The Punchline


sal_icon.gif teo_icon.gif

Scene Title The Punchline
Synopsis Sal's channeling a good deal of personal angst into constructive outlets like Ferry-housekeeping, when Teo comes in to do what he does best: fight the screaming Hell out of somebody he cares about, for great justice, love, truth, and all the right reasons.
Date August 12, 2009

Greenwich VillageThe Hangar

A wrought-iron fence borders several small garden beds and the stone stairs leading up to the house's front door. The house itself is a structure of old stone - not even concrete blocks, but quarried stone — with natural-color wood doors and window frames. The windows on the ground floor are barred.

Inside, the level is divided into only three rooms. The first is the foyer, with polished hardwood flooring, a freestanding coatrack on either side, iron-dark against soft-amber interior walls. The main staircase spirals up from one corner of the foyer, girded by a wrought-iron railing.

To the right from the entrance is the kitchen. The walls just off from white, the floor tiled in dark gray. In the center of the kitchen is a black-topped island, matching the counters that line the room. One wall is dominated by an eminently modern stove framed by an anachronistic brick hearth. Cabinets above the counters have glass doors; the windows above the sink are framed in light-colored curtains, the illumination they let in adding to the expansive atmosphere.

The dining room takes up the back of this floor. The far wall is brick and stone, with a facade of a fireplace mantle in the center. Interior walls have been painted a tone intermediate between amber and ivory, which is also the accent color in the dark rug beneath the long dining table.

Since his official split from Phoenix, Sal's been upping his hours spent helping out the Ferrymen. Which means there's more to do than just medicine - which suits him just fine as he's been trying to be more than just a doctor.

Sometimes that means menial work - work he, ironically, never has to do in his own home. Like cleaning out the fridge. He's done getting rid of the grody stuff and is now taking a hot, soapy cloth to the exterior of the fridge. He wipes clean dozens of fingerprints and then moves to give the cupboard faces a wipe as well. The radio blares out classic rock.

There's a brief rise and drop of voices in the hallway, indistinct but recognizably neutral, reverberating through air locked in for too long, the dust and smell of hygiene with it. It isn't the noise of work; it's the sound of the interval between work, hurried but not harried, syncopated to the brisk trot of travel with specifically designated origin and purpose. Nobody walks like they're just wandering, in here. Not, apparently, even the ninjas technically in off-duty capacity.

Very abruptly, Teo's there. The breadth of his shoulders and lanky torso squared with tensely maintained balance, a familiar box poking out from under his arm, the lids flapping loose, chapped and scarred with the telltale signs of having been opened once before. The Ferryman he'd been speaking to passes behind him with a monosyllable of salutation.

Before Sal recognizes the odd, near-psychic sensation of someone in near proximity, he is rather contentedly humming along to something with a thumping bass riff coming out of the old radio. It's all very domestic, even if this isn't his home.

But soon enough, the hairs raise on the back of his neck and he hears a familiar rumbled syllable. He looks up and inadvertantly into the face he's avoided looking at ever since he gave it back to the entity known as Ghost.

For a moment, the gaze meets and sadness cracks through the mask of normalcy he's been trying to maintain. Then his gaze dips to the box. He tosses a sponge into a bucket and goes for paper towel.

"Well. That answers that question," he murmurs.

The back of Teo's boot thumps the door, jarring the planed corner of wood with a blunt hook of direction to send it squea-king closer shut. It isn't exactly privacy, in the sanctified form that much of their prior relationship had required, but a reasonable facsimile or at least a heartfelt illusion. He walks closer. The box shunts up in his hands lightly as if it contained nothing more than air and styrofoam peanuts, but the telltale shuffle of hard, dense edges contained therein indicates otherwise.

Easing to a halt, Teo sets the parcel on the kitchen counter between two hands, his fingertips at a jut around the oblong, stable in a way that belies the tension knotted pale in his knuckles. After a few seconds spent staring at the paper towels that Sal selected a few squares out of, he finally asks: "Was this a fucking joke?"

"You know me better than that." Sal reaches into the bucket and squeezes hot water out of the sponge. Then he lifts the roll of paper towel and sets it up on the shelf, so he can squeegie away caked on bits of spaghetti sauce and coffee splatters. Somehow, it's easier and more rewarding to clean up someone else's mess than it is to clean up after himself.

"It was a way of answering a question. Whether you had an interest in owning something that used to be mine. But if you don't want it, leave it here. I'll get rid of it." His tone is deceptively dull and flat, small and well, rather unlike him. He's busying his hands with cleaning that could easily be paused to have this coversation.

Someone else's messes tend to be smaller, in some way. Even if someone else happens to be constituted of six refugee families, hungry mouths and hands shaky from adrenaline or existential fatigue. Teo knows what it's like: he had been tutoring Spanish and English, fixing garbage disposals and catching ringworm off the Projects' ducklings months before PARIAH grudgingly put a gun into his hand. It's not as long ago as it feels like.

Abruptly, he's flipping the box open, reaching, yanking the statue out. Inch by varnished inch, its aerodynamic swoops and sharp angles twisting reflective under the cold fluorescence of the kitchen light, borrowing Sal's reflection in distorted miniature, to cast it back at him. Teo's, too. The Sicilian finds himself looking back at himself, at the face Sal refuses to acknowledge anymore, turned upside down and warped convex in the glossy curve of the statue's bottom rung. It's a beautiful piece of work, really.

Teo hefts it up, up, pins it back above his left shoulder and, in a final— first?— spasm of violent pique, hurls it into the floor. Ringing, loud, it explodes its smash pattern across the floor. Chalky powder spray fizzing up, shards rocketing, bouncing, skipping end over jagged end toward the walls, rebounding off the base of the counter, spraying its ragged tide dangerously close to Sal's uncharacteristically cheap shoes.

"Jesus fucking Christ!" Sal's reaction is all reflex. He jumps back and yanks his hand out of the bucket, sending sprays of water out across Teo, the floor, the counter and the dark bits of chipped and broken stone. A few of the shards smacked hard against his legs. His skin's saved from scratches by thick denim, but there will be a series of purpling bruises the next time he undresses.

He's left staring at Teo, his expression a weird contorted mix of confusion, nausea and some deep, stabbing pain. He's left speechless, reactionless, for a long, long moment. He simply stares at Teo, at the shards. He has no quip, no words to start a war of them. He hovers in shock, unable to articulate just how this makes him feel.

Teeth clench in Teo's mouth, pinching anemic white into his gums. There are cords standing out in Teo's jaw, muscle and vein, the organic machinery of musculature pried out underneath the skin by the torque and pressure of too many fucking feelings, words that he's kept ruthlessly submerged for the few weeks that he, in this particular incarnation, has had ownership of this body.

"You don't ev—" his voice comes out rough to the point of misshapen, like a thing contused inside the vesicle it was supposed to give shape and substance to. He has to clear his throat and start again. "You don't even fucking remember what— what the fuck? What the fuck— that—" Teo used to stop-start and sutter when he was uncertain, not when he was angry; Ghost never used to do that all. This is inversed, somehow, as is the conspicuous sheen of light behind Teo's raw eyes, the breath barely caged behind incisors and molars.

At the same time, in some miserable irony, being angry is about three hundred and seventy four times more Teo than his polite reserve and flattened queries had been. "That is the last fucking thing I ever fucking do for you," he finally finishes. He stabs a pointing finger down at the mess, the art reduced to so much dirt, the lopsided kaleidoscope of ceramic parts on the floor.

Sal's expression slowly calms as he looks at Teo. He breathes in slowly, through nostrils, lips pursed closed. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Huh? That you destroy something I tried to give you in case you had any fondness at all for what you and I were? That you might want something of mine? Well, thank you for that."

He tosses the sponge in the bucket and starts to move past him, pieces of statue crunching underfoot. "Thank you for confirming that I was a fucking fool. That, that," he points to the broken statue, "…whatever else you think that might have meant? It meant to me the moment we made a connection. It meant my apartment, where we were together. It was a fucking piece of me, because you were the only person who knew me. Really knew me." He reaches for the door that Teo wedged closed. He doesn't mean to stay and fight. "Problem is, I never knew you."

The Sicilian's regard stabilizes, finally, with the puckering seize and shift of breath thundering in his lungs. "Bullshit, Sal. Bullshit. I can't fucking believe you can't remember: you hated that thing. It was some bullshit customized triviality an artist who didn't know jack shit about you crapped together because you were the fuckign Mayor's son. The first real fucking conversation we ever had, you wanted to break it all over the fucking floor, but you didn't have the fucking guts. And you give it to me, now.

"Of all things, you give this to me and it's—" Recoiling from words he doesn't want to say, Teo's head twitches back on its axis, as if he'd just accidentally popped some crucial bolt in his neck or a snag of wiring had burnt out. His hands make fists, his face all crumpled brow, complexion burnt red, already disoriented by a fight that's barely even started. "Thank you. Thanks a fucking lot. You never really knew me?

"'Course you did." He turns to watch Sal move, follows him with his eyes if not his heavy-shodden feet. "You'd have to know me to be able to rewrite every fucking minute of history so that you could find something in me to excuse every single fucking weakness or failing you've ever had. You've always talked a lot— bemoaned how much I hate myself, and maybe that's true; maybe I did, maybe that was stupid and fucked up, but you sure as fuck don't love yourself, never mind me." 'Him.'

That was supposed to be 'him,' but Teo's steering isn't so good right now; he can't see much besides red and blur and the emotional physics of more than one dead weight root him to the floor. "You're a fucking coward. You gave up on me because you were afraid your best wouldn't be enough, and you left me because you were afraid some dumbfuck redneck would be better. And you know— you know, if it'd been you trapped in there, hostage to some asshole psychic, I would've come for you, Phoenix be damned. I would have waited. I believed when you said you wanted me, no matter how utterly fucking ridiculous that idea was, no matter what anybody else fucking thought. My friends, your family, they could have fucked themselves through the eye. I took you out of your gilded cage, let you in, taught you how to shoot and showed where to hide, what was worth fighting for.

"And I thought you would be there." His voice plateaus somewhere below the volume of casual conversation, reduced by the constriction of his throat. There's either something wrong with the sink, or there's something wrong with him; Teo feels like he can smell the shit and sugar in everything, here. "That's what you fucking tricked me into giving you.

"That's what you tricked into me, Sal. I love— I loved you. So d—don't you ever fucking tell me that you didn't know me." Teo's voice dries up, finally. The last of it drained through the cracks of drought season that have long since begun to show.

"No, no that's what it started as, Teo. You know what that was to me? Huh?" Sal points at the broken shards on the floor. He's starting to lose control. The careful mask he's managed to keep up, to get by these last few weeks is starting to shatter. "That was the fucking shitty part of my life. The fake part. Yes. That's what it represented. But I couldn't just smash it. Breaking the thing wouldn't take away my frustration. I never hated it, I hated my life. But what you did? You made it bearable, Teo. You made it possible for me to get through the bullshit, superficial, meaningless parts of my life. You made me happy to come home. Because I had someone — "

Sal looks away, puts a hand to his face to stop the burning sensation in his eyes. "I tried to help you, I made it worse." His voice cracks as words try to make their way through a suddenly swollen throat. "I got someone killed. I was fucking useless." Despite the pain clenching his vocal chords, he manages to bark out that word.

When he speaks again, it's barely above a whisper. "And you, you've never denied that you love him, and you never said you loved me. So forgive me for having a fucking inferiority complex. I have been fighting for us for so long. Every goddamn step of the way. I don't have any fight left."

There's a show of teeth, short-lived, lacking the fuel to manifest a proper snarl. Teo's eyes hood, a desultory flutter, a blink broken up into three epileptic phases. "I would have kept trying. If you'd been in trouble, I would have kept trying. Changed Helena's mind, bet my fucking life on Sylar's chopping block, mourned the dead, do better.

"Not because I was the little lord leader of fucking Phoenix, or because I'm a ninja and you're another categorical Evolved in need of justice, or because Sir Teodoro by edict of nature or God has to. You know why I would've done it, even if I never fucking said the God damn thing. I was with you. All in, no pushing you at random bitches or doubting you fucking respected me, and if you think that was easy for me— if any of this was easy for me, you're an asshole or an idiot. But the minute I couldn't be there, you left. And you laid that across on my fucking doorstep.

"You were supposed to care." Teo's fingers curl on top of the kitchen counter, the blunt nails turned white under the creaking pressure of a dozen different physical reactions aborted before realization. There's nothing to fucking throw in here.

"That's because I'm not a hero," says Sal. "I'm not a leader, I'm not a fucking terrorist. Losing you was the worst thing that has ever happened to me." He laughs, but there's not one note of humour in that. "Considering what I know you've been through? That tells you a lot about my fucking scale of tragedy."

He cranes his neck up, rubs at the curve of his neck. And then, "You're right. I am a fucking coward. I could have done all of that. If I was stronger. If I was more like you. But I'm not. I don't know how to handle this shit. How was I supposed to know what to do when I lost you? Phoenix aren't my friends. And they were acting like you were just fine. Oh, I screamed and railed and cried monster until my lungs hurt. But they all believed it was you. So…"

He shifts weight. Bits of sculpture crack underfoot. "…I started to imagine I was wrong. That it was you. That everything we had was in my imagination. Fuck, Teo. How the hell was I supposed to save you from yourself?"

He looks back to the other, actually seeking eye contact for once. "All I could do was sit alone, heartsick, torn up inside because I didn't have a goddamn clue how to go about getting you back. And I had no one who would help me. Eventually yeah, I ran away. I ran away because it fucking hurt too much. And I felt like I'd already lost you."

After a moment spent seriously considering the outlet, Teo realizes he can't really kick the cabinets in here, either, despite the gratifying clangor they'd make— or they will buckle and tear off their hinges and Grace will yell at him. She's already going to have an acerbic croaking fit, with the sharded and powdered crap scattered across the tiles. This room feels too small. He doesn't know why he can recognize every inch of Sal's false face and achingly familiar clinch of posture, but his own still looks wrong in his peripheral glimpse of glass.

It's giving him a headache. All of this; he doesn't belong here, or now, but there is nowhere and nowhen else to go. "All you could do." There's a sharp breath of laughter, inhaled with cold air that can't quite offset the heat behind his face, and he studies his shoelaces. "Heroes, leaders, and terrorists don't pop out of the fucking womb that way. I do what I do because there's no one else to do it." I, I, I. He jerks his thumb at himself and isn't sure who he means. "When I was with you, I came up with the grace to admit it when I was scared, to be sorry when I fucked, and the balls to try and change.

"I never tried to cut you off like you were some kind of— fucking leprous l—

"And there was no one—" Hating the haze in his voice, he fills the silence with a grinding crack of broken statue parts, flattens one boot over a convex clump of ceramic, resists the urge to resort to searching for center and strength in the ghost's sociopathic equilibrium. He shakes his head. "Forget it. Fuck. I bet, and I lost. That's it. If you want to make believe like it was fucking inevitable, and that's somehow supposed to help, then… there isn't a damn thing I can do about it."

Sal is usually just as eager as Teo is to snap back with something pointed, something heartfelt, yet cutting. A good Italian fight, with passion and conviction, one part debate, one part argument, one part drag-out brokenhearted fight.

But something about what he says, or maybe how he says it that cuts through the pride, the self-involvement, the woe. He couldn't feel sympathy for Ghost, because Ghost didn't act like his Teo. But he sees enough in this man, whoever he is…

"I'm sorry."

Those two words are terribly quiet. "Terrorists don't pop out of the womb, like you say. And neither do people who are good at relationships. Especially…" well, under some pretty fucked up circumstances.

He rubs a hand over his face and inhales a breath that audibly shakes. "I handled this badly. I know I did. At the time, it felt like I had no choice. I had been tortured for months and every time I tried to talk to him, he sniped at me, made me feel so /horrible about myself. And trying to get to you meant dealing with him. And…" his voice cracks, "…getting you back meant killing him. And he's you. However fucked up, however lost, however much he hurt me, he was still you, in some form."

"The truth is, it was easier to believe you would leave me anyway. I've felt you pulling away ever since he got back. It felt like you were with me, because you felt like you owed me for…staying by you. For trying to be with you. But you never said the words. I needed to hear it, Teo. I really did."

Long hands go up, hook around the back of Teo's head. He scrubs at the bristle of his hair with a noise like chafing, scoring his calluses with shorn-short hairs, scoring his scalp with his calluses. He tries on a smile. It fits for all of three seconds before crumpling down into a smoking, moulding ruin of itself.

"You were going to," he says, eventually. "Probably a good thing you didn't; it doesn't look like the words or the sentiment mean to you anything like what they mean to me. "Listen."

There's a cough. Damp, faded into the collar of his own shirt. He drops his arms down to his sides, fingers spasming around crooked-angled fists like insects in the last seizuring throes of poisoned death. "I have to go. Sorry for making you feel horrible about yourself. It's hard not to share." You may have noticed. Teo's sinks his head down an inch between his shoulders, a penguin huddling against the cold or merely shaking itself loose for another swim. Hard to tell, really. He starts for the door.

Sal swallows the unbearable tightness, like a hand around his throat. He opens his mouth to say something, but no words seem quite right. His eyes, whether Sal or Sonny, are a bit too large for his face and telegraph emotions in ways he doesn't realize.

Indecision in a moment, conflict, fear. Hurt. Longing.

Hard to tell which of these things causes the sudden surge forward, the grip for his wrist, then to pull him in. It's…strange, unexpected, inappropriate. Unless he's violently pulled away, he claps Teodoro in a drowning man's embrace, thuggish, even. The way old warriors or football players might.

He squeezes and then speaks, though the words are through gritted teeth as he expects to be pushed off at any moment, "Whatever, whatever is wrong between us, whatever you…" a swallow. "…I'm so, so glad you're all right. And I hate the fact that I couldn't help you. For what it's worth? You made me fucking happier than I've ever been. And I hope you stop hating yourself. I'm sorry."

It's amazing that he managed to make any of that understandable, grit-teeth spoken, murmured as it was. And then he rocks back, having left salty dampness on the other man's shoulder, streaks down his cheeks. He turns away, back to the sink, shaking hands pointlessly searching for the sponge.

Teo's never actually hit the Mayor's kid before, and he isn't about to start now, though there's the scaffolding of unrealized movement delineated in the twitch of his arms when he's caught and held fast in the midst of retreat. He stays still while he's spoken to, and he stays quiet, his face locked stiffly in a mask of neutrality that's only a little bit belied by his going purple around the gills. Maybe he will get his poker face lie-to-Jesus fork-tongued mojo back tomorrow. Probably not: he's going to wake up hungover as Hell tomorrow, or so goes the plan.

"You're welcome," he croaks. He steps away. A subtle sifting of air pressure and parting kisses Sal cool on the streaky residue of his cheek, and then that, too, leaves him alone.

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