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When the Chords Sound Wrong

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Mark doesn't like to talk about it, and Roger says that everyone has things they didn't like to talk about. For him it's the elephant in the room, the months and months of withdrawal, the AZT, the harrowing nights of pain and suffering, and for Mark--

For Mark, at this second, it is the sound of Roger's callused fingers sliding up and down guitar strings. The brief metallic scrape is enough to make send shivers down his spine, to make him feel ill and panicky. He bites aggressively at his lower lip, searches for some sort of sensation that isn't that sound, twirls his fingers through the tassels of his scarf in repetitive motions.

It's not really cold enough for a scarf, but he likes the texture, and Roger isn't the type of person to ask, and Mark isn't the kind of person to tell.

Maureen thought it was charming, right up until she didn't. He doesn't blame her at all, and he knows it isn't the reason that they broke up. But he also knows that she got frustrated with him, hated it when he would sit in silence and not respond to her constant chatter, hated it when he hid from her, more willing to look at her face through a camera lens than to look her in the eye. Hated it when her performances were suddenly too much and he would ask her, or plead with her, or scream at her to please, please, please just let the world be quiet for a moment until he felt like a real person again.

Well, no relationship is perfect.

He doesn't like to talk about it.

He doesn't--

"I don't feel well."

What he really means is something so much deeper than that, but he can't put it into words, so he says "I don't feel well," because it's all he can manage at the moment. He thinks that if he speaks again words won't come out, and if he stands he will sway uncertainly.

"Hm?" Roger questions, and thank God, he stops playing.

"I don't feel well," Mark says, half under his breath. He's had time to regret saying anything, because even though the sound isn't piercing his brain anymore, he can feel that he is now the subject of scrutiny.

He sees Roger mentally calculating the cost of doctors visits against the money they have, and realizing that the discrepancy is huge. He can see these things, and he wants to tell Roger that it's both easier and harder than that.

"Not like that," he says, and Roger's shoulders slump with visible relief. "Just--" he disentangles his hand briefly from the tassels of his scarf as if to grasp at the words he needs. "Just stop playing the guitar, please."

"What?" Roger stares at him and Mark redirects his gaze to the floor, imagining that his best friend looks half concerned, half offended, the way he thinks he feels when it's Roger, on a bad night, screaming at him to "turn off the damn camera, Mark."

Roger and Mark both cling to their respective art forms like lifelines, so it's not surprising when he doesn't set aside the guitar. Instead he clutches at the neck of it defensively and says "Why?" It's the first time he's played in a long time, and Mark can understand why he doesn't want to stop now.

"Because it's--" Mark is almost never at a loss for words, and almost always at a loss for how to get them out of his brain in a way that makes sense. He snatches up his camera and starts fiddling with it instead of responding.

"Mark?" He can tell that Roger is still staring at him, his eyes burning into the top of his head as he steadfastly toys with the lens. He doesn't know what he's planning on filming. Probably nothing, he doesn't think Roger will be on board with filming this chapter of their lives, especially when he's been told to put away his guitar for reasons Mark hasn't been able to vocalize yet.

When Roger sets the guitar aside it resonates with a hollow thump, flavored with the a still-metallic twang. Mark's shoulders stitch together as he tries to erase the feeling the sound leaves there.

"Mark?" Roger stands and approaches him. Roger so rarely approaches anyone these days that it almost makes him feel stranger than the sound of fingertips on guitar strings.

Roger pulls up a chair--the sound of metal and plastic against a concrete floor shakes the room--and sits directly in front of Mark. His hands are the first thing Mark sees as they reach, very slowly for the camera.

"Can I?"

Roger is all anger and surliness most of the time, but he's better at remembering to ask before doing than Mark is. It's the asking that helps. Slowly, Mark uncurls his fingers from around the camera, and allows Roger to remove it. His hands return to his scarf, and his eyes journey back up to almost meet his friend's eyes.

"Is this a thing like--what Collins--"

"Yeah," Mark breathes the word at him. He doesn't really like to recall the night when Collins approached him with carefully practiced casualness, before launching into a discussion that kept beginning with "I'm no expert," and ending with references to a psychology minor.

Collins always seems to know everything, and never seems to act like he does. He studies people so carefully, but not the way Mark does. Mark is all angles and shots and scene motivations and editing out the parts he doesn't like in post-production. Collins doesn't have to use a camera lens to explore the world around him, and he splices the ugly, unpalatable parts back in with extreme care.

"Mark, I've noticed that you--"

"Mark, did your parents ever--"

"Mark, do you ever feel like--"

"Mark, I'm no expert, but--"

He finally settles his gaze somewhere around Roger's left ear, and keeps it there. "It's like that."

He doesn't like the sound of the word--it sounds too clinical to him, and he's used to being the one who doesn't live on clinical terms, so he doesn't actually say it, and doesn't care for anyone else to either. Roger has had enough clinical terms for a lifetime, so he doesn't address the matter.

"The guitar?" He knows Roger well enough to tell that he's exasperated, because he's figuring if he can't overcome the sound, it will be an insurmountable barrier in their relationship as roommates, especially now that it's just the two of them, and now that he's actually trying to play again.

"Has it always--I mean, even back then?" Roger doesn't like not being told things. Maybe he feels like Mark has been hiding something, or trying to spare his feelings, the thing he hates even more than not being told things. I

"Yes," Mark half cringes at the confession. "Not always," he adds quickly. "Sometimes it's fine. Sometimes it rattles around in my head like a pinball machine."

"Very poetic," Roger says drily.

Mark can't help but snort in response. "I'm sorry," he says after that, but he thinks some of the tension has abated now. He hazards a glance at Roger's face, and one corner of his mouth is upturned, just a little.

"So what am I supposed to do?" Roger asks, and he seems genuinely perplexed (and genuinely concerned, but then again Mark has never been the best judge of that).

He considers the question, and tries to formulate a response. "Give me an hour," he says finally. He's not sure if the reprieve will help--sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. But at least it will be just that, a reprieve. "If it doesn't work, I'll go take a walk for a while." He's the last person to try to turn Roger off of the guitar now that he's playing again.

Outside, Alphabet City roars and clangs, louder and more metallic than the guitar strings will ever be. Roger considers this.

"If it doesn't work," he says finally, "We'll give it two hours," he stands and starts to walk away, as if the matter is completely settled.

Mark studies Roger, takes in the immensity of that statement. It's Roger offering, adjusting, making up for lost time, and the step is as important as him picking up the guitar and starting to tune it. He smiles.

"Roger?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks."