Most years, Tim does actually sit himself down to think about New Year’s Resolutions. Not because he has a particular fancy for new year new me type mentalities (largely because he thinks that aside from some minor personal flaws like drinking milk straight from the bottle and not liking sweet potatoes he’s usually an okay sort of person) but because it’s a shape for the year to take.
So far, it’s worked out pretty well. It goes like this: the year 2000, fifteen going on sixteen, Tim Stoker sits himself down on his bed and says with the utmost solemnity that he has been in conference with the vast comic entities that guide their lives, and he has analysed the stars and the tea-leaves, and an absolute truth—stop laughing, Danny—is that he will ask Lauren F out on a date. Sure enough, June rolls around and Tim plucks up his courage and arranges to sit down with Lauren in Nandos in Camberwell, flushed with success and self-belief even if he leaves vaguely put off Lauren by the whole experience (I mean come on, Danny, who orders a lemon and herb quarter chicken with a side salad, that’s not the energy I need in my life, I can’t bring her to meet the aunties after church, they’ll eat her alive).
Some years are more successful than others. 2002 was going to be the year that Timothy Stoker, being of sound mind and shaky hands, would get behind the wheel of a car and learn to drive. Every so often, even now, his mum makes some quip about “2002 being a really long year” and Tim has to roll his eyes and say that having a car in London is expensive and pointless and not very eco-friendly and anyway, London has tubes and buses and trains and what’d he do with a car anyway? The fact that on his third lesson he nearly went the wrong way round a roundabout has nothing to do with it, thanks, Mum.
The point is, each year has a shape to it. Tim thinks about what he wants, where he is, where he wants to be. 2005 was the year he went travelling, tried rock-climbing and skydiving and kayaking and scuba-diving, the year of new experiences and putting off any idea of adult responsibilities before finally being let loose into the real world. 2009 was the year he got the job at Faber and Faber, the year he started the trajectory to being big in publishing—it’s laughable now, but at the time he was so excited. 2013 was going to be the year of fun and romance and cheeky flings, and halfway through became the year that he lost Danny instead, the year he left the job he loved and came to the Magnus Institute instead.
New Year’s Eve 2016 finds Tim Stoker at his kitchen table where normally he’d be watching the fireworks from the South Bank, or crammed in with thousands of other people in Soho trying to get into clubs before the queues get too long, or at a friend’s house in Tooting promising that yeah, swear down we’re going to go out, give it half an hour and we’ll get the taxi only to still be sprawled on the threadbare sofa at midnight, cheering and merry and probably wearing a sparkly hat or some novelty glasses, yelling at the top of his lungs and reaching for the closest person for a kiss or a hug or a playful ruffle of their hair, to be held, to feel connected.
Suffice it to say that this year he doesn’t feel connected to anything much. On the 31st January 2016, Tim’s boss has been acting stranger and stranger. His best friend has a new boyfriend, which is fine, and has barely even looked at him in months, which isn’t. His other friend is trying to hold the world together with smiles and cups of tea, and Tim is desperately, agonisingly lonely.
So 2017, he decides, is just going to be a year. The year he gets through. The year he survives.
To his credit, so far, he’s done just that. The universe folded itself inside-out around him, and he wandered impossible corridors and found out that Sasha is dead—has been dead—and with her all any authentic memories of her smile or her laugh or the way she teased him (unless she never teased him and he’s making all of that up, he could just be making all of that up)—he’s seen the body of an old man in Jon’s office and the look of worry and heavy, heavy grief settling onto Martin’s soft features, but he’s here. He’s survived. He is surviving. One breath in, one out, rinse and repeat for another day, another week, another year, another thirty. Maybe next year, things will be different.
The thing is, in order for 2017 to be the year that he survives, it would be really helpful if he could avoid any sort of deathly situation. That makes work difficult for a start, since he still finds himself flinching every time he sees something that could be a worm (it never is, though, it’s just a moth, a silverfish, a spider). He’s uneasy around doors, now, too. Doors. As if his life isn’t pathetic enough, now he finds himself wondering whether he could afford moving into a flat that’s a little more open-plan—a studio, even—if it’ll mean that he doesn’t have to set his hand on the doorknob on his way to bed and wonder if he’ll be sucked into something that will chew him up and spit him out again.
In Jon’s absence, it’s been business as usual in that Tim’s done sweet fuck all regarding spooky statements or evil admin or whatever it is that Elias wants from him. Since running isn’t an option—and he still shudders at the thought of feeling that weak again, barely clawing his way onto the 88 to get into work, holding onto the handrail with white-knuckles and loathing how much better he felt as soon as he crossed that hated threshold—he has to be here. The statements flow in, flow out. Martin deals with them, mostly, that look of pointed, determined cheerfulness on his face. Just once Tim wishes Martin would cry or shout or something, anything except this stiff upper lip, this we’ll get through this stoicism that makes him feel like he’s being infantile for hurting this much.
And then that address on his desk. It’s not Jon’s handwriting, Tim thinks, unfortunately familiar with his chicken-scratch scrawl (doctor’s handwriting, his dad would say). It’s not Elias’ either, nor Martin’s. For one hideous moment Tim stares at it wondering if that’s what Sasha’s handwriting used to look like, but if she were sending messages from beyond the grave Tim would like to think there’d be a bit more to them than initials and an address. A hi, maybe. A heart. A smiley face. Anything he could hold onto, anything he could touch.
MC, it says. And then the address of what Google Maps tells Tim is some riverside development in London Bridge, seconds away from Borough market, views of the Shard and St Paul's. Fancy.
No further information, no clues. But hey—it’s an excuse to get out of the office, isn’t it? A bit of fresh air. And if it is another deadly situation into which he’s blithely wandering, well, so be it. This year is the year that he survives—he’s written it in the stars, he’s seen it in the tea-leaves—so fuck it. Why not?
He’s feeling a little less cavalier about it by the time he actually knocks on the door.
It’s not like he’s a stranger to popping up at strange addresses and trying to finagle his way into getting information. The annoying thing is that he’s actually very good at it. Amazing what people will tell you if they think you’re there in an official capacity—morning, I’m here from the gas board, couple of your neighbours called to say they could smell gas so I just need a bit of a poke around your wires and your boiler and such, that okay?—and yeah, it’s the oldest excuse in the book, but it still works. And then people linger, because nobody likes to let a stranger into their house, and offer tea and hover about, and you just offer up sticks for them to grab, one by one, like “pretty sure I saw this street in the paper a while ago, didn’t I?” or “lot of broken windows next door, they always been like that?” or even sometimes “you look a bit tired, mate, everything okay?” and really, people just want somebody to talk to when it comes down to it, so out the stories come.
Normally, though, he’s prepped. He knows what he’s looking for. Maybe a year or so ago if Jon had slapped down an address and the initials MC he’d be au fait and on top of the current cases, able to join the dots. But it feels like weeks since he last read a statement or a fact find and took any of it in, so he might as well be knocking on Macaulay Culkin’s door for all he knows.
Well, no. He knows that the bloke’s name is Michael Crew because there are pigeon holes downstairs for the post and Tim had peered into one to see a handwritten letter postmarked from America addressed to Michael Crew Esq. so apparently he’s the type of man who receives handwritten letters from someone who writes with bright, bright blue ink and a fountain pen. He lives in an absurdly expensive flat and he gets handwritten letters, he’s clearly minted, probably some private-school, corporate type with a tailored suit and emerald tie-pins and not one human facet to him, probably—
The man that opens the door is tiny. Five foot if he’s an inch, and Tim has to do an odd little half-step backwards to get a proper look at him without bending down. He’s not wearing a suit. He’s wearing a cropped black t-shirt with a spaceship on it and checked pyjama pants, topped off with a long woollen cardigan approximately three sizes too big for him. He’s barefoot, toes curling against the plush carpet.
And he’s got a huge sodding lightning-strike scar arcing over his cheekbones and temples and disappearing under the collar of his shirt, yeah, but it seems rude to comment on that first, even internally, so Tim looks down at Michael Crew’s bare feet instead, and then up again.
He’s not used to being lost for words. He’s about eighty percent sure that he’s just woken this man up judging by the way his hair is in disarray and he seems to be stifling a yawn, rubbing the heel of his hand over his face and dragging his fingers through his hair before blinking up at Tim, eyebrows raised.
“Er—look, I-” Damn. Shit, fuck, etcetera. If Tim had known that a six month leave of absence from any pretence of work would rob him of any ability to bullshit for Institute reasons, he might have tried to keep up his skills a bit more. “Sorry. Michael Crew, isn’t it?”
“Mmhm. Mike.” He’s oddly at-ease for a man standing on the sixtieth floor of a flat in his pyjamas confronted by a total stranger. “Can I help?”
“Yeah. Er—maybe. My name’s Tim.”
“Nice to meet you, Tim. Selling something?” Mike asks mildly, and Tim blinks back at him, briefly taken-aback.
“Why? Buying something?” It pinballs between his ears and straight out of his mouth before he can bite it back, and Mike gives him a look like he’s just dribbled on himself, which—yeah, fair enough. It’s not his best line. Tim grasps for the smooth, charismatic persona that he’s spent years grafting for, finding a speck of composure and clinging to it like a drowning man. “Sorry. Sorry. That was, er—look. My name’s Tim-”
“Yeah, you did mention-”
“-and I’m from the Magnus Institute,” Tim ploughs on valiantly, rewarded by a tilt of Mike’s head and a purse of his lips as he regards him thoughtfully.
“Right. I was expecting someone else,” he says finally. Which doesn’t clear things up much given that Tim highly doubts Martin is in the habit of hanging around with men who live in flats like this, and Jon’s currently on the lam so not much help there, but it does mean that Mike was expecting someone. Maybe Elias gave him the lead. It’s enough of a risk for Tim to be back on his guard again, shrugging at Mike.
“Sorry. If it helps-” and maybe honesty is the best policy here, since one look at Mike has the words don’t bullshit a bullshitter flashing through Tim’s mind and sticking there like letters through Brighton rock, “I’m not really sure why I’m here. Your address popped up on my desk.”
“That so?” Mike grins, sharp and sudden. “Here I am, ex-directory and everything, and people are still handing out my address? Can’t trust anyone these days.”
Ex-directory? Tim’s almost certain that nobody’s said that since the nineties, but before he can mould that thought into something more coherent Mike’s stepping back, reaching into the pocket of his pyjama pants and tugging out a phone to tap at it. “You’d better come in, then. Cuppa?”
“Yeah, er—have you got any coffee?” Tim asks, because he finds he can’t drink cups of tea these days without Martin’s reproachful face swimming into his mind’s eye, and Mike nods, slipping his phone back into his pocket.
“‘Course. Milk, sugar?” Mike throws this over his shoulder as he turns away, Tim following because the alternative is standing out in the corridor like a complete muppet.
On a first inspection, Mike’s flat seems normal enough. There’s all the posh furniture that comes with flats like these, a tasteful palette of blues and greys, glass side-tables and clever storage space. The far wall of the flat is a huge, sweeping wall of glass, one big window looking out onto the sparkling ribbon of the Thames and the skyline. It’s breathtaking, honestly. The whole flat smells strange, too. Sort of clean, sort of not, the weird, sharp, chemical smell of an open field after heavy rain.
Mike’s pottering around in the open-plan kitchen-cum-living room-cum-dining room that takes up most of the space in the flat, fiddling with a coffee machine that looks like it’s come straight from Heston Blumenthal’s wet dreams, so Tim turns away to start looking at things a little more closely rather than interrupt him.
The bookshelves aren’t taken up with much except knick-knacks and tchotchkes, but Tim leans forward to take a look anyway. There’s a birthday card on one of the bookshelves that catches Tim’s eye, mainly because it’s a splash of red and yellow in amongst all of the blues, a cartoon character—The Flash—on the front. Next to that, a photograph of what looks like an Arctic panorama, all icebergs and steel-grey waves, the angle of the picture oddly warped and tilted. Next to that, a packet of what Tim recognises eventually as astronaut ice cream, which has him shaking his head in disbelief.
“Souvenir?” he asks, picking it up and turning back towards Mike. “Honestly, I haven’t seen this since primary school—one of my mates came in telling people that in space they eat ice cream for breakfast and for the next three years I wanted to be an astronaut.”
“Mmhm.” Mike leans over the kitchen island, chin propped up on one hand. “Present from someone, thinks she’s funny. She got me this too.” He gestures to his spaceship t-shirt. “Glows in the dark.”
“You a big space fan, then?” Tim asks, and Mike gives him an odd look before sliding a mug of coffee over towards him, gesturing for him to take a seat at one of the barstools next to the island.
“Did you do much research before you popped round, Tim?”
“Not much, honestly. I’ve been on a bit of a sabbatical lately.”
“So you thought you’d just let me take the lead, yeah? Tell you my story, let you take notes, send you off on your merry way?”
“Sounds good to me,” Tim replies cheerfully, taking a sip of his coffee—too hot, it scalds the roof of his mouth, but it’s excellent—and giving Mike his best grin, all winsome charm, the grin he’s been given to teachers and bosses and relatives who saw him rarely enough to believe in his innocence since he was three years old.
Mike grins back, surprisingly, dark hair falling into his eyes and over those pale lines of scar tissue against his skin. Ragged, branchlike lines, like someone’s carved into a painting or a photo, scored him through. And the lines don’t seem quite right—trying to follow them with his eyes is like inspecting an Escher drawing too closely, Tim tying himself in knots trying to make them make sense. He blinks, looking down into his coffee until the sudden wave of vertigo passes him by and leaves him feeling a little steadier. Mike’s expression hasn’t changed.
“Thing is, I don’t really know what it is you want to know,” he says. “I don’t know what you know already. Enough to have come round to find me, granted, but I’m not sure I’ll be much help.”
“Well-” and he has a point, he does, and Tim really ought to have done the damn research before he turned up, but he’s here now so he’ll have to just lie in the bed he’s made, “have you had any odd encounters lately? Things you can’t explain, things that don’t seem to make any sense, maybe almost paranormal?”
Mike stares at him again, that same strange, heavy look, like he’s trying to unpiece him from the inside out. Tim shifts a little on his stool, abruptly uncomfortable, and clears his throat.
“Right, okay, er—never mind that one. Let’s start with a different one. Um—what is it you do? To afford a place like this, I mean?” he asks, gesturing around himself at the frankly palatial surroundings. Mike’s smile doesn’t come back. He leans forwards a little, drumming his nails against the marble top of the island. They’re painted, chipped black and silver polish.
“I’m in advertising,” he says slowly. “Augmented reality advertising. Would you like to know how it feels to chew five gum?”
Tim doesn’t get a chance to finish the question. The air is abruptly ripped from his lungs and the world lurches nauseatingly beneath him and he shuts his eyes tightly against what must be an eventual impact, like hurtling down Stealth at Thorpe Park in the summer holiday of his second year at uni, like going on a waltzer for the first time at Brighton pier at the age of six, showing off to Danny and regretting it fiercely, like bouldering in Petrohrad and feeling his foot slip, sending him crashing down— There’s no impact. The fall goes on, and on, and on, and Tim can feel his hands clenched tightly against the edge of the stool, can hear Mike’s calm voice over the rush of wind past his ears.
“You know, the weird thing is, I really don’t know if you’re trying to fuck with me or not,” Mike sighs. “I mean, it seems a pretty stupid thing to do, all told, and I didn’t think your Institute was in the habit of hiring stupid people. And I just can’t think what you think you’d stand to gain from it. But if you’re not trying to fuck with me, I really don’t know what to make of you. This can’t be your normal routine, just showing up like the human equivalent of a spam email and chancing your luck to see what happens.”
Mike takes a sip of his tea and Tim opens and closes his mouth, trying for speech and finding that his throat can’t close properly around the words, can’t even flutter around a scream though God, he’d like to scream right now.
“Anyway,” Mike wrinkles his nose. “If you want my story that badly, Tim, you can have it. Maybe you’re just out for the adrenaline rush, hey?”
The air pressure lessens, Tim dragging in an uneven breath as Mike gives him an expectant look. He still feels like he’s teetering, caught in that split-second of awareness, the moment of realisation that a fall is going to happen before it quite starts, knuckles white.
“Well? What is it? Got a death wish or something?” Mike asks, back to that mild, patient tone, and Tim shakes his head hurriedly. He shakes his head. Why does he shake his head?
“Hm. Fair enough.”
Just like that, all at once, Tim’s back on solid ground, and he slumps across the kitchen island like a beached fish, burying his face in one folded arm and stifling what feels like the scream coming in far too late, making up for lost time.
He might not know much about men with lightning-bolt scars, but he’s read enough statements about open skies and fathomless seas to have an idea of the sort of thing he might be dealing with here, and for the first time he feels the appropriate level of terror creeping in, lodging icy fingers in his spine and pulling him back upright.
“That’s how it feels to chew five gum?” he croaks finally, and Mike laughs, clearly surprised.
“Yeah. Think it’s a winning campaign?”
“I reckon you’ll get some traction. I—urgh. Fuck. I’m-”
“You’re not going to be sick, are you?”
Tim shakes his head but clamps his lips tightly shut all the same, fixing trembling fingers around the heat of his coffee mug and trying to ground himself with that.
“So. My story, was it?” Mike sighs, and Tim’s more than happy to let him talk while he pieces himself back together, feeling the odd, bubbling surge of adrenaline filling him like champagne bubbles. It was like this after skydiving, too, after bungee-jumping in South Africa, a few seconds of heart-stopping terror followed by an awareness of being alive that had lingered for hours afterwards, had left him giggling like an eejit and hugging his friends, hugging strangers, hugging anyone.
Mike keeps talking. Tim picks up a few things here and there. Something about Ex Altiora—that rings a bell, he remembers that statement—and some other books with it, the idea of an awful, fearful experimentation with oneself. Moulding, crafting oneself for a new life.
Tim wonders, just for a moment, whether Mike knows much about circuses. And then he wonders whether, if he stepped from the window of Mike’s sixtieth-floor flat, he might find himself cradled in the vast hands of something larger that would free him from the Institute, from all of it. A way out. A way forwards.
Maybe Mike sees something like that on his face because he pauses, tilting his head at Tim.
“Are you much of a fan of rollercoasters?”
“Yeah,” Tim mumbles, still hoarse. “Yeah, I am. Used to beg my mum to take me to Chessington when I was little.” His lips twitch, something like a smile —there’s the adrenaline, there it is, that fizz under his skin, that shuddering in his fingers, halfway between panic and delight and drunkenness—and he shakes his head. “Why, you offering me a job in advertising?”
“You don’t strike me as much of a Watcher, and I’ve met a couple,” Mike replies simply. “But there’s more to it than adrenaline. It helps if you’re not anchored.”
“Right.” It’d be a sobering thought if Tim felt anywhere close to sobriety right now. He opens his mouth to say more but there’s a knock at the door—heavy, uncompromising—that has the both of them freezing, Mike’s brow furrowing in instant suspicion.
“Did you bring anyone with you?”
Tim shakes his head mutely and Mike frowns, eyes narrowed, the world poised on that precipice again—Tim grabs at the edge of the counter, more than ready to start falling all over again—
And an instant later Mike’s on his feet, swearing as he drags a hand through his hair, the pressure around Tim releasing all over again.
“Shit, it’s my Deliveroo. Sorry. My memory’s fucked,” he calls over his shoulder as he goes for the door, returning with a paper bag and tearing it open. “Sorry about that,” he says again once he’s come back, and he does sound genuinely sincere, which is downright weird as far as Tim’s concerned, but he’s not going to complain. “Do you want some gyoza?”
That does it. Tim’s too shaken and too completely unsettled by today not to shatter into helpless giggles at being offered dumplings by the man that’s just sent him hurtling through the air, and Mike has the nerve to look indignant at being laughed at while he’s halfway through unpacking his lunch, which only makes Tim laugh harder because this entire situation is too bizarre, too surreal, and Christ, hasn’t it been a long time since he’s laughed like this?
“Thrilled you’re having a good time there, Tim—” Mike begins but Tim lifts a hand to stop him, still laughing too hard to reply properly, clenching his teeth against it because he’s shaking helplessly now like a plastic bag tossed in a hurricane, turning over and over, and—and—
“Oh, fuck,” Mike says with sudden dread. “Tim.”
Fair enough. Tim doesn’t know how he’d react to a stranger shattering into hysterical tears at his kitchen table, but he can’t imagine it’d be good.
“Jesus,” Mike mutters, hopping off his stool—his feet don’t meet the floor when he’s sitting down, Christ—and clattering around with the cupboards, returning with a glass of water. “Look, just—drink that, will you? C’mon. It’s alright.”
“I’m fine-” Tim chokes out, for the sake of his dignity, and Mike fixes him with a dubious look.
“You’re going to make your coffee salty. Deep breaths.”
“That is rich coming from you—”
“Well, if you don’t take deep breaths I’ll just have to suffocate you a bit more,” Mike says, like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world, and Tim scrubs a hand over his face, grimacing.
“Kinky,” he mutters, deflecting because it’s the safest possible thing to do, and Mike heaves a put-upon sigh.
“That is at least the second time you’ve tried it on with me. One more and I might start to think you’re serious.”
“Oh, and this is your type, is it? Crying men?”
“Sometimes. I mean, crying can happen. I sort of prefer a lot of other stuff to happen first, but…” Mike’s smiling, Tim can hear it in his voice, and given that this is a man who is probably some sort of eldritch horror-being he really ought to be worried by that, but he...but he isn’t. But he isn’t. Maybe he’s just not got enough fear left in him for today. Wouldn’t that be nice.
“This is definitely the weirdest interview I’ve ever done,” he says finally, taking a gulp of the water and drying his face on his sleeve, watching Mike dig into some sort of udon dish with a pair of wooden chopsticks.
“Yeah, well, it’s not been all that normal for me either. I’d have thought you’d be more used to this stuff than I am. You Eye lot are always weird.”
Tim wrinkles his nose, dragging in a few more breaths until the urge to dissolve back into hitching sobs abandons him for the time being, feeling—oddly, a little cleansed. Adrenaline-rush, a near-death experience, a hint of hysteria. Maybe that’s all he needs to shake him back to life. Chance’d be a fine thing.
“What do you mean you Eye lot? Who else have you met?” he asks, and Mike shrugs.
“One or two. S’hard to keep track of the names. There was an old lady. Oh, and Keay, but he’s gone quiet.”
“Keay…” another familiar name, Tim’s sure of it. He shelves that one for later, too. “How did you know him?”
“See, he asked a lot of questions, too. Bad habit in you lot.”
“That’s definitely deflection.”
“Mm.” Mike pulls the sleeves of his cardigan over his hands, shrugging. “Yeah, well, I’m not giving all my secrets away. Suffice it to say that I know that your lot are annoying about asking questions. And that I don’t reckon you’re cut out for the job.”
“Well, I’m a bit stuck with it,” Tim scoffs. “It’s not like I have much of a choice. It doesn’t sound like anyone gets much of a choice, not with bug women running around and murderers on the loose and the Institute draining me if I go too far away from it…” he shakes his head, good-humour abruptly leaving him. He has the statement, for what it’s worth. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter.”
“That’s the spirit,” Mike says jovially. “For what it’s worth, you’ve always got a choice. I mean, not necessarily a good choice. Lesser of two evils. This life, I chose this, I’ll take whatever comes with it.”
Like murder. That’s implicit, Tim thinks, knowing what little he does about whatever else is happening in the world right now. Deaths—horrible deaths—have been fairly consistent wherever creatures like this exist. Mike doesn’t seem especially concerned by that.
“I don’t think I’ve got that in me,” he says honestly and Mike shrugs.
“No skin off my nose. I mean, you can see it has perks,” he waves around at the flat and Tim snorts.
“Yeah, how do you afford this?”
“I’ve got a—God, what was it he said?—a benefactor, I suppose. Likes to keep an eye on those of us that have gone out into the Big Blue Yonder, so to speak. He’s got some cash going spare, and thinks it’s best we don’t need to worry about practicalities. Just doing what needs doing.”
There it is again. Naked, unashamed, simple. Like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like a contract. Tim almost envies him that lack of conflict.
“And anyway,” Mike continues, “it’s got to be better than having that Bouchard bloke peering over your shoulder.” Tim’s expression sours instantly and Mike’s eyes gleam. “Yep. Thought as much. Well, as it happens, it doesn’t matter—much as you don’t strike me as a Watcher, I think you’ve got too much tying you down right now to walk on my side of things for too long.”
Tim nods, taking that as read. This year has to be the year he survives. He’s promised himself. Can’t do that if he’s floating like a dandelion clock. That sort of survival doesn’t help anyone. That won’t find him any answers. That won’t win him any vengeance.
But he has to admit, the idea has an appeal. Just a bit. Murder aside. He can see why Mike threw himself at it so hard, faced with a choice between this and death, the whistling rush of vertigo, the ability to free himself of responsibility and threat and all the rest of it. Just him and the sky.
“Will you do it again?” he asks quietly and Mike looks at him with genuine surprise, one eyebrow raised.
“What, the—” he lowers his hand with a whistling noise and Tim nods.
“Yeah. I, er—I mean, it was awful, but I think it helped.” Nothing so centering as a rush of fear, as a reminder of mortality. Nothing like the impending landing to make him enjoy the flight, to remind him to keep going.
“How long do you have?” Mike asks, his tone gone oddly soft, oddly tender, and Tim shrugs.
“Call it a lunch break.”
“Right. Okay.” Mike gives him a strange, crooked smile. “Yeah. I reckon I can help you out, Tim. Bit of an adrenaline rush, hm? Something to make you appreciate that the heart still beats?”
“Something like that.” Tim swallows hard, already braced for a fall, but Mike hops off his stool instead, shrugging his cardigan off and ambling towards a closed door, glancing over his shoulder with glittering eyes.
And a lot of today hasn’t made sense, it really hasn’t, but that—Tim would know that look anywhere, has been on every side of it, feels the thrill of standing at the top of the high-dive, something in his heart skipping like a string being plucked.
Mike is tiny, the top of his head barely up to Tim’s chest, but that’s alright. He has Tim bend over, has him kneel, and that evens things out well enough. His fingers are so sure in his hair, and when he presses their lips together he tastes sharp, like chlorine and salt and the first breath after a mint, cleaning to the point of corroding, so cold he burns where he drags his hands over Tim’s ribs, his shoulders.
And he goes where he’s led—to the floor, first, and then onto the bed, impossibly huge, the sheets sinking and slipping under him like deep, calm water. The wall is another huge window, too high up for anyone else to see in, and Tim finds himself staring at the endless expanse of a blue, blue sky—surely it had been cloudy when he’d first come in?—until Mike takes him by the jaw and makes him look at him instead.
And Tim’s no stranger to adrenaline, sky-dives and rollercoasters and secondary-school gymnastics making him well-accustomed to being turned end-over-end, to throwing himself where he can’t see the landing, and it’s oddly easy to trust that Mike will have him land right, even if he can’t see anything except the arcing lines over Mike’s face, the gleam in his eyes—briefly, strangely, reflective, like silver, like a mirror—and the way his features shift, face slipping like a mirage, like a heat-haze over the road.
It’s like being caught in a hurricane, and Tim loses his breath as soon as Mike’s hand finds the buttons of his jeans, but that’s fine, because Mike’s holding it safe somewhere and he’ll give it back to him soon enough, and the smaller and emptier his lungs are the more space there is within him for one finger, two, three, for a pause of bottles and rearrangements and clothing and buckles, and then the press of something long and slick and firm into him, filling him, impossibly full—
Tim doesn’t look down, not least because he can’t feel the sheets anymore, just the grasp of Mike’s hand and the way his hair, floating around his face, is tickling his cheek. He closes his eyes and lets himself be taken, lets himself lose his sense of time since he can’t count his breaths nor his heartbeats nor his pleading, begging words. It could be a few seconds or a few hours and it hardly matters, because when he does reach the peak of the parabola, the highest point, it feels like a moment crystallised and held still, everything frozen and his heart caught at its very last beat, something eternal. The moment just before falling.
He surrenders. He falls.
Time grinds to a start again. The bed is steady underneath him, and Mike’s chest steadier still, the even thump of a heart. Some monsters do have hearts, then. It’s the sort of cliché that would have had him throwing out any manuscript that crossed his desk at Faber and Faber, but here it is all the same.
“Alright?” Mike asks quietly above him, and Tim nods, eyes still closed, tracing the pads of his fingers over Mike’s stomach, over his thighs. “Oi. That tickles,” Mike mutters, jiggling his leg until Tim stops, shaking his head. “C’mon, use your words. You alright?”
“I’m okay,” Tim murmurs. For a moment, he almost believes it. Mike lets out a sceptical hum but then jiggles his leg again until Tim looks up, blinking at him.
“Right, well. In that case, if it’s not too much trouble—” he looks expectantly down at Tim who grins, finding a familiar reserve of confidence for this, at least. This he can do.
“Sure,” he replies amiably, because he’s never been one to leave a partner unsatisfied, and if Mike wants him to spend another hour between his thighs, well, he can call it exploring every avenue if anyone questions his report on the interview. Not that they will. Not that he’d care if they did. Anyway, it’s less like falling this time. More like drifting. Like a message in a bottle, out to sea, tossed by the tides and with no fixed destination. That’s alright. It doesn’t matter.
“You do this often?” Tim asks afterwards, sitting on the end of Mike’s bed and staring out at the expanse of London laid out underneath him.
“Hard to say,” Mike replies, tugging his pyjama pants back on before flopping onto the bed, watching Tim with one arm under his head, propping it up against the pillows. “Details get fuzzy.”
“You trying to say that most of your encounters aren’t memorable?” Tim laughs, turning back from the view, and Mike smiles back at him.
“Tim, give it a day and I probably won’t remember your name. I might not remember any of this,” he replies, and it would be scathing if he didn’t sound so gentle.
Tim doesn’t know what to say to that at all.
“Look, it’s—it’s like trying to remember details in one of those Where’s Wally pictures,” Mike sighs. “Everything’s so crowded at this level of detail. I can pick out the vague shape of things, a week, a month, but it’s hard to focus for long. I’m just not thinking at that scale anymore. The ones who are like me, who belong to something else, those lot are marked out in brighter colours, they’re harder to miss. But you don’t belong to anyone yet, not really. So you’ll probably slip through the cracks. It’s not personal.”
“I could try to leave you with a more lasting impression,” Tim offers, and Mike chuckles.
“The bright side is that I won’t remember you bursting into tears over a cup of coffee.”
“Well, that’s something.”
And since it doesn’t matter, since nothing will be remembered by anybody except him, it’s easy to lean down for another kiss, to indulge in warmth and affection, something honest and tender he hasn’t felt in far, far too long.
“Thanks,” he murmurs, and Mike snorts.
“Don’t thank me. If you turn into a sap you’ll leave by the window, and you won’t get a nice soft landing this time.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re very scary,” Tim rolls his eyes as he reaches for his clothes, and Mike scoffs.
“Don’t you forget it. If you need a lesson in respect you’ll get it, and don’t you doubt it—” there’s a pause there, odd and expectant, and Tim frowns as he turns back to Mike with a raised eyebrow.
“What? Forgotten my name already?”
“No. You just never told me your surname.”
“Oh. It’s Stoker.”
“Right. Tim Stoker. Timothy?”
“Timpani,” Tim replies with wide-eyed innocence, and Mike throws a pillow at him.
“Piss off. You’re ridiculous.”
“Yeah. Little bit. I think you like that.”
“Maybe,” Mike agrees. “Maybe I’ll come give you a proper statement one of these days. Stroll into that Institute of yours and bend you over the desk while I tell you how scary I am, how’s that?”
“Sounds like something worth coming to work for.”
“Flatterer. You say such lovely things.” Mike bats his eyelashes at him and Tim grins, tying his shoelaces. It’s odd and familiar and bizarre. Like missing a step coming up the stairs, like the release from the parallel bars, going for a landing he’s still not quite sure will come. And tomorrow, Mike might forget everything. And tomorrow, everything will be the same, and everything will be different.
Behind the birthday card and the photos and the astronaut ice cream on Mike’s bookshelf, there are in fact some books. On his way out the door, leaving Mike in bed behind him, Tim picks one out at random. He betrays the years he spent working in publishing to write on a random page—okay, it isn’t a random page, it’s page 69 but what of it—just something simple. Tim Stoker. Magnus Institute. A little winky face. The book goes back onto the shelf.
Just in case. It’s something to keep coming in for work for, after all, a bit of hope, a bit of fun. Something to make the year worth remembering. Maybe this year will be the year he gets through. This year might be the year he falls, but there’s always the chance that he’ll get the landing right.