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the hartnell rite of passage

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“Let’s watch some scary movies or something. ‘Tis the season, you know.”

“I’m fairly certain that’s only used for Christmas,” Irving drawled from behind the pages of the nature magazine he had been absent-mindedly flipping through for the past three minutes, putting it aside to narrow his eyes at Tom from across the room. “And I am not going to-“

“To do what? Be awesome and have fun and not be a complete self-centered nerd?” John’s words came from across the room a split second before a balled-up sock did, causing Irving to let out a splutter of indignation as he futilely tried to duck away from the projectile on the outdated and saggy couch he was currently seated upon. “What, does having fun like an actual human being go against Christian values or something?” He allowed himself to turn towards John enough to see the shit-eating grin that the older Hartnell brother was directing in his direction, and as soon as Irving’s eyes were on him John adopted a posture that was likely some attempt at a dramatic swoon, comically pitching his voice a few degrees higher. “Oh, nay! Thou canst not possibly watch-eth the moving pictures of the vile Pagan holiday! They be devices of the devil. If thou watch-eth them, he will surely come-eth up from hell and rip thy intestines out through thy asshole-“

“First of all, that’s not even how medieval speech works, you dick,” Tom hissed, chucking a pillow off of the couch in John’s direction as thunderous guffawing sounded from the corner of the room. “Second of all, stop making fun of my boyfriend, we’ve talked about this.”

“In my defense, he does make it so very easy, brother o’ mine,” John borderline sing-songed from the corner, chuckling again when Tom leveled an exasperated glare at him. “Fine, fine, I can take a hint. Enjoy your Holy Hand Grenade-ing or whatever. I’ll go get us refreshments.”

“How do you know he even understands that reference, John-“ Tom yelled, only to let out a defeated sigh as he was met with the sight of his brother’s back retreating up the basement stairs. Flopping back into the armchair that he had been seated in, Irving watched in amusement as the younger Hartnell lifted his hands in mock exasperation. “One of these days I will disown him. I swear to God, I will. I’ll throw all of his stuff out of his room while he’s sleeping.”

“You wouldn’t. Even I know better than that. You two are brothers, and you love each other. Even if you’re…not necessarily quick to show it, sometimes,” Irving murmured, standing up and crossing the room to plant a soft kiss to the top of Tom’s head. “I just wish at least one of your siblings would tolerate my presence.”

Tom squinted up at him incredulously then, raising one eyebrow. “What do you mean? Betsy likes you.”

"Betsy?” Irving borderline spluttered out, only a great deal of self-control keeping his mouth from falling open in shock. “Tom, your sister acts like she wants to murder me every time I so much as breathe in her direction.”

Tom gave a lazy kind of shrug then, leaning farther back in the chair for a moment. “She acts like that with everyone. Honestly, you should consider it a compliment that she hasn’t chased you out of the house by now. She loves terrorizing my friends even more than John does.”

“That’s boyfriend to you, first of all-“ he drawled out mock-sternly, a swift poke to the ribs earning him a muffled shriek from Tom. “And second of all, I fail to see how almost giving me a heart attack over a fake spider on a string qualifies as ‘not chasing me out of the house’. I was traumatized for weeks, Tom.”

“She kept laughing and asking if we could get you to hit that octave a second time,” Tom said, chuckling slightly before holding his hands up in surrender as Irving leveled a glare onto him. “To be fair, both Mum and I gave her a stern talking-to. I don’t think she’ll be pulling that trick again, at least. They both get worse around this time of the year, honestly. But enough about them. How about we forget the spooks and scares for a while and just watch a good old-fashioned scary movie?” The younger Hartnell was quick to wiggle his eyebrows in a way that was likely trying for seductive but failed miserably, causing Irving to let out a bark of laughter as he sank into the seat next to his newly gained boyfriend.

“And you’re sure that there are no other Halloween-related activities that we can attend to?”

“Trust me, John and Betsy already made quick work of the pumpkins and setting up decorations. And you of all people should know better than to trust me near cooking surfaces. I seem to remember telling you how Betsy had to keep me from pouring water on a grease fire once.” Tom snorted in embarrassment before continuing. “So watching movies it is, I’m afraid.”

“I’m not against the idea, before you say anything,” Irving spoke, shifting his weight to allow Tom to rise and begin rifling through the DVD cabinet. “It’s just that…horror isn’t exactly my go-to genre when it comes to partaking in film.” He only realized that he’d conveyed such potentially sensitive information to a Hartnell when Tom looked up from his shuffling, a wide grin on his face that made Irving instantly want to take back the words.

“Aww, is my strong stalwart boyfriend a wee bit scared of some spooky movies? And here I thought the Plagues were scary enough for any Christian.”

“I most certainly am not-“ Irving sputtered out, hackles rising instinctively before Tom was quick to clamp a calming hand around his shoulder, his next set of words much softer and less teasing.

“Hey, I’m joking, alright? If it’s any consolation, you can feel free to hold my hand through all the scary parts. And besides, I’m pretty sure my sister is already the scariest thing you’ll find in this household.”

“Maybe so,” Irving muttered, trying to push the memories of how he had always been considered a wimp by his peers for not partaking in the more horror-filled aspects of the holiday out of his mind. Somewhat tainted experiences of Halloween be damned, he could get through this. He could have a relaxing, pleasant evening with the one he had decided to share his life with, nosy family members and his own fear of anything even remotely emotionally distressing be damned. “And then after, we can do…whatever the Halloween version of kissing under the mistletoe would be.”

“Kissing under a spiderweb, maybe.”

“That sounds utterly disgusting,” Irving muttered, screwing his nose up as Tom chuckled beside him.

“We could make it work,” Tom drawled out, leaning in closer a moment after. “Or we could resort to just plain old kissing…”

Irving would have liked very much to return the gesture and then some- and indeed he had already subconsciously begun to lean into what was without a doubt the beginnings of a kiss- but the sound of John thudding his way back down the stairs and loudly shouting “HEY five feet apart at all times, assholes, no necking in the presence of the older brother" led instead to Tom bolting upright and grabbing yet another pillow off of the couch, diving towards his brother with speed that would put any professional track runner to shame while Irving was left to try and smother his hysterical laughter into the seat cushions.

***

In the end, they had decided on Poltergeist- after Tom had stopped loudly vowing that he was going to strangle his brother in his sleep, and after John had spent the better part of two minutes chucking popcorn kernels at both of them from his crouched position behind the couch- as Tom had insisted that it was a classic, and Irving himself had found said movie to be the most tame out of all the options they had to choose from. It was just a simple ghost movie, he had argued to his subconsciousness. At least that monster had no logical kind of proof behind it, no kind of scientific malady that could easily lead to producing a zombie or some other such biologically enhanced threat. He would be able to watch actors who were likely being paid a lower wage than what was required at the time race around in terror from a bunch of poorly rendered special effects, letting out what were quite obviously faked screams, and be able to laugh about it without having to cling to Tom’s side like some kind of overgrown koala. It would be fine. He would be fine. For once, he’d be able to get through a horror movie without anyone jeering at him for his decision to walk out halfway through.

But Poltergeist was anything but a regular ghost movie, as he was quickly finding out.

The damned clown scene had had him borderline crawling onto the younger Hartnell brother’s head to try and escape from the terror that had swept through him, almost as encompassing as the child on the screen’s had likely been, and in the end he had still settled for pressing his hands over his eyes as though that alone could banish the utterly traumatizing imagery from his brain. The chairs stacking themselves off screen had been even worse, and had only served to up his paranoia towards what else could have been going on in the house without the parents of the family noticing. By the time flaming skulls and corpses were popping out of the floorboards and the closets within the movie, it was a wonder that Irving hadn’t cut off circulation to Tom’s arm with just how hard he was gripping it. And still, some part of him didn’t want to look away. Some part of him was determined to make him watch the startling images that were flashing across the screen and commit them to memory, determined to make him see every single spine-tingling detail. He wanted to glance away so badly, wanted to make some excuse so that he might be able to get up and go lock himself in the nearest bathroom until the movie was over, but his goddamned sense of pride kept him rooted in one spot, watching the movie no matter how badly he wanted otherwise.

How anybody subjected themselves to this kind of experience willingly, Irving had no idea. He’d already felt a step away from having a panic attack several times throughout the movie, and only the fact that he was currently employing a death grip around Tom’s arm kept him from bolting right then and there.

But it wasn’t until he had relaxed enough from being in his partner’s presence to let his guard down, wasn’t until he heard a small voice so loudly that it sounded as though it was right next to him, that Irving finally felt the bolt of fear take full grip on his heart. Because when he leaned back and heard the small voice of a child next to his ear, saying the line from the movie that had given him chills down his spine just to hear it, it would have been an understatement to say that John Irving immediately shit bricks.

They’re heeeeeeeeereeeeeeeee.”

The effect was nearly instantaneous. Jolting back with his breath catching in his throat from the sheer level of terror that he felt in that moment, Irving very nearly lost his balance and toppled over the back of the couch altogether, and only Tom flinging his arm out at the last moment to stop his momentum kept him from doing so. Eyes darting wildly and breath heaving, Irving sat up in a flash, his body still tensed and fully prepared to bolt from the creepy little girl or the possessed clown or whatever it was that had escaped from the movie screen and made it into the real world in an attempt to terrorize him- up until he heard loud cackling from the corner of the room, and turned just enough to see Betsy leaning across the arm of the couch, wearing the smuggest look that he had ever seen on her face as she alternated between a hysterical fit of laughter and yelling to John from across the room.

“I told you I could scare Tom’s prissy boyfriend! I told you. You-“ A gulp of air in order to recover from the force of her laughter, and then she was continuing. “You owe me ten quid. Bloody hell, that was hilarious.”

For a moment it was all Irving could do to stare at her incredulously, his mouth working not unlike that of a stunned goldfish as he tried and failed to make properly stern words come to the forefront of his mind. Part of him was still absolutely terrified, yes, and mortified that he could have fallen for such an obvious scare tactic so easily- but another part of him was impressed with just how easily Betsy had been able to see the potential advantage of the situation, and just how quietly she had managed to sneak up on the two of them while they were in the midst of their movie-watching. The tangle of confusing emotions that he felt in that moment had rendered him absolutely speechless, and for a moment he simply gaped at the Hartnell sister, trying to wrestle his rapid breathing back under control.

Thankfully, it seemed Tom was much more willing and able to fire off a response to their scare. “Betsy!” he snapped, rising from his seated position to go confront his sister. “What did Mum and I tell you about pulling pranks on my boyfriend? You saw how much that stupid spider prank got to him, and I thought that was bad enough. Do you really have to go and terrorize every single person that I try and bring over to the house-“

“Tom,” Irving finally managed to croak out, but it seemed that the youngest Hartnell brother wasn’t quite finished.

“I’ll get Mum to stop you from going trick-or-treating this year, see if I won’t-“

“Tom.”

“And don’t act like you don’t care, because I know you were looking forward to showing off your Dracula costume to that lad down the street-“

“Tom, stop.” His power of speech had finally returned enough for him to borderline snap out the words, holding one hand up in a request for silence to further punctuate them. “It...wasn’t actually that bad. In fact, I’m honestly surprised she managed to sneak up on me, given how high-strung I was throughout that entire blasted movie.” A sputtering laugh came from the corner of the room- possibly John trying and failing to contain his amusement over the entire situation- but Irving wisely chose to ignore it as he continued. “And the scare was...honestly more bearable, knowing that you were here.”

“Hold on. John Irving, the man who literally won’t go within five feet of a Halloween store unless I bloody well drag him in there, the man who thinks haunted houses are “a waste of time”, actually enjoyed being scared by my gremlin of a sister?” Tom leaned forward to poke Irving in the chest then, an incredulous look crossing his face. “Who are you and what have you done with the real Irving? Because if this is some kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers bullshit, I’m not falling for it.”

“I have absolutely no idea what that means,” Irving sputtered out, shoving Tom’s arm away while trying his best to actually sit upright on the sagging couch. “But it’s true. Having people I actually know and....sort of trust here made the scare...well, it wasn’t any less effective, but it didn’t feel like some kind of cruel joke, either. I’ve seen the way you three all interact with each other, and...it feels more like you’re trying to include me in the fun than laugh at me.”

“Irving, my dude, you’re practically like a member of the family now,” John drawled, walking up to sling an arm around his shoulder like a friendly and slightly drunken cowboy. “A really bloody awkward member of the family, but still. ‘S why we fuck around with you all the time.” 

“If the whole spider trick didn’t make you run out into the street screaming that we were all lunatics, I don’t know what will,” Betsy added, her speech turning into a startled yelp as John reached over to shove her off the arm of the sofa. Poking her head up a moment later, she beamed widely at Irving, the expression having the effect of making her look not unlike a particularly devious prairie dog. “You’ve passed the Hartnell rite of passage and then some.”

“Does the rite of passage have to be traumatizing them?” Tom whined. “Honestly, I’m sure half the block thinks we escaped from a mental asylum or something, with the number of boyfriends you two have chased out of the house.”

“Can’t prove that we didn’t come from one,”  Betsy proclaimed loudly, snatching a piece of popcorn from the bowl despite Tom’s loud exclamation of protest. “‘Sides, they give you nice padded clothing if you live there.”

“All your other boyfriends were wimps. Can’t take the heat, get outta the kitchen, or whatever,” John added from his precarious position of still having his arm slung around Irving’s shoulders. “Irving here is made of tougher stuff. He survived the Plagues or whatever. He probably went through the Inquisition.”

“First of all, I am not nearly that old, and secondly I’m not even Catholic, the Inquisition has nothing to do with-” 

“I’m joking, less cool John, sheesh,” the older Hartnell chuckled, raising one hand to give the beginnings of a noogie to Irving before he was able to wriggle free of John’s grasp. “Come on, get a sense of humor, I’ve seen staffs of wood that were less rigid than you.” 

“So you did actually like the movie? And getting scared?” Tom finally piped up, offering his hand for Irving to take. “Because honestly, we don’t have to go back to it if you don’t want to. We can just sit and play that card game that Betsy has been pestering me about for the past month.”

“I liked spending time with you. The movie doesn’t really matter,” Irving murmured, turning to give a small kiss to Tom’s cheek before frowning. “But make me watch another movie with a bloody demonic clown in it and I will kill you.”

“We could choose a slightly more tame movie next time, I guess.”

“I vote Underworld! It’s got werewolves in it, and a guy that looks like your friend James if he, like, didn’t shower for a month straight,” John piped up, smirking slightly. “And no demonic clowns anywhere! That I know of.” 

“We are not watching the bloody Underworld movies, they’re badly acted and badly written and I swear Michael Sheen is the only good part of any of them and Betsy I swear to God stop stealing from the popcorn bowl and get your own, freeloader-” And as the three launched into yet another spirited sibling argument, Irving had to once again turn over to smother his amused laughter into the couch cushions, smiling widely in spite of himself.

Maybe this Halloween wouldn’t be a total bust after all.