It’s strange, Oliver thinks, working at a spiritual supplies shop when his only faith is in the terrible black veins that guide him to death each and every night. Not bad, necessarily, just… strange. He can talk the talk about this magic tool or that, discuss tarot imagery and crystal healing until his throat goes dry, but none of it really rings true for him.
Some of their customers are the same, of course. They always browse the shop slowly, like they’re looking for something specific, and they always seem disappointed when they don’t find it. If Jane were still here (if she wasn’t dead, a traitorous corner of Oliver’s mind whispers) then she’d talk them into buying something, but Oliver has never been a natural salesman.
Michael Shelley is an exception, a regular customer despite his self-conscious skepticism. Oliver suspects he buys things out of guilt, picking items based on aesthetics rather than any spiritual connection, but he always greets Oliver with a smile and a tip, so he's a pleasant enough customer to have.
Maybe it's strange that Oliver isn’t surprised when Michael comes into the shop with black veins wrapped around his hands. It just seems right, in an awful pessimistic way.
The veins branch and spiral across Michael’s pale skin. The more Oliver looks, the more they seem to go on and on without a end clear. It’s headache-inducing to look at, but he can’t draw his gaze from the erratic way they shift against Michael’s long fingers. They’re creeping up his arms, pressing into his joints as though they're going to tear him apart. Oliver has no idea what that means.
Michael coughs. Oliver realises he’s being handed something for purchase. There’s a faint flush of embarrassment to Michael’s cheeks — he's still so alive, for the moment.
“Sorry,” Oliver murmurs, “I’ve not been sleeping well lately.”
“S’alright,” Michael replies, giving him a warm smile.
He takes Michael’s money, counting out his change silently. He’s not a brilliant conversationalist at the best of times, and he can’t help but be distracted by the signs of Michael’s inevitable fate. With most people, he can ignore it — but Michael is so kind, and Oliver desperately doesn’t want that kindness to disappear from the world.
“Free crystal,” Oliver says on a whim. “For good luck.”
“Oh!” Michael’s cheeks flush even deeper than before. Then he beams like all his dreams have come true, and Oliver forgets how to breathe. He's never seen such a pure, uncomplicated joy.
For all that he obviously doesn’t believe in anything they sell here, Michael takes his time reading the descriptions below each box of gemstones. He picks up a few, rolling them in his black-stained palms, and finally decides on a piece of rose quartz. The pale pink of it suits him well. Michael slips it into his jacket pocket, and directs that delighted smile at Oliver in full force.
“Thank you,” he says, so unbelievably earnest about his gratitude.
“Don’t worry about it.” Oliver's boss is going to kill him if she finds out, but he’s sleep deprived and Michael’s happiness is still making dimples in his cheeks, so her opinions don’t matter right now.
“Uh,” and now Michael’s smile fades into something hesitant. “Could I get your number, maybe? I mean, obviously not if you don’t want to, I just—” He’s already backtracking, nervousness turning into outright worry, looking towards the door like he’s going to run for it.
Oliver holds up a hand. He’s too tired to go for approachable, but he tries a smile.
“Sure,” he says, reaching for the pad of paper beside the till.
He hasn’t dated anyone since Graham. This won’t go anywhere, not with the branching veins that creep up Michael’s skin, but it might be nice for them both. It’s not a bad thing to try and give Michael some good memories in his last couple of weeks, is it?
All Oliver has to do is not get attached.
Predictably, Oliver gets attached. In hindsight, he curses himself for ever thinking he wouldn’t.
Michael smiles at strangers on the street, stops to pet every dog that passes, tips buskers, and gives spare change to the homeless. He has a row of succulents along the windowsill in his bedroom, and each of them has names and lush green leaves. He likes sugary drinks, and the one time they’ve kissed so far, his lips tasted like sweet tooth decay. His hair shines in the winter light, and it’s soft beneath Oliver’s hands when he finds himself idly brushing through it.
Oliver wonders if they’re moving a little fast, but it’s fairly clear that neither of them have much of a life outside of their jobs, and Michael seems grateful for every moment they spend together. Oliver can always feel the hourglass draining away, those corpse-cold veins curling further and further across Michael’s skin. He could spend forever watching their strange fractal patterns — or forever until Michael dies a few days from now, Oliver supposes.
Tonight, they’re in Oliver’s flat, curled up on his threadbare sofa underneath a pile of blankets. Despite his height, Michael seems determined to lean his head on Oliver’s shoulder. His bare skin is almost warm enough to ignore the way that his fingers feel dead already.
“I’m going away with work tomorrow,” Michael says, apropos of nothing. He puts on an annoyed expression, the frown comically exaggerated. “Miss Robinson says it’s somewhere Russian?”
“Sounds cold,” Oliver replies, wondering if it’ll be frostbite that does Michael in.
“I’ve got a warm coat.” Michael waves a hand dismissively, but he grins like he’s— flattered? “I don’t know how Miss Robinson is going to manage, but she keeps insisting she’ll be fine.”
Oliver makes a noncommittal sound, and Michael’s smile falters before redoubling, like a pointed application of enthusiasm will solve Oliver’s bout of melancholy.
“It was, uh, something Sannikova, I think. She’s already got everything sorted out.”
“Really?” It’s hard to feel interested when Oliver knows that whatever Michael’s boss needs him for in Russia, it’s going to kill him. “How long will you be away?”
“She didn’t say, but I’ve helped her around conferences before, and it’s never been more than a week or two.”
“I’ll see you when I get back, you know?” Michael bumps his shoulder against Oliver, eyebrows raised. “I’m not going to run off with some mysterious Russian gentleman, not even a dashing spy.”
That, at least, draws a tired laugh from Oliver.
“I’m not sure I could compete with a spy,” he muses.
“You could,” Michael insists, pressing his forehead to Oliver’s. “I know we haven’t really known each other that long, but no one could compete with you.”
“If you say so.” Oliver reaches up and pulls Michael into a kiss, desperate to stop thinking about his inevitable death. Right now, Michael is soft and warm and alive, all chapped lips and smiles. The pretense lasts until Michael’s fingers come up to brush Oliver’s cheek and Oliver flinches away from the cold.
“Oliver?” Michael’s voice sounds like it’s coming from very far away, drowned out by the rhythm of Oliver’s breathing, in and out and in and out. “Are— are you alright? Was it something I did?”
Oliver shakes his head. He’s not alright, but that’s not Michael’s fault. It’s just life.
“Can you stay here tonight?” Oliver hears himself asking, and Michael’s eyes go wide and wistful.
“I— I mean, I have to go home and pack, and— I don’t actually know when our flight out is—”
“Just for a while, then. Please.”
Whatever Michael sees on Oliver’s face, it makes his whole expression soften into something far less heartbroken. When he caresses Oliver’s cheek this time, telegraphing every movement, Oliver is able to brace for it. It’s still bad, but beneath it all, it’s Michael.
“For a while,” Michael echoes, nodding. Just for that, Oliver kisses him again.
He isn’t sure when they migrate from his living room to his bed. Somewhere along the way, he’s changed into his most presentable set of pajamas. Michael is in some of Oliver’s spare sweatpants, laughably short on him. He shivers when Oliver runs a finger over his bare ankle, his foot curling and uncurling reflexively.
“Are you ticklish?” Oliver asks, finding himself amused by the thought.
“Maybe.” Michael flushes, his whole face going a blotchy red. “I’m not sure.”
Oliver smiles, letting his hands dance up the softness of Michael’s legs. In the light of day, he always seems so thin, but close up, Oliver realises how much that’s just an optical illusion. He yields below Oliver’s touch, and Oliver can feel the way his muscles relax beneath the attention.
“Mm.” Michael’s eyes have gone half-lidded, a pleased smile curling its way across his face.
Oliver moves higher, pressing his fingers into the divots of Michael’s hips and getting a low groan in response. He brushes across Michael’s shirt, fluttering his fingers against the curve of his waist, and Michael laughs, his whole body shaking with the force of it.
“I’m ticklish,” he confirms, still giggling. “It’s official.”
“What kind of researcher are you?” Oliver teases, even though he knows that’s not precisely what Michael’s job is. “Further experimentation is required, isn't it?”
At that, Michael goes still. His eyes open wide, his smile fades into a thin line.
“We’re not having sex,” he says, a faintly questioning tone to the words.
“Not unless you want to.” Oliver pulls his hands away, trying to be reassuring. All this has been about making Michael’s last days as good for him as possible, even if Michael doesn’t know it.
It’s true that it would be a hell of a send-off, if Michael says yes. Graham always told him he was good with his mouth, and he can imagine it vividly; his lips and tongue on Michael, making him gasp and squirm until he can think of nothing but Oliver’s presence between his legs.
“I don’t,” Michael says, eyes flashing and hackles up. When Oliver just nods, preparing to turn over and leave Michael be, all that tension seems to fade. He reaches out and laces his fingers with Oliver’s, pulling him close. “But— if you want— keep touching me.”
Oliver doesn’t have to be told twice. The marks of death are tight against Michael’s skin, and it’s a process of trial and error to dodge them as Oliver works his hands underneath Michael’s shirt. He runs his fingers across Michael’s ribs, brushing the scars on his chest and moving higher until he hits Michael’s collarbones.
He pulls away so he can get a better angle to stroke Michael’s neck, his shoulders, running down the length of his arms— then stopping as the dark veins curl upwards to meet him.
They stay still like that for a while, Oliver’s hands on Michael’s elbows and Michael studying Oliver like he can draw out all his secrets just with his gaze. If Michael asked him what was wrong, Oliver doesn’t think he could do anything except tell the truth. He’d make a good Cassandra: gifted with prophecy, but unable to do anything with what he knows except live with it.
“We should go to sleep,” Oliver says, drawing away from Michael as though removing his touch will be enough to remove the marks of death spiralling across his skin.
Michael doesn’t push, though his lips purse and his eyes go very sad.
“I need to be up early,” he whispers. “I’ve got to pack.”
“I don’t mind if you set an alarm. I’d just like it if you were here.”
Michael stares at him for a moment, and a slow smile blooms on his face.
“You’re a bad influence, Oliver Banks.” Michael turns over to get his phone as he speaks. Despite everything, Oliver laughs; he almost can pretend that they’re a normal couple. The room fills with light as Michael sets an alarm, muttering under his breath.
Oliver turns onto his side, only shifting when Michael embraces him with a soft murmur of goodnight. Cradled in the arms of the nearly-dead, Oliver doesn’t dream at all.
Michael is getting up by the time Oliver is awake enough to register that the alarm is going off.
“Sorry,” Michael says when he notices Oliver is awake. He’s sliding out of the sweatpants Oliver lent him, already on the move. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“I normally wake up early. Just slowly.”
“Like the dead,” Oliver murmurs. It’s less funny than when he’d make the same comment to Graham, but it’s enough to draw some morbid amusement to his thoughts.
Michael graces him with a laugh, that harsh and beautiful thing that Oliver has heard so many times over the last two weeks. This will probably be the last time he hears it, Oliver thinks, wishing he had a better memory — he knows from experience that he’ll forget it once it’s gone.
As he watches Michael get changed, Oliver grabs his phone and begins idly browsing. Something occurs to him then, and he looks up the place Michael mentioned last night: Sannikova.
Michael glances up at him, worried, when he lets out a hollow laugh. Oliver waves him away, staring at the Wikipedia page with a rising sense of hysteria. Zemlya Sannikova is a land that doesn’t exist. No wonder Michael is doomed.
“I’ll see you when I get back,” Michael promises as he turns to leave.
For one dizzy moment, Oliver wants to tell Michael to stay. He wants to keep him here until his plane is long-gone and his boss is royally pissed-off with him. Maybe that could save him from the terrible death that awaits, Oliver thinks, giddy with the thought of it.
Michael turns, and Oliver can see dark veins caressing his jawline with their fractal branches.
Oliver should know better by now: he can’t save anyone. Michael is already as good as gone.
“See you,” Oliver replies, doing his best to smile.