The B&B is pure chintz. All rose printed florals and prints that look like they’ve been around since before Cath Kidson was even born. A rose-patterned lampshade casts the whole room in a sleepy pink glow that might have been romantic if it wasn’t so cartoony. The wallpaper is just as loud as the curtains as the quilts as the cushions. Two thin single beds stand barely a foot apart, like cupcakes with their frilly valances, piled high with dated cushions. The speckled and bobbly blankets might actually have comforted evacuees.
It all looks so back in time that Jon’s surprised to even see a minibar and a TV.
‘Do you want the window?’ He asks Tim.
Tim throws his duffle down on the bed closest and turns around. He leaves, with nothing on him but his phone and the spare key.
‘Right,’ Jon says to the slammed door. He turns to the empty room and sighs.
Could Elias really not have just booked them four rooms? Did they really have to share, boys and girls, like a school trip?
Jon chucks his own rucksack on the bed by the window and only then realises how heavy his shoulders are, just from carrying it upstairs. The drive really has taken it out of him. He sits for a good few moments before shucking off his shoes. He could probably just sleep. It would probably be sensible to sleep, they’ll all have to be on it tomorrow.
He checks his watch and groans. Half-seven. If he sleeps now he’ll be up again by three.
Plus, the idea of having the nightmares in a twin room, with Tim barely inches away, Tim who’s already always angry with him... it’s not a good idea.
Instead he puts the kettle on as something to do. Turns on the TV. Nothing decent. He lets the kettle boil but halfway through waiting for the tea to brew he changes his mind. Fuck it. It’s the last night of the world. And he can always claim it for expenses.
He opens the minibar with a clatter of clinks and pulls out a bottle of wine. There are no glasses so he chucks the tea and pours it into the mug. Classy.
He’s down one mug when he decides he doesn’t want to spend his last night on Earth watching reruns of Pointless. Xander is taking guesses at the ‘least popular crisp brands’ and honestly that’s pathetic enough to be a kick up the arse if nothing else. Jon turns the TV down and debates reading a statement.
He’s rifling through his bag, swaying just slightly, when the show piques his interest again.
The category is ‘poet laureates’. Which isn’t something he’d normally care about, only he knows someone who would know the answers. One of the contestants is from Stockport, he’s telling the presenters. When he says ‘I’m going to guess -’ he says ‘ing’ like Martin does.
Jon mutes the TV and doubles down on finding the wallet of papers he brought. He finds the stack of statements and turns the paper over in his hands. One look tells him, unwillingly, that it’s about the lonely.
Somehow he thinks he’s had enough of that tonight. So, he resists the itch that compels him to read it anyway and pours himself another mug of crap chardonnay.
He’s through half the bottle when he decides he doesn’t want to spend his last night just sitting here and waiting for sleep. And the further he gets through it the more he knows that he really doesn’t want to spend it not being friends with Tim. Or at least okay with Tim.
The taste of it makes him get up and pace, wobbling slightly, trying to think. He wants it to be okay.
They used to drink wine like this some nights when they worked research. Tim would sneak out to the off-licence on the corner and bring back some cheap shit with random French adjectives on the label and try and convince Jon that the French meant it was quite posh, actually.
‘Will you give it a rest?’ he’d say, and he’d swear but not with any meanness, and laugh without any real teasing. ‘Fuck’s sake, who are you trying to impress?’
They’d drink from the bottle, lit by the far too bright light from Jon’s computer screen as he’d keep scrolling and half listening, until Tim would grab his chin and force him away from JSTOR or Wikipedia or whatever he was half reading.
Sometimes Tim would kiss him and he would pretend to mind, or pretend to go back to his research so Tim would turn the monitor off and kiss him again in the dark.
Another reason the promotion had been such a surprise. Knowing what he knows about Elias now, that can’t have gone unclocked. Another reason the promotion had truly messed up everything. Yes, the late nights had petered out before then, but that had been a very surprising spade struck down in the ground between them.
He doesn’t want to die with them not even talking - can’t bear to sleep and toss and turn and dream walk so so many miles of resentment away from the man, his friend, in the bed only a foot away.
So he gets up and finishes the mug, before grabbing his jacket, key, phone, and, after a short pause of consideration, the bottle. A reconciliation gift perhaps.
He strides to the door before he can change his mind, not Knowing where Tim’s got to, just going off the unconscious human deduction that tells him downstairs. But when he pulls the door open Tim isn’t downstairs.
He’s stood in the doorway.
‘Oh,’ Jon sways, takes one reeling step backwards. ‘Oh, I was just looking for you.’
Tim’s fists are curled, one of them round the neck of a bottle. It isn’t empty so he must have come back for something else.
‘I, uh. I don’t know,’ Jon says, frowning.
It doesn’t feel like a lie, now, even though he had felt decisive a moment ago. He’s glued to the floor, trying to pass it off as standing his ground, looking up at Tim and wanting to say something right through his dry throat. He starts again, thinking at the same pace as he’s talking.
‘I wanted, I think I wanted -’
The thought is knocked out of his mouth unfinished.
Tim kisses him, hard enough to bruise, breathing in loudly through his nose. Jon lets him, lets Tim twist his hands into his collar and pull him closer with a tight fist. Tim’s thumb is pushing against the hollow of his throat and he feels the noise he chokes out jump against it. He’s opening his mouth when Tim pushes him off.
‘What was that for?’ he asks, sounding affronted, covering the fact that he might have actually -
But Tim talks over him: ‘You know Martin’s in love with you?’
He blinks. ‘He - Martin? What?’
Tim crosses the threshold and Jon steps back again to let him in. He watches as Tim closes the door, locks it, and slumps back against it. ‘He loves you.'
‘No he doesn’t.’
Tim half-laughs. He takes a long swig, draining the bottle before setting down loudly. ‘That or he just really really fancies you and wants to get married and have lots of sex and probably your children.’
Jon half stumbles backwards. The back of his legs hit the bed and he sits heavily, misjudging the distance, balance all thrown. His head is heavy, threatening to loll about his shoulders and he touches the scratchy quilt, trying to stay with it.
Tim scoffs. ‘I wish I was.’
With that he walks over to the mini fridge. Using his credit card, he sort of jigs it open without the light coming on. He winks as he smoothly pulls the second bottle of white out and joins Jon on the bed. Still, he says nothing, just cracks the lid open.
He doesn’t seem to think it’s a huge deal. Or at least it’s not news to him. His energy is not totally serious but...
‘You’re not joking?’
Tim shakes his head and pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his back pocket. He picks up Jon’s hand off the blanket and slaps the paper into it.
It’s lined, ripped holes all down one side - torn from a notebook.
Tim says nothing, and Jon frowns at him, probably scowls as he unfurls it.
Jon recognises Martin’s handwriting from the little annotations he does on statements. They’re sort of annoying really, or they used to be. He writes quite small but rounds all his letters, doesn’t let them bunch up when he joins them, giving them all the same space.
The lines are very short. Oh, it’s a poem. Not one he recognises from his previous foray into Martin’s body of work.
He pulls his legs up onto the bed and crosses them, toes curling. And reads.
He’s not one for poetry, but he can tell it’s about someone. His heart does whatever the opposite of leaping or skipping beats is as he keeps reading. It clenches with every line and weighs more than the sea when he reaches the final stanza.
He’s not sure he needs Beholding to know who it’s about, but if he didn’t Know he would never have believed it.
When he gets to the end and speaks he’s not sure what he’s going to say. It comes out very quiet.
‘Where did you get this?’
‘Fished it out of the bin. Ages ago.’
Ages . The slow and heavy realisation that these words are ages old, that the ink they’re written in, the pen that formed them in Martin’s hand is ages old... it shorts his breath knowing.
If it was around the time he’d been fishing through the archive’s bins and stumbling across poetry... God, all that time... Something angry broils in his chest like indigestion at the thought of being too late, of missing ages worth of chances.
His voice is tinged with bite as well as sadness when he asks ‘why are you giving it to me now?’
Tim shrugs, sips wine from the bottle. ‘End of the world. Thought you shouldn’t die not knowing.’
‘So...’ Jon starts, and the paper stutters in his hands, ‘so he really..?’
‘Yup,’ Tim says, mouth twisting, ‘and honestly? Between you and me - I’ve been there, and you’re a right twat if you don’t crack on when we get back.’ He starts to correct himself - ‘ If we -’
‘Wait,’ Jon says slowly, just catching up. Then something floods into his head and he breathes in sharply, suddenly not needing to ask anymore. He asks anyway, sounding incredulous. ‘You and Martin..?’
Tim’s voice is sharp and abrupt, finite. ‘Slept together. Yeah. Couple times.’
He looks unbearably smug, but there’s more. His brows are heavy, his eyes dark, bitter and mean.
Jon wonders - the cat-killingly-curious part of him that’s always been there, and whichever part of him that’s now the Eye, wants to know when, where, how. He wants to know who started it, who asked first, who paid for the drinks or dinner or cinema tickets or taxi. He wonders if Tim saw Martin’s new flat, or if they went to Tim’s all the way out in Bromley. Oh. He wonders if they ever did anything in the office. He might only have been a wall away.
‘When was -?’
Something crackles in the air as he starts asking and Tim shoves him hard in the chest with the bottle. The wine sloshes against the glass. Jon catches himself on his elbows and shuffles backwards up the bed, sitting up against the headboard away from Tim’s jabbing finger.
‘Don’t,’ Tim growls, ‘don’t you dare try that.’
‘Sorry,’ Jon says, holding his hands up, ‘sorry, accident -’
‘You are not looking at that,’ Tim tells him. He sounds jealous, which doesn’t make any sense.
‘Well, why are you telling me then?’ Jon asks him, without any compulsion to it, defensive and on the angry side of exasperated. ‘Why even bring it up if you don’t want me to know?’
‘Oh I do want you to know,’ Tim says darkly.
‘So why? Why are you telling me this now?’
The last word rings slightly in the quiet that follows it. Jon hadn’t even realised he’d been raising his voice. He’d been trying not to. He lets it hang, though, now that he has. That acidic burning in his chest is still there and it soothes it a bit to shout.
Tim sighs. ‘Honestly? I’m still pretty bloody angry.’ He takes a long swig and a few seconds to clench and unclench his fist in the duvet. ‘Yeah,’ he breathes a long shuddering breath, calming himself, ‘I’m still angry.’
‘Sorry,’ Jon says again, for want of anything else.
Tim shakes his head. He puts the bottle down on the floor and comes to sit with his legs up on the blankets. ‘I thought it would hurt you,’ he says, and he sounds more sad than angry now. His head flops back, up to the ceiling as he confesses. ‘That you’d be jealous or something. Or feel bad.’
Jon pulls his knees up and hugs the paper to them. ‘I do feel bad,’ he says quietly, then quickly clarifies, ‘for Martin.’
‘Why? Don’t you like him?’
‘No - I mean. I don’t know. I hadn’t thought.’
That, Jon knows for sure as he says it out loud, is a lie.
He’d thought about it the very first day - thought it was just his luck to be stuck with an assistant with nice hair and an adorable, distracting smile. But then Martin had turned out to be a pretty rubbish assistant anyway, at least at the start, dropping things and too nervous to say what he meant. At least Jon acted like he was qualified.
So it had been fine because it was much easier to be exasperated and annoyed with him. And he hadn’t thought about it much since. Even during the times they went for lunch. Well, alright, maybe during the underwear moment. And just that one time they’d passed in the library and there really wasn’t much space and Martin had needed something on the shelf above his head. And maybe when Prentiss had been right outside the door he’d been about to say something. But it hadn’t been serious. It was only a few blips in what was otherwise very professional.
He sighs, looks at his knees because the look on Tim’s face is making him red. ‘I just thought he was... nice.’
‘Yeah, well. He is nice. But he isn’t as nice to everyone as he is to you, you know.’ Tim laughs wryly. His voice is laced with cold resentment. ‘He isn’t even that nice to me.'
‘Oh,’ Jon says.
Tim shakes his head and laughs a cruel, rueful laugh. ‘You don’t deserve him, really.’ He looks up, eyes suddenly full of intention. ‘You better not be a prick to him if you get back.’
‘I won’t,’ Jon promises, ‘I never tried to be.’
‘Well you’re very good at it.’
Jon looks down again at the crumpled notebook page in his hand. I see you , it says. However much of... well, himself he’s been, he dares to hope Martin doesn’t think he’s done it on purpose.
‘Do you think,’ he starts, very slowly, embarrassed to even be thinking it, let alone asking. Maybe it’ll stop Tim being angry if he sounds as small as he feels. ‘I mean, if I had thought about it. Do you think, if I got back, and I asked..?’
‘Oh definitely,’ Tim says, ‘if you’d given him any hope he’d probably have given you a kiss goodbye. I know he wanted to.’
‘Right,’ Jon says, and his mouth is dry and croaky. He sighs, wets his lips and tries not to think about it. ‘Well that’s - that’s not nice to hear.’
‘He’s a good kisser,’ Tim smirks and Jon actually groans, screws his eyes up and lets his head hit the back of the headboard.
‘Look, I said I’m sorry.’
Tim half laughs. ‘Yeah,’ he says, then he sighs and says, very seriously, ‘I am too.’
They sit there for a moment, listening to the sea and the silence of apology. Mutual and relieving but without the total softness of forgiveness. They probably won’t have that. Instead they have the bottle Tim reaches for. They pass it back and forth for a while, sharing that and knowing they’re sharing the memories with it. Tim laughs at Jon for bothering with the mug and his laugh isn’t cruel anymore.
‘Are you still angry?’ Jon asks as he hands back the bottle.
Tim thinks about it. Then he sighs and admits he is. He doesn’t sound it though, he just sounds tired as he explains - ‘I just am a lot.’
Jon hums into the mug. It’s not unreasonable. He recognises the tiredness and defeat in Tim’s voice from his own.
When he lowers the mug Tim is looking at him differently. ‘I think I want to kiss you again, though,’ he says, ‘and not be angry.’
Jon puts the mug down. It clinks next to the poem and that same nerve tightens in his chest. ‘What about Martin?’
‘Well. He’s not here, is he?’
Oh. That’s what it is then. They’d be doing it as bodies, not as people. Not as specifically each other.
‘No. No, I suppose he’s not.’
Tim plays with the blanket and a smile plays with his mouth. ‘I don’t mind if you want to pretend I’m Martin. Can’t do the accent though,’ he muses.
Jon frowns. ‘I wouldn’t do that, I...’ He worries at his lip, thinking of the click of the monitor button and the freedom they had with the lights off, thinking how to use words for that. There’s no un-embarrassing way to say I liked it. ‘ I wouldn’t pretend you were anything,’ he says.
Tim smiles properly then, even if his eyes are tinged with something else, and sidles up to him, cheeks pink under the flowery lamp shade. Jon holds up a worried palm against his shoulder.
‘Is this - is this really what you want?’
He has to ask. It seems there’s been enough regret already this evening.
‘I don’t want to die alone.’ Tim says, and his voice cracks with the effort of honesty. Jon can hear the rest in the weight of it and doesn’t know what to say.
He reaches out instinctively with an unpracticed but careful hand. Takes Tim’s chin in the well between his thumb and fingers and leads him in. He can barely say ‘it’s okay’ with his mouth already parted, just keeps them close, his fingers curling around Tim’s jaw, and keeps breathing what he hopes are the right vowels until Tim kisses him.
Tim’s mouth is hot and insistent, but not unkind this time. He is gentle with the weight he bears down, his hand firm but loose on Jon’s chest as he kisses him into the plush headboard. His breathing is steadier, calmer. There is no anger in it now and Jon glows with relief.
He shifts his knees open, lets Tim crawl in between them. Then Tim’s thumb curls into a belt loop and tugs him down. His head hits the plushest of three pillows and Tim kisses him into it.
He needs to feel in control, Jon knows, needs to feel like he won’t freeze this time. So Jon lets himself be pinned to the mattress with Tim’s comforting weight. But he keeps his hand there on Tim’s cheek, keeps stroking gently back and forth with his thumb and murmuring the ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’ that he should have said before.
His thumb catches something wet and he wipes it away. Tim kisses him harder and slides a hand under his waistband but still another tear leaks out. The hand screws into a tight fist around his shirt tails and Tim sniffs, mouth open and choking.
‘It’s alright,’ Jon says lamely when it clearly isn’t. He feels his own eyes welling up and Tim wipes them with the heel of his thumb.
‘Don’t,’ he says, ‘you’ll set me off.’
It seems the moment is over. Tim pulls his forehead off Jon’s and retreats - lies down on Jon’s chest and hides his red eyes in his collar. He’s quiet for a moment, calming himself privately. But he lets Jon gingerly stroke his hair. Then he half laughs and groans to the ceiling.
‘This is not how I pictured my last night on Earth.’
‘No, me neither. It’s... it’s alright though.’
‘Yeah,’ he sniffs. ‘Yeah. I’m alright, just. Put the telly on or something.’
It’s late now and there’s only old Top Gear reruns, which neither of them can stand, but it’s a decent enough distraction to rail against Clarkson and listen blankly to loud facts about gear sticks and emissions and ample boot space. Tim picks the wine back off the floor and they half finish the rest of it for something to do, for an excuse.
Every time the ads come on they think of things to say about them, filling the dead air until the show comes back on and there’s a reason to say nothing. The quiet is not uncomfortable, but they both know it is finite. Once the credits roll Tim will have to yawn and sit up and Jon’s hand will slip out of his hair and they’ll pretend it didn’t happen, or that it didn’t mean anything but fear.
Eventually the credits do roll, and after the applause has faded and the ads have started again, the TV goes off and they sit up. They brush their teeth together at the sink with the bathroom light off - too bright - and pull pyjamas on in the same space between the beds, looking decidedly the other way.
Standing still with bare feet there’s a question. Without words they push the beds together, curl up facing each other. Their hands link loosely in the gutter between the mattresses, mussed up in the quilts.
It’s very quiet; only breathing and the faint wash of the sea.
‘Stop looking at me,’ Tim says after a while, so Jon looks down at their hands. He watches Tim trace his scars with one fingertip, focuses on the gentle, slow scrape of his nail. It sort of tickles. ‘You should go to sleep,’ Tim tells him. His own eyes are already heavy and half closed.
‘I don’t like sleeping.’ A weak, whispered protestation. Jon watches Tim’s brow furrow minutely against the pillow, watches his eyelashes flutter, and doesn’t think. He tells him, very quietly - ‘I have nightmares.’
A soft sort of scoff. ‘Me too. Oh, wait,’ Tim opens his eyes slowly, ‘normal nightmares or spooky archivist nightmares?’
Why is he so good at that? Making something awful seem funny in a way that isn’t mean? It makes things easier even if finding the words is hard.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re real or... if anyone else has them. Has the same ones, I mean. I have them every night.’
A long, blown out breath. ‘That’s fucked up,’ Tim says, but he laces their fingers together like two interlocking cogs and the space between each of his fingers is soft and warm and safe.
A sleepy pause. The waves are rhythmical on the sand outside. Then Tim asks ‘have you told Martin?’
Jon shakes his head against the pillow. ‘I haven’t told anyone.’
Tim’s head nods minutely up and down, barely visible but the cotton makes a swooshing sound as he mulls that over. Then he sighs and his breath is cool and light on Jon’s forehead.
‘We should sleep,’ he murmurs, and he drops their hands. But before he rolls over he tucks Jon’s hair behind his ear. ‘Hey -’ he says and Jon looks him in the eye. ‘Don’t dream about me, okay?’
‘Okay. I’ll try.’
In the morning Tim is gone and he barely looks up from his beans as Jon’s chair scrapes next to him at the breakfast table. They only talk about the mission, short sentences, yes and no questions.
As they’re loading up the van Tim’s hand brushes his, and the static makes him jump as something slips into his palm and the touch is gone. It’s a folded piece of lined paper.
Jon tucks it into the breast pocket of his shirt. It stays there, and he is the last person to touch it until four months later, when Martin finds it in the drawer of the bedside cabinet in his hospital room.