag and settles back against Robert's arm.

“There was... an incident,” he begins with difficulty. “When Amanda was very young. That she doesn't remember, thank fuck, and I'd rather not go into detail about it, because it doesn't show Alex in a good light, at all. But it—drove home that he couldn't afford to be that unstable, not if he was raising a child.”

Gene's eyes are distant where they're fixed on the glowing tip of the cigarette. He swallows. “I almost left him,” he says quietly, like a confession. “I guess I did, briefly. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but I couldn't take care of him and Amanda both, and god, she was just a baby, she needed me more.

“I told him to go stay with his parents while he got himself sorted out, and I took Amanda and left to spend the night at a motel, because I couldn't stand to be in that house.” He closes his eyes briefly, seems to forget about the cigarette as it slowly burns down. “Didn't get a wink of sleep that night. Amanda kept waking up and crying, because she could tell that I was upset, and she was scared of being away from home, and missing her Dad. And I spent the whole night trying to come to terms with what my life was going to be like without him. That I'd been watching the man I loved slowly lose his mind, helpless to do anything about it, and now I was facing the prospect of being alone, of raising our daughter alone, and terrified of what would happen to him without me.” He lowers his eyes and taps off the ash. “I was twenty-two years old.”

Gene draws in a breath, takes a slightly steadier drag off the cigarette. “Fortunately it didn't come to that. I went home the next morning, and Alex hadn't gone back to his parents, and I was so glad to see him that I wasn't even angry. We both cried and apologized and hugged a lot, and after that he was willing to... well, neither of us actually knew what he needed at that point, but after that he was willing to try.” Gene shakes his head distantly. “It scared the hell out of both of us. Put a lot of things in perspective.”

Well, there's a cautionary tale if Robert ever heard one—push Gene too far and he will leave your ass.

“Mind you, it didn't fix things overnight. Alex agreed to go to therapy after that, but... it was slow going. He was incredibly hostile to the whole idea of psychiatry, didn't trust it at all, and I couldn't even blame him, because—” Gene tips his head back, breathes out a hard sigh. “Oh, christ. I've never told anyone about this. Not Craig, not even Amanda.”

Gene closes his eyes, swallows hard. “Alex's parents had him institutionalized a handful of times when he was a teenager. Because he wasn't the son they wanted him to be. Because he wasn't obedient,” he bites out, with more venom than Robert's ever heard from him. “And of course they sent him to Christian psychotherapists, who were so goddamned hung up on him being bisexual that they couldn't be fucked to notice what was actually wrong. That went on for years, until he finally got away to college, and so by the time I met him, he wanted absolutely nothing to do with any of it ever again. That was why he refused to get help for as long as he did—until he didn't have any other choice.”

“Did it work?” Robert hears himself ask.

“Eventually, yes. It took a long time, and there was a lot of trial and error before we found an approach that worked for Alex. Because therapy isn't perfect, therapists aren't infallible. They're people too, at the mercy of their own prejudices just like everyone else—as Alex learned the hard way. But there are good people out there, people who understand what you're going through and have the insight to help you get a handle on it.”

Gene pauses, then sighs and then stubs out the cigarette on the bottom of his boot. “But that's not what you asked. You asked how Alex liked lithium, and the short answer is: he didn't.

“It leveled him out—made his lows less low, but it also made his highs less high, and he missed that a lot. Never stopped missing it, in fact, ever. He went off his meds a few times trying to chase that high, but he always came back to them in the end because he understood that he needed them. He knew that if he'd kept going down that road, he would have lost Amanda, he would have lost me, and sooner or later it probably would have killed him. So he didn't like it, but he understood the necessity.”

Gene finishes, and lets Robert process that in silence for a few minutes.

Robert isn't sure how he feels. He'd been half expecting (hoping?) to hear that his predecessor had given the psych drugs a rousing endorsement, that they were the magic bullet and Robert could just follow in the footsteps of someone who'd figured out their shit better than he had. But Gene's right about Alex's experience being different from his, and Alex's ambivalence doesn't give Robert any easy answers.

“Do you want to talk to someone about it?” Gene asks quietly.

Robert draws in a breath. “I don't know. Do you think I should?”

“I think it needs to be your decision.” He squeezes Robert's hand. “Sweetheart, this isn't a choice you can let someone else make for you.”

Yes, but—“Gene, I trust you more than I trust myself. Seriously, which of us has a track record for good decisions, and which of us doesn't?”

Gene gives a small, slightly exasperated laugh. “Maybe,” he acknowledges. “But you need to be able to make those good decisions for yourself, and have faith in your own judgment. What if it's not always me? What if you find yourself with another Joseph?”

Robert feels himself suck in a breath, feels his arm tighten around Gene. “Don't even joke about that.”

“It's not a joke. And I'm not planning on going anywhere, but I'd rest easier knowing that you could keep yourself safe and healthy even without me.”

Robert doesn't have an answer to that. The thought of anything happening to Gene is something his mind flinches away from, but... it's also not a possibility that either of them can discount. They both know that loss can come quick and premature and unexpected.

To be honest, Robert doesn't even know why he's resisting the idea of medication. He doesn't get the same blissful highs that Alex apparently got, or not enough to be worth the crushing depressions that follow. Most of the time Robert just feels like he's spent his entire life being unhappy—that even on his brightest days he's never lived without the threat of darkness lurking around the edges, just waiting for the sun to set so that it can close in again. One would think he'd be glad to be medicated out of that. Eager, even, but—

But that's him. That's what he is, that's who he is, as fundamentally a part of him as the blood vessels rooted in his body. If this, all of this, is just an illness, then what would even be left of him if they managed to cure it? Where the hell does the illness leave off and Robert begins?

It's frightening—terrifying, even—to think that a simple pill could medicate him out of existence. And maybe he'd be happier that way, but maybe he wouldn't be him anymore—like erasing the person he is now to make room for a cleaner, shinier Robert who just wouldn't care about these things anymore, a Robert who takes his pills and sees his shrink and doesn't have to be so goddamned difficult all the time. That this Robert would cease to exist, and no one would even miss him.

Gene squeezes his hand again. “You don't have to rush into anything. It's just something to think about.”

“I'm thinking about it,” Robert admits.

It helps to know that Gene's not going to push him. That he likes Robert even as he is now, black moods and all, and presumably he doesn't want Robert turning into a different person either. That whatever lithium did to Alex, it didn't make him unrecognizable, it just... leveled him out, Gene said. Robert thinks maybe that wouldn't be so bad, being a little more level.

“I'll go with you, if you like,” Gene offers. “You don't have to do this alone if you don't want to.”

Robert draws in a deep breath. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I might take you up on that.” He tightens his arm around Gene one more time, then releases him. “Anyway. I'll supervise your hedge-trimming, but only if we go inside and warm up first. I'm freezing my fucking balls off out here.”

Gene raises a speculative eyebrow at him. “Warm up, you say? I have some ideas.”

“Mm hmm.” Robert nuzzles into his neck. “I'm sure you're talking about the cider.”

“That would be phase two of the operation, yes,” Gene agrees.

“And phase one?”

He feels Gene laugh and wrap an arm around him. “Come inside and find out.”