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and i hope you blink before i do

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He knows he shouldn’t be here. For the sake of his emotional and physical well-being. His right hand hurts where the plastic of a surprisingly heavy takeaway bag digs into the palm. He can’t switch hands – his left arm is still sore, covered in bandages he should have changed before he left the house. Underneath the heavy jacket, just the parts of his bandaged hand can be seen. He almost smiled, looking at it in the hallway mirror, glad for the brief reprieve from the visual reminder of his pain. Then his gaze landed on his face.

He should be in bed, high on painkillers, abiding by the doctor’s orders. And he was in bed just over an hour ago, one eye on the newest Netflix documentary on something he had no real interest in learning about, the other glued to his phone. Staying still was not in his nature and he found himself trying to toss and turn, only to be reminded to stay on his back by the spike in pain intensity. Interesting, that, he thought. The pain was constant, a low thrum going through his body, as if it was bone-deep, coming from within. A little over inch deep, the biggest one of them, on his arm, a paramedic had told him in a tone usually used by people to share a little known but interesting fact. So maybe that was why. It was an acquired disease.

At least that was the preferred explanation.

He reasons with himself a lot, these days. Currently he’s trying to convince himself this was a good idea, even though he knows the truth. He repeats this over and over in his mind, engaging in a staring contest with the doorbell. You’re already here, you’re already here, and it’s cold, and the food is getting cold, so just ring the doorbell. Who would have thought that was going to be the hardest part?

(He knows this to be false. The hardest part is yet to come.)

Before he can win this particular battle of the day, the door to the flat swings open. The movement startles him, and he staggers backwards. He’s been a lot jumpier since the worms. He’s also unused to the universe deciding for him. With benefit for him, at least.

‘Tim?’ Jon asks. He looks surprised, too. It’s like staring into a mirror.

(Except they couldn’t be less similar. Tim is tall and he takes up space and he has a presence. He’s the centre stage. Jon is short and scrawny, and he tends to stick to the last row of chairs available. The corner of the room. But that’s the façade. These few long years of friendship taught Tim they are, at heart, the same. Jon blooms open once you get to know him. Cracks jokes you learn to laugh at because you love him. Tim retreats once he knows it’s safe. Inside of the home, he allows himself to be silent. Puzzle pieces, the two of them, and all that.)

And now they have scars to match.

They had held each other before they went out to what Tim was sure was their death. There wasn’t time to spare, exactly. But time (lots of time) offers the ability to slow it down, stretch it out, so in Tim’s memory what surely was a minute at most feels like hours. He didn’t want to die, then. (He’s not sure if he’s happy that he survived, after all.) But he saw it fitting to die with Jon. He didn’t tell him that.

What he did say was: ‘We’re going to be fine.’

Jon had looked up at him, unconvinced. Worried. Clearly in pain from his leg wound. He trembled ever so slightly where he was pressed to Tim’s right side. His left arm was slung over Tim’s shoulders, which meant that Tim had to bend his back at an uncomfortable angle to make it work. To ease the strain on Jon. On his part, Tim was supporting him with an arm wrapped around his waist. It felt like he was the only barrier left between Jon and an imminent collision with the floor.

He felt like he should say something more. He was, after all, convinced on the other side of the trap door stood the figure in black. He thought he’d have more to say confronted with the strong possibility of imminent death.

The only thing he really wanted to say was I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t say sooner.

Despite the volume of that thought, and it seemed to be on a constant loop, thus preventing him from saying anything else, anything at all, despite all that he knew, no, he understood, that voicing it would be no use to anyone. A love confession only matters if one has the means to follow through.

He thought about kissing Jon. One last earthly delight before undignified death by worms. But doing that would have been selfish.

Jon whimpered by his side. There was no time to lose and the decision has been made.

‘We’re gonna be okay. Promise,’ Tim repeated. He opened the door, filled with regret that his last words were a lie. The blinding light hit his unadjusted eyes, then followed the pain, and he had no time to reason with himself. That would, unfortunately, come later.

He’d been told they were still holding each other when they found them. Tim’s larger body was partially on top of Jon’s, shielding him. He doesn’t quite remember how it happened. It goes in beats. I love you. Light. Pain. Nothing. Pain. And now he’s here, in front of Jon. Trying to do the same thing he did on instinct back then.

He doesn’t know what it is about Jon. He spent so much of their time together trying to convince himself it wasn’t love. At times, Jon made it very easy. But there was something, a siren call, an invisible force that always drove Tim back to him. Apologising when he was the one wronged. Offering the olive branch. The need to see Jon smile softly at him was stronger than his desire to be the one being chased, than his hurt pride. And if that wasn’t love, what was?

‘What are you doing here?’ Jon asks when he’s met with silence and a blank stare. He shifts, nervous, takes a step back into the comfort of his flat.

Tim clears his throat. ‘Thought you’d like some company. Brought takeaway. Healing power of soup and whatnot.’

‘You could have called.’

‘You’d tell me to stay home.’

‘Yes, because that’s what both of us should be doing. Doctor’s orders.’

Tim gives him a quizzical look. Raises an eyebrow.

‘I needed groceries,’ Jon explains.

‘Well, you can get them tomorrow.’ Tim has had enough of waiting. He takes a step forward, and Jon gives in, letting him inside the flat.

He watches Jon fumble with his wardrobe as he finally sets the bag down. Without asking, he crosses the distance between them and helps him unbutton his coat and pull it off his small frame. Jon gives him a look containing an impossible mix of gratitude and anger. Tim offers a smile.

He wishes he’d turned his back to him when Jon removes his gloves (soft, multicoloured, touchscreen-adjusted fingertips; Tim notes it as a good idea). He does it gently and slowly, but the band-aid still comes off with it, forcing a pained hiss out of him. The wound opens and Tim’s heart stops.

There is a small circular hole in the flesh of Jon’s ring finger. Tim knows how difficult it is to keep it from bleeding. He has the same one.

How fitting, is his first thought. He must have done some pretty awful things in his past live(s) to deserve to be a part of such a sick, cruel joke of the universe in this one.

(He’s thankful all of the fingers of his left hand are bandaged, so Jon won’t be able to tell that this, too, they now share.)

‘Shit, hold on,’ he says then, springing to action. Doing, not thinking. That’s why he came, after all. ‘Where’s your stuff?’

‘Couch,’ Jon gets out through gritted teeth. He’s never liked Tim seeing him cry.

(It only happened once. They were on that same couch Tim is leading him to, now. Just finished watching Spirit. Tim didn’t expect it. Jon wiped the wetness off his cheeks quickly. He allowed Tim to tease him. Tim wanted to kiss him.

The other times, and there were a few over the years, he played dumb. Didn’t comment when Jon came back from a twenty-five minutes spent in the bathroom, rims of his eyes suspiciously red. He’d turn his gaze away when he saw Jon’s eyes glisten, could see his jaw clenching in effort not to let the treacherous tears fall. He’d offer truce, he’d offer comfort. And that was that.)

‘It’s okay, shhh,’ he says before he can think it through. Jon is pointedly looking to the ceiling. He refuses to blink. Tears are rolling down his cheeks, nonetheless.

‘Okay, done,’ Tim announces. ‘Sorry.’

‘Not your fault, Tim.’

He’s right. But it’s hard to believe.

Jon finally looks at his face. They’re sitting close together, legs pressed (Jon’s knee is slightly digging into his hole-covered thigh, but he doesn’t feel like mentioning it; doesn’t want the touch to end even if it hurts.) Absentmindedly, Tim has held onto the hand he was just bandaging, and he sets it down in his lap. He brings his hand to wipe the last few tears from Jon’s cheeks.

Jon trembles under his touch. ‘Thank you,’ he says quietly.

It becomes apparent neither of them knows what to do next. There is an obvious activity: the plastic bag set on the counter almost shines through the poorly lit living room, but both of them have seemed to forget about it.

Jon breaks eye contact first. Tim’s thankful; it was beginning to feel heavy. He can feel his cheeks prickle. His body has joined his mind in the ranks of traitors. Love for Jon: 1. Tim: 0. As it’s always been.

‘You should go,’ Jon says, and his voice is as soft and quiet as when he thanked him just a minute ago. That’s probably why its meaning doesn’t register with Tim fully at first, and he offers a soft, wondering smile, alongside a soft hum, prompting Jon to repeat himself.

Jon does. Tim can feel dread tugging the corners of his mouth down. An anxious feeling, something akin to static, travels from his cheeks, pulling the skin there taut, down his neck and back, settles in his lower belly. And thrums.

He hates wearing his heart on his sleeve. He’s never wanted to let Jon know that he’s been hurt. He kind of wants him to see it now. A thousand times when he’s been silent through what he thought was mistreatment bubble over in a cauldron.

‘I just got here,’ he says, willing his voice to stay neutral.

‘You shouldn’t have come.’

‘I’m bored and tired of my laptop being my only company, Jon. Figured you’d be the same.’

‘I was doing fine,’ Jon says. He gets up and crosses the room. Stands close to the open door leading into the hallway.

‘Clearly not,’ Tim retorts and nods his head. He means Jon’s finger, but upon a longer look, Jon’s flat is a right mess. There’s rubbish on the floor, papers and photographs scattered all over the desk and the coffee table. The countertop is filled to the brim with half-drunk cups of tea and the door of the fridge is open. The sharp, pale blue glow of it is one of the only sources of light in the fast-darkening room. It makes it look sickly.

‘I would’ve been fine! I’ve gone out every day of the week and I. Was. Fine. You had me distracted.’

Tim stands up and takes a few steps in his direction, albeit slowly; he doesn’t want to give an impression that he’s about to give in and leave. At least not without explanation. Jon tends to be prickly and he tends to be harsh, but never like this. There must be a reason.

‘You’re just trying to pick a fight, Jon.’

He’s met with silence and a hard stare. For a long moment he thinks (worries?) Jon won’t say another word.

‘I know you,’ Tim says, then. One step more. Slowly, hands where Jon can see them, open, offering peace. Offering truce. As always, as always.

Jon doesn’t like being treated like a wild animal being approached for the first time. Tim knows this.

‘There’s stuff you don’t know. A-and you shouldn’t know,’ he finally spits out, quick and upbeat, like a series of shots from a machine gun.

‘Whatever it is, I’m sure you can explain.’

‘I—I,’ Jon stammers and then sighs. ‘I really can’t.’

‘And why’s that?’

‘Because I don’t trust you!’ Jon yells. It’s immediately evident he didn’t mean to say that.

It feels like a shot to his chest. Hurts worse than when he felt the silver worms break the skin and burrow into his body. It’s worse than the constant state of pain he’s been in for the past week, worse than the fact he’s going to be a freak covered in round, pale spots for the rest of his life. He wants to feel angry, but mainly there’s the feeling of dread, back at it again, travelling the planes of his body, making him shiver. It’s his turn to blink away tears.

He leans onto the small bud of anger, forces himself to feel it.

‘You don’t trust me?’ he yells back. Jon lowers his gaze. ‘Well, gosh, Jon, I actually don’t know what to say to that. What else do you want me to do? I’ve already walked into a death trap for you—’

‘It wasn’t my fault,’ Jon mutters.

‘—for you, Jon! If it were someone else, I might have said, you know what? Fuck it. Turn around and run back into the tunnels. But you? You I couldn’t ever leave damn well alone. Ever. And I was scared, and I didn’t want to die but you know what I was really scared about at that moment? Do you have the faintest idea?’

Jon shakes his head. He’s still refusing to look at him. Tim realises he’s taken a few steps forward. Jon is at arm’s reach.

He doesn’t know if he wants to punch him or kiss him. That’s another lie. He does know. It’s love, it’s always love.

‘I was scared I’ll survive, and you won’t. Somehow. That by some twisted turn of events I’ll wake up in a hospital bed and ask about you and I’ll get a sympathetic look and a shake of a head. That there will be a world without you in it. God knows I wouldn’t be able to stand that.’

‘Tim…’ Jon begins. His hand twitches as if he wants to reach out. He stops himself.

‘Yes, I know, you want me to go because you don’t trust me. I’ve loved you all this time and you don’t trust me.’

‘You what?’

He didn’t realise he actually said that. He feels disconnected from his body, and his vision is shaky. But it’s out now. He might as well try begging at this point.

So he begs. ‘I love you, Jon,’ he says.

‘No, you don’t, no.’ It’s so in character. Only Jonathan Sims could deny a love confession.

‘Fucking hell, yes, yes I do! That much I still know. There might be flesh-eating worms and boogeymen in the world and evil forces are, apparently, so painfully real but the fact remains: I love you. You’re not taking that away from me.’

‘You shouldn’t, is what I mean.’ Jon’s voice has lost its previous stubborn, self-assured tone.

‘I shouldn’t,’ Tim agrees. Wants to see a reaction. Jon doesn’t move, his expression doesn’t change. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts, and it hurts only Tim and Tim alone.

‘But I do,’ he says once again, after a pause where both of them seemed to be catching their breath. He doesn’t know if he keeps repeating it in hopes that Jon will say it back or because he hopes it will hurt him. ‘And I will continue to. I love you. I love you. I’ve loved you for such a long time.’

Jon looks conflicted. His lips are pursed into a thin line. Tim suspects he’s weighing his options, trying to decide whether to lie.

He feels drunk. He’s already bared his soul. His dignity is long gone anyway.

Jon’s always maintained there are stupid questions. Tim is about to prove that theory.

‘Do you love me?’

Jon swallows. ‘Doesn’t matter what I feel.’

‘It does to me.’

‘I—I don’t, um. I’m… That is. I d-don’t know.’

‘C’mon, Jon. It’s a yes or no question.’

Jon takes in a deep breath. He has an air of certainty about him, making Tim realise he’s made his decision. Tim opens his mouth, ready to tell him as much, bully the words out of him if necessary. He tries to convince himself he doesn’t care which answer he gets at this point.

Jon kisses him. Crashes into Tim with his whole body and presses him into the wall. They both moan, the movement causing pain to spike. It’s quick and filled with a feeling neither of them can describe with words. Jon pushes his tongue into his mouth and Tim whimpers. There’s too much teeth. Tim feels wetness on the left side of his face. Realises it’s tears. And blood. A wound must have opened on his cheek.

‘Better?’ Jon heaves when they part.

It isn’t. Tim rubs absentmindedly at the fourth finger of his left hand. Physical pain subdues the emotional one.

‘Yes,’ he lies. ‘Do it again.’