Summary: How long, he thinks, could someone circle this tree, looking at every bubble, every future, trying to find the right one?
Author Notes: Thanks to norabombay and scynneh for beta and encouragement.
Author Notes: The concept is based on a short story I read in elementary school.
"I don't know what I'm doing here," Adam tells her.
"No one ever does," she answers.
Adam's never heard Kris flub his fingering as bad as that night, simple chords sliding through his hands with an unpleasant screech that makes Adam's already tight nerves tense that much more.
"You okay?" he asks worriedly as Kris sets the guitar aside, rubbing his fingers absently. The look on his face isn't the frustration Adam would have expected; the brown eyes are slightly distant, unfocused, as if they're looking at something Adam can't see. "Kris?"
Kris blinks, looking at Adam as if he's surprised to see him; for a second, though, Adam sees a hint of--anger? Sadness?--before it's gone, just Kris again, rolling his eyes and sitting back with a sigh.
"Just out of practice," Kris says with a rueful smile. It's a weird way to lie; Adam was in the studio with him yesterday, flawless to even the most experienced ear (which Adam is not, but he's getting there). "I've been overdoing it a little recently," he adds almost as an afterthought.
Adam nods agreement as Kris stands up, eyes flickering to the guitar and then toward the kitchen. "Want another beer?" he asks casually, rubbing his palms down his thighs.
"Yeah," Adam says as Kris vanishes into the kitchen, trying not to think about the streak of blood dull against the dark blue, almost invisible if you weren't the kind that knew to look. Kris has guitar calluses, he's seen them; darker, harder flesh from the blisters that formed until the skin adapted. You know the instrument by the calluses a musician bears, like the feet of dancers and the hands of artists; passion for anything leaves marks and the visible ones are only a reflection of whatever drives them to create at the expense of their bodies.
He's watched Kris play for hours in their shared room, in the studio, in private groups and public concerts attended by thousands, but he's never seen him bleed.
The garden's always been here, stuffed into the space between the living room and the hallway door he can see on the far distant side, blurred and uneven like looking through thick glass, a hazy outline built into the spring-warm air, resting on the faint impression of vivid, jade-green grass and backed by a sky so sharply blue it hurts to look at it too long. The colors remind him of kindergarten and coloring time, primary colors spread out on the desk and an untouched sheet of paper, blank until someone picks up a crayon and tells it what it will be.
It's always been here, he knows, grass soft beneath the soles of his feet, feeling every individual blade of grass bending beneath him, letting him pass; if it hadn't always been here, it wouldn't bend for him, allowing him through; if he wasn't supposed to be here, he'd leave a trail of blood with every step.
She walks along beside him, but her feet never touch the grass at all.
"It's a beautiful garden," he tells her, not sure if that's entirely true. Flowers burst from the ground in riotous sunny yellows and bloody reds and the rich purple of a new bruise, sheened like the feathers on the wing of a bird. Trees dip too-thick limbs just above the reach of his hand, heavy with leaves as wide as his hand and dark fruit that aren't any color that's ever been named black, too-deep with the faint glimpse of stars sprinkled across their glossy skins like the lights of a distant city.
"Thank you," she answers, inclining her head as a bush passes them, half-rotting leaves shed in clusters of wet black leaves like a bride's bouquet, its roots dragging behind it in long, squirming ropes slowly drying beneath the heat of the sun. Adam doesn't look back even when it groans, low and pleading; the grass slides over the leaves hungrily, slicing them into pieces as fine as dust before they vanish beneath the surface. They pause at what seems like the center, though the far door is no closer and the once-near door is no longer near at all, as hazy and indistinct as a fever. They're standing in a circle of flawless green, far from the reach of the longest finger on the branches that seem to extend toward the sky forever, like they forgot how tall a tree was permitted to grow.
Here, he can see dozens of reaching, grasping trees, each burdened with fruit that drags it back to earth, whites like the absence of color and oranges that burn like how it must imagine fire must feel, tiny drops of silver berries that have never reflected light. They're everywhere, and he knows them all and maybe he even knows what they do if he wants to remember now.
He doesn't, and beside him, he can hear her giggle, discordant like a badly-fingered chord on a guitar before it breaks.
The sun shifts in the sky, and Adam realizes he was wrong; it's never been warm here at all.
He finds the broken pieces in the garbage only minutes before the it would have been picked up; he's not sure why he looked or how he knew to do it, but then he did and it didn't matter why.
His security doesn't watch him when he picks through them, the thin wood of the guitar fragile in his hands. Each string is sliced through, hanging limply from the maimed body over the cracked inlay and spilling messily from the neck, streaked in glossless black. Running a manicured nail against it, it flakes across his fingers like rust wouldn't quite, clinging to his skin, familiar.
He picks them out one by one, gathering the splinters in the pocket of his coat when he realizes he has nothing else to hold them and taking it all to his car. Dumping out his gym bag, he carefully places everything inside, stripping off his coat to add that as well, the soft black leather gleaming in the light of the early morning before he zippers it shut.
Kris isn't there, but Adam listens to yesterday's masters while the techs pretend to ignore him and do anything but, headphones close to his head as he listens to music sung pitchless and painful, too high and too low and everything but right.
When he leaves, they murmur about the former winner of American Idol and his tour, but the name they use isn't the one that belongs to Kris. Adam wonders how long he'll be able to remember that.
"You understand what you cannot touch," she says, and he does: nothing black or white, blue or gold; nothing that sparkles and nothing that's dull. The trees move obligingly as he watches, too-bright colors straining the eye as they stutter by until one tree has always been there, standing between them in the middle of the circle of flawless green, trunk twisting upward toward the ground, branches crawling beneath his feet and above his head, hanging with perfect transparent bubbles that are all the futures in the world.
Reaching out, Adam's fingers hover just short of one of them, bright as a new diamond and filled with a future--his future, one year and five years and ten years and twenty that he lives in a moment and has always known, always; when he pulls away, he never knew it at all.
"Some people," she says, "come here for what they could be. They ask for fame and fortune and power and tie their lives to the future where those things will be."
Adam pulls away before one can touch him, hovering too close, streaked in faint shades of pink like raw, unhealed flesh. "I know I'm not here for that."
Leaning one bare shoulder against the trunk, she nods slowly. One branch dips toward her, the fragile, crystal bubbles shaking before her. "You may stay as long as you like and leave whenever you wish, but what you take, you must always keep."
That sounds easy enough.
"Of course," she adds, mouth curving in a faint, familiar smile, "what you take must also want to be kept."
Kris is frantically sorting through his clothes in the guest bedroom; plaid and jeans and t-shirts in a mismatched pile growing slowly in the center of the bed. Taking out his wallet, he adds it to the pile, and then there's never been any plaid at all, neat button-up shirts and a collection of slacks wrinkling slowly on the bed.
Hesitantly, Kris picks up one crisp shirt, fingers smoothing down the expensive cotton and row of buttons, eyes flat with horror.
Kris crumples the material in one hand, wedding ring dull against his skin, pale like someone who has never seen the sun. "Adam," he says, voice too low and he's always known that Kris' voice was low. "I--"
"Let me see your hands."
Kris looks up in confusion, eyebrows pushed together over too-green eyes, he's always known they were green. "Why do you--"
Adam knows he crossed the room, knows he takes Kris' hands, smooth palms and soft, soft fingers, short, manicured nails buffed to a high gloss against his skin. They've always been like this, always, since they met, since they met-- "Sing for me."
"I can't sing, Adam."
He knows that, too.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Adam thinks: green eyes, blonde hair, conservative taste in clothes, can't carry a note and never could, not even when they met. The thing is, he doesn't know if they ever met.
"I don't know if we met," Adam says helplessly, though soon he thinks he will; he'll know they didn't, that they never have, and that maybe they never will. "Do you?"
Kris looks at their hands, then at Adam, shocked. "You shouldn't know at all."
It's a very tall tree, reaching upward until it meets the ground, as wide as a stadium or a country or a world. The fruit shivers with every step, branches crouching at his feet to show him what it bears and if it's what he wants to know.
The thing is--the thing is--he doesn't know what he's doing here, and he's not sure if he ever will.
He spills the bag onto the living room carpet, splinters and chunks of wood and wire, crouching to run his fingers through the pieces. "I know you've never played guitar. I know you never played for me. What the fuck is going on?"
Kris kneels beside him, touching the strings with fingers that aren't entirely still before he looks up at Adam in wonder. "How do you know that?"
"Say something that makes some fucking sense," Adam says, spreading the pieces out and remembering every time Kris had never played for him and never will. "I don't know--"
"No," Kris says softly, voice clipped and too even, because he knows that Kris has never drawled, Arkansas thick in his voice. "You don't. At least, not for much longer."
Adam thinks he might kill him, just for that.
"I want you to know," Kris continues, running his fingers tenderly down the broken neck of the guitar. "When you're twelve years old, what you want is so different. Katy wanted to marry a famous musician and travel the world and live in a wonderful house, you know? I think she was going through an N'Sync phase, I don't know, I guess I got lucky she didn't--"
Adam sits; he can't think of anything else to do.
"Right," Kris says, dropping on the carpet, neat grey slacks stretching along his thighs. "When you were twelve, what did you want to be?"
"Madonna, maybe," Adam says after a moment of thought. "I mean, not literally, but--"
"Yeah." Kris puffs out a breath, running a hand through hair Adam knows has always been blond. "When I was eleven, I wanted to be a doctor."
Adam frowns, watching Kris' fingers comb through the scraps of wood as if he's looking for something.
"Then when I was twelve, I wanted to be a famous musician and travel the world and live in a wonderful house," he says softly. "With my wife, who wanted those things."
Adam lets out a slow breath. "I don't understand."
"When you're twelve and you have your first crush," Kris says slowly, "what you want is so different, you know? Katy wanted to marry a musician, and so that's what I chose to be. There were thousands of them, like--like, I don't know, bubbles all over it, and I found the one she wanted and that's the one I chose." Kris snorts softly. "She didn't choose any, so she got to go back. I guess this wasn't what she wanted after all."
"I'm not drunk enough for this," Adam tells him. "I don't think I could ever even be stoned enough for this."
"Yes, you were," Kris says, leaning one elbow on his knee and resting his chin in one hand. "I mean, you kind of had to have been. When you were at Burning Man--"
"When I what?"
Kris smiles, sudden and bright. "You were there," he says, confident and crazy. "You went there. You saw a future, all your futures. You just didn't pick one."
He finds that one and touches it, feeling again that rush of yes, this, seeing his life unfolding before him. It's not the same as before, he knows it's not; there are differences, slight and gapingly huge, different from the one he remembers that he never knew.
He didn't pick it last time, watching it stretch before him like a perfect road he could follow if only he took a step on the path. He cupped it in his hand and let it rush through him like a wave; this is your future, this is your life, this is who you want to be and then he'd--
"I don't know why I didn't pick it," he says, the smooth surface hovering just above his palm. "Do people do that a lot?"
"Sometimes," she answers, reaching out to brush it with one long-nailed finger. "Sometimes, it's just enough to see it and know what could be."
It makes a weird sort of sense, he supposes, like Tarot reading to feel the edges of what could be, to know the shape of potential. "Still--"
"If you'd chosen it," she says, "then that would be your path, locked into place for all of time. It cannot be changed."
Adam looks at her; that's not right. "That's not true. His entire past changed. He wanted to be a musician and now he's--I don't know what he is now. He doesn't know what he is now."
"He cannot change his path," she agrees, pushing the bubble from his hand before smiling up at the heavy branches of the tree. "He is exactly what he chose to be."
Adam doesn't have anything to compare to this moment, watching Kris as he's never known him, pale and blonde and blue eyed with soft hands that have never played an instrument and a voice that's never sang a note; even acid has an internal logic in its very lack. There's nothing here to grasp, as what he knows of Kris changes every second that passes. Soon he won't know anything at all.
Leaning back against the couch, Adam watches him sift through the pieces of the guitar. "I loved music," Kris whispers, eyes fixed on those splinters of wood. "I mean, I don't know if I really did before, but now--I can't imagine it. I don't even know if I'll like it when this is over." The blue eyes flicker up. "I can feel each change. I just don't remember what I was before."
"Kris," Adam breathes, wondering how that must feel, parts of yourself stripped away and replaced like a redecorating a room until you can't remember what it looked like before. Until you know it's always been that way. "How long?"
"I have no idea," Kris murmurs, looking up at Adam with a flat smile. "I guess until you know you've never met me."
Adam doesn't want to think of that; he doesn't want to think of the moment he knows he never met Kris Allen, never shared a room or a tour or a friendship, a thousand million too many nevers filtering through his memory that will be stripped away as ruthlessly as Kris Allen's life. It doesn't make sense; how can it work like this, can one person's choice destroy another's, one future override another one.
"I just wanted--I wanted what she wanted me to be," Kris whispers helplessly; reaching out, he swipes a hand across the rug, scattering the pieces everywhere, then winces, raising his finger to his mouth, blood slipping through the thin cut. "Dammit--"
"You have a splinter?" Adam almost laughs. "Come here, let me see it."
Kris frowns, getting up and crossing to drop on the floor beside Adam, extending his hand. Gingerly, Adam turns it over, looking at the bright line of blood, the thin sliver of wood still lodged in the cut. It's easy enough to remove with just his nails, pulling it out and tossing it on the coffee table. Rubbing his thumb over the new well of blood, Adam looks at the soft hand of a man who never played guitar. "I can't believe I never met you."
Kris looks at him, calm with terror. "I don't know your name."
Adam circles the tree, large as a building, a stadium, a country, a world, translucent bubbles hanging from every limb, trembling as he passes them, briefly glimpsing futures at every touch--singer, dancer, actor, doctor, psychiatrist, what the fuck?--before pausing. "How many are there?"
She shrugs. "How many can you imagine?"
How long, he thinks, could someone circle this tree, looking at every bubble, every future, trying to find the right one? How the fuck would they even find the one they were looking for? It would take forever. He was here, once, and he walked to this tree and found the future he wanted most first and what are the chances of that--
"Oh." Stepping back, Adam looks at the tree and actually sees it. "It's not that big, is it?"
She raises an eyebrow, curious.
"They're all the same." He thinks of being an astronaut and touches one bubble; there's space and a countdown and a hot guy stripping down in the locker room, Captain Lambert, are you ready--and Adam can't help laughing, jerking back. He thinks of being a politician and then a golfer, what the hell, and each touch shows him something new, another path that stretches the length of his life. "There's only one."
"There is only one," she agrees. "It contains multitudes."
"When Kris touched it--" he stops, frowning, because that's not how it happened. "No, Katy touched it."
"Yes," she says softly. "She saw her future as the wife of a musician--"
"But he picked it."
"He picked the one she chose because he loved her," she says carefully. "That is what he chose to be."
Adam lets out a breath. He knows, like he knows this garden that has always been here, snug between the living room and the hallway, that once chosen, there is no deviation. Bound to Katy, to what she wanted and desired him to be, Kris's future had been chained to her will. She had seen a musician and when he touched it, he wanted to be what she had seen. Pulling away, Adam steps back from the small tree, a single shining fruit hanging from its single limb. "He chose to be what Katy wanted."
There's nothing for him here, no future he can choose where he always knew Kris and always will. The door to the hall is closer, almost solid, and when he goes back, he will go to an empty house where he knows he never met Kris at all. It won't hurt, he knows that; he knows he won't ever feel the loss of someone he never knew.
"No." A hand touches his face, not cool and not warm but only present, reaching for his hand and raising it to the bubble; he knows he can't stop her, even though he wishes he could. Just before his fingers touch it, she murmurs, "He chose to be what the person he loved wanted him to be."
There's something horrible in this endless waiting; when it's over, he won't ever have waited for anything at all.
"Maybe--" Kris swallows, forehead pressed against his shoulder, "--we'll meet in Hollywood? I mean, she's a famous actress, so--" Kris shrugs helplessly, and Adam knows that they could. Carefully, he laces his fingers through Kris' and holds on until he knows he never held anyone's hand tonight on his living room floor. "God, it's not--it's not fair, it's--how was I supposed to know--how were we supposed to--" Kris sucks in a breath. "I know I never played guitar. I know I never played--"
"Shut up," Adam breathes. He can't listen to this; soon, he knows that this will not have happened.
"--a piano. I know I never sang in front of an audience, never won a competition, never went on tour, never hated her for this--"
"For fucks' sake!" Turning sharply, Adam looks into wide blue eyes, eyes he knows have always been blue, Christ, he knows he'll never know how this killed him. "Shut the fuck up--"
"--never, God, I know I never fell in love with you," Kris whispers brokenly. Adam feels Kris' fingers tighten around his as Kris straightens, pushing Adam back against the couch and straddling his lap, and Adam knows that this, that this, that-- "Now you know that, too."
One soft, smooth hand cups his face, tilting it up, and Kris kisses him before he pulls away. Dazed, Adam stares at the stranger in his lap. "Who are you?"
The man tilts his head. "Who do you want me to be?"
When Adam touches the bubble, he thinks, he's in love with me and watches a future unfold in the palm of his hand.
This is who I want him to be.
The room behind him is achingly silent, as it's always been, when Adam opens the door.
"What you take," she says softly, "must want to be kept."
Adam nods as the future pours out before him. "This time, he knows he'll never want anything else."
Adam leans against the open doorway and stares at Kris still kneeling pitifully by the remains of his guitar on their living room floor and fights down the urge to laugh. He really doesn't want to sleep on the couch tonight. "I think it's dead, baby."
Kris gives him a poisonous glare. "You're such a dick."
Adam grins back. "Happy anniversary to you, too."
Ignoring him, Kris picks up the pieces and piles them on the coffee table. Controlling himself with an effort, Adam goes to grab a trash bag from under the sink, dropping it on the floor before pulling Kris into a kiss, slow and lush and achingly sweet. Kris smiles into the kiss, nipping his lip before he pulls back. "I knew there was a reason I married you."
Smirking, Adam pushes Kris down onto the couch, turning over his hand, guitar calluses rough against his fingers as he checks to see if there are any splinters left. Glancing at the pile of wood, Adam shakes his head. "So exactly what happened to it again?"
Kris frowns at it in bewilderment. "I really don't know."
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