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and now all fear gives way

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Jon is fairly certain that nothing in his life has ever been better than being curled up at the end of a long day with his head in Martin's lap, half-watching reruns of an old comedy show and just enjoying the opportunity to rest, to lie here and not have to think of anything at all while Martin runs soft fingers through his hair. Later tonight, there will be nightmares, and tomorrow there will be more statements, but right now everything is good.

Martin chuckles a bit at the show, jostling Jon where he rests against his belly, and Jon snuggles in closer. He turns an eye toward the television, where a woman is running laps around her home in double-time because a man asked her on a date. Before he can think it through, he murmurs, "Is that what it feels like? Being in love?"

Martin's hand stills in his hair and Jon's stomach drops. He stops breathing, as if that could somehow suck the words back into his throat. He searches desperately for a way to take it back, but his mind is empty and he can't find any words that would outweigh the ones he's already said.

Jon twists around in Martin's lap, turning to look up at him, bracing himself for tears or disappointment or recrimination, but Martin’s face is calm and steady. Which, Jon thinks numbly, is possibly worse. "I–I didn't–"

"It's all right," Martin says, in the way that he always does when it's not all right at all but he doesn't want to make a fuss. His mouth twists around into something that tries valiantly to be a smile. "I can't say you didn't tell me at the start."

Which is true, actually; Jon's first woeful attempt at asking Martin out had been one of the more humiliating experiences of his life. He'd started out by listing every reason why no one with any sense should want to date him at all, and he'd been more than a little surprised when Martin had agreed in spite of it all. He should have trusted his first instincts, really, and known this was too good to be true.

Jon sits up – he can't stay nestled up against him like this when Martin is looking at him like that – and Martin twists his hands together in his newly-vacated lap. He probably ought to put a little more space between them, but he can't bear the thought of giving up Martin's warmth, not right now, when he's gone cold from the inside out. Selfish as usual.

Then Martin smiles, and it looks genuine, if a little sad. "It is, though, yeah." His face softens with some fond memory, and Jon flounders for a moment before he remembers the question he asked in the first place. "I could have run to the moon when you asked me to dinner, I was–" He breaks off, shaking his head. "Still am, really," he says, deliberately casual, though there's an audible strain in his voice that Jon can't parse.

"Martin..." There isn't anything to say to that, really; he can't say it's all right, because it so clearly isn't. And he can't say "I love you" because it isn't true. Is it? Jon has no idea. He doesn't know what it means, not really, and that deficiency has never been more clear than it is now.

"It's all right," Martin says softly, reaching out to take Jon's hand. "I'd be in love with you even if you still spent every day telling me how useless I am." Jon makes a wounded noise, and Martin smiles apologetically. "I'd be in love with you even if you never looked twice at me. This is better." When Jon doesn't respond, Martin squeezes his hand and fixes him with a firm stare. "I'm happy," he insists. "I'm happy that you're here, with me."

And Jon can't argue with that, even if Martin still looks a bit like he's ready to cry. He's done enough damage for one evening. "All right," he rasps, his voice catching in his throat as he tucks his head into Martin's shoulder, holding on tight. "I'm glad," he says, because that's true, if nothing else, and he holds on to that. He wants Martin to be happy. Martin deserves to be happy.

In the next few weeks, Jon tries to put a word to his feelings. It's as futile as it's always been. He's never been any good at identifying what he's feeling, really, aside from the glaringly obvious. What does remorse feel like, anyway, and how is it different than sadness? He's sure it must be, or people wouldn't complain so much about insincere apologies, but he's never been able to pin it down.

Love is worse, because people seem to use the word to mean so many things. He'd loved his grandmother. He'd loved Georgie – he thinks he still loves Georgie, although their circumstances have changed so much since they were dating that it couldn't possibly mean the same thing any more. (He loves the Admiral, which is far less complicated.) And he's fairly sure – he is sure, really, for all it's impossible to say – that he loves Martin, but he's hard pressed to find the difference between any of them.

Georgie had given him one of her therapy worksheets once, a full page with three long columns of words for emotions. Apparently having the words in front of you was supposed to help you find the right one. He'd tried it for a while, but it never actually seemed to help, only left him more frustrated and confused by the apparently massive list of things he doesn't feel.

He tracks down another one of those lists online. Actually what he does is search for "lists of feelings" and then spend a confused, hopeless hour comparing the many and varied alternatives. The sheer number of completely different lists doesn't help the feeling that this is all arbitrary, but he finally picks one at random and prints it off. Before he even looks at it he folds it up very small, until it won't fold any more, and then forces himself to unfold the paper again and actually look through it.

Jon's eyes skim over the negative emotions quickly, rejecting them as unhelpful and irrelevant, settling instead halfway down the page on loving. The gerund is no more descriptive than the noun itself, but it feels...less wrong. And then, just above it, loved. That, he can find no fault with; it feels like a warm glow deep in his chest. And, of course, that's not really how you feel about him at all, is it? He tries his best to ignore his own sarcastic commentary and continues reading.

It's impossible to read straight through without his eyes crossing, so instead Jon finds himself jumping across the page with a pencil in his hand, ticking off things that seem right. Admiration. Thankful. Fascinated. Reassured. Confused. Uncertain. Fortunate. Content. It doesn't paint a very flattering picture of him, he's afraid; there's nothing particularly passionate or overwhelming about that list, other than the way he recoils from the thought of losing what little he has. He folds the list up carefully along the creases and tucks it in his wallet. Maybe if he looks at it again later something will make sense.

He's drawing aimless circles in the margins of the list, contemplating the difference between happy and content, a week later while waiting for Martin to come home. There's an uncomfortable knot in his stomach that might be anxiety, or maybe concern. Or maybe hunger, that's also on the emotions list for some reason. He doesn't think it's hunger.

Jon re-folds the increasingly tattered paper, but doesn't get up when the door to Martin's flat – that isn't quite their flat but also feels more like home than his own, at this point – slams open and shut hard enough that the aging windows rattle. Martin doesn't like being fussed over at the best of times, but Jon knows that right now he's particularly sensitive to it. But the slamming continues in the kitchen, and, after a few minutes, Jon unfolds himself from where he's curled into the corner of the sofa to see if he can do something to help before dishes start breaking.

Martin is muttering under his breath, a litany of frustration that Jon is grateful he can't really hear; he doesn't want to know who the target is, because the other thing Martin can't stand just now is being told that he shouldn't talk about himself that way.

"How did it go?" Jon asks, wincing at the false cheerfulness he can hear in his own voice.

Martin's shoulders slump, his head still halfway in the cupboard. "Great," he says, his own false cheerfulness muffled by the cabinetry. "Mum's very happy. Lots of friends, so much to do. Not much time for catching up on what's going on in the rest of the world."

He emerges finally, slamming the cupboard door as he turns toward the next one. "Sorry," Martin says, though he doesn't sound it. "I know I'm being ridiculous, I'll stop in a minute." He wrenches open another cupboard, slams it shut when he still doesn't find what he's looking for. He slumps against the counter, defeated. "I shouldn't take it out on you," he says, a little more apologetically. "You do such a good job of putting up with me."

"Martin," Jon says, shocked, "I don't put up with you."

"Everyone else does," Martin mutters. "What would you call it, then?"

Jon's fingers curl around the folded piece of paper in his pocket. Of course he still doesn't have an answer; he usually tries not to think about his reasons because they always seem to come back to selfish and heartless and wrong. He knows so many things now, and he still doesn't know what's wrong with him.

"I love you," he says, because that's the right thing to say under the circumstances, isn't it? It must be.

"Do you?" Martin snaps back, and he flushes immediately with mortification, but he doesn't take it back. Instead he says, softer, more of an actual question, "Do you? Because I don't–you don't seem very sure of that."

Jon finally lets his knees give out, sitting down hard on the unforgiving kitchen chair. He can't do this and hold himself up at the same time. He twists his fingers together, staring at the pattern of scars as if they might give him an answer. "I don't know what you want me to say."

Martin is still giving him that helpless, pleading look, clutching the countertop so hard his knuckles have gone white, and he's had too much suffering already today for Jon to get away with adding to it. "Please," Martin says quietly. "Will you just–" He takes a deep breath. "I don't want to be a burden to you, too."

"You're not a burden," Jon says quickly, because he doesn't have to think about that one. "You're–" He takes a breath, stops to think, because he has to get this right.

"I don't know – I've never known what love means, I suppose. I loved Georgie, but I don't know that it was any different when we were dating than it is now. Maybe I've just never had enough friends." The laugh dies in Jon’s throat before it's more than a suggestion; it really isn't funny. Jon finds himself looking down at his hands again, twisted and scarred and awkward as the rest of him. He forces himself to look up, though he flinches away from meeting Martin's eyes. "I don't know what I feel. I don't know what to call it, what–" He sighs. "I find that – I think about you all the time. Or – I think about everything in the context of you. 'Martin would like that' or 'what would Martin say about this.' Because of course I'll tell you about it, it never occurs to me not to. I care about things I never cared about before, because of you – god, I even trapped a spider instead of killing it last week.

"I don't know – I don't want to do without you. I know I can't give you everything you deserve in return, and I can't blame you for wanting more. I–" He trails off, suddenly out of words again, because there's no way to apologize enough. But he's not quite ready to give up yet, so he tries anyway. "I'm sorry I can't be what you need."

The silence in the kitchen is deafening. Jon can hear the hitch in Martin's breathing over his own blood rushing through his ears, but he feels more grounded than he has in a long time. There's a horrible relief in saying it, finally.

He looks up when he hears the thud of Martin's knees hitting the floor in front of him. There are tears in his eyes, which Jon had expected. He's smiling, which Jon had not.

"You're kind of an idiot sometimes, you know that?" Martin untangles Jon's fingers to lace them with his own, then changes his mind, cupping his hands gently around Jon's face. He leans forward, slow enough to let Jon move away if he wants, and kisses him softly.

Jon blinks foolishly at him; it feels like the knots in his stomach have crawled up into his throat to strangle him. "That's...all right, then?" he rasps out, finally.

Martin makes a small incredulous noise and drops his head, leaning their foreheads together. "Yeah," he whispers into the space between them. "Yeah, that's good."

There are too many things going on inside him for Jon to make sense of any of them; the list he's all but memorized seems entirely inadequate to the task. He drapes his arms over Martin's shoulders in a loose hug and tries to breathe through what appears to be relief. "I didn't want to lie to you," he says quietly. "You're too important."

Jon can almost taste Martin's smile, they're pressed so close together. "I promise," Martin says, and he sounds genuinely happy at last, "I promise that if that's what you mean when you say you love me, I won't think you're lying to me."

A part of Jon wants to argue, to say that he's sure there's still something missing, that he doesn't want Martin to settle for anything less than what he really wants. But Martin says, "I love you," in a soft breath against his cheek, and instead of the usual echo of guilt in the hollow place where his love ought to be, it settles warm and welcoming into Jon's chest.

"I love you, too," he says experimentally, and for once it doesn't feel like any kind of a lie. Martin presses his smile into Jon's shoulder and Jon holds him tight, light-headed with relief and something that, according to the list tucked into his pocket, might be joy.