“I love you,” Ramon says, so quietly, into the darkness between them, and Henry’s stomach sinks.
God, he thinks
“You don’t have to say it back,”
it’s going to hurt
“I just wanted to say it.”
when he fucks this up.
Ramon’s quiet, still quiet, when he kisses him, hands curled tight around his own. They’re lush kisses; Henry thinks he might be trying to put everything he can’t say into them.
I love you, he tries to say. Ramon’s fingers twitch, like he wants to get them into his hair, but Henry holds them where they are. I love you, and it’s terrifying.
“You’re tense,” Ramon mumbles. He laughs a little, a puff of air against Henry’s lips. “You came, like, two minutes ago, why are you so tense.”
Henry combs his fingers through Ramon’s sweat-soaked hair, and smiles. Ramon leans into the touch like a pleased cat, the corners of his lips curling contently and his eyes slipping closed. “Maybe I’m getting ready for another round.”
Ramon snorts. “Shut up, you aren’t.”
“You’re right, I’m not.” Henry rolls over onto his back with a groan, stretches his arms up towards the ceiling and feels the bones in his shoulders pop. “I’m an old man now, can’t get it up so fast anymore.”
“What a tragedy,” Ramon sighs, slotting himself into the space under Henry’s arm. He’s solid and warm against him, soft skin, the gentle rise and fall of his breath steady. His lips pressing to Henry’s pec is familiar—he loves his chest, he’s told Henry time and time again, through words and otherwise—and not unwelcome. “I bet I could, though,” he murmurs, voice husky.
You have work in the morning, Henry reminds himself, right as his traitorous mouth says, “I don’t doubt it,” low and rumbling in his chest. You have to work in the morning, and he just told you he loves you, and you couldn’t say it back—
But Ramon’s already climbing on top of him, grinning like the cat that got the cream, and Henry finds himself helpless to stop him.
He finds he really doesn’t want to stop him.
Ramon’s still asleep when Henry’s phone goes off to wake him up for work. It’s a delicate procedure peeling the kid off of him, with how he’s hooked a leg over Henry’s and wrapped his arms around his middle. He stirs and grumbles as Henry finally manages to dislodge himself, but his eyes stay closed, and his forehead soon smooths again.
Twenty minutes until he has to get his ass in gear so he’s not late to work. He can take a second.
Henry sits on the edge of the mattress and just looks, for a while, at the man tangled in the sheets next to him. He’s a heavy sleeper, even more so this morning, after the night they had. It’s a good thing. The kid doesn’t get enough sleep as it is—he doesn’t need to be woken up by Henry stomping around getting ready for work on top of that.
Ramon is peaceful in sleep, his lips slightly parted, his expression clear of worry or fear. Open, like he’d been last night, staring into Henry’s eyes and whispering I love you.
Here is this man, this wonderful sweet perfect man, who looked at Henry and saw a person, saw someone worth knowing, someone worth loving , and Henry’s lying to him.
Not lying. Just not telling him.
That’s lying, asshole.
He’s going to fuck this up.
And it’s awful, because he loves him, more than he thought he could, with a force that shakes him to the core.
Ramon is sweet, and earnest, filled with life in a capacity that Henry’s forgotten someone could have. He’s smart—really fucking smart, and talented as all hell, even though he laughs sheepishly and shakes his head when Henry says this—you got chosen out of all those people in your class to go to Portland Game Expo, kid, you’re fucking good at what you do—and resilient, and funny. It’s easy to tell when he’s about to start laughing; the corners of his lips twitch up, and his eyes narrow right before the laughter bubbles up out of him. He doesn’t snore, but drools in his sleep. He likes to fist his hand in Henry’s hair when they fuck, likes being able to stifle his moans against his mouth. He’s caring. Honest. He feels like home.
And he loves him.
God, it’s going to be awful when he fucks this up.
Coming at it from fear.
Coming at it from experience.
Henry’s phone starts beeping again. He startles and hurriedly swipes at the screen to turn the alarm off.
The moment’s over.
Henry forces himself up off the bed with a groan, drags a hand down his face, and trudges off to the bathroom to start his day.
Ramon’s voice cutting through the song Henry’s humming to himself makes him jump. When Henry looks up, it’s to Ramon twisted around in his desk chair, squinting at him in the yellow lamp light, mouth screwed up in some sort of frustration.
“You. Stop it.” Ramon turns his chair fully, crossing his arms as he does.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cletus.”
Huffing out a breath, Ramon clarifies, “Sounding like that. Looking like that. I can’t focus.”
“Sounds like a you problem,” Henry shrugs. “You got headphones, put ‘em in and turn around.”
“You are insufferable.” Ramon’s smiling, though, his feet kicking. “I don’t know why I put up with you, Henry.”
Because you love me, Henry almost says, as a joke, because that’s the response, but it sticks in his throat. Because it’s not a joke, really. He does.
Ramon must see the way Henry’s expression drops, because he’s on his feet in an instant, taking the three strides across the tiny room from his desk to the bed. “Hey.” He sits down and rests a hand on Henry’s knee over the sheets. A comfort.
“I’m fine, babe—” Henry tries to wave him away, but Ramon is not so easy to shake off. He crawls up the bed to cup Henry’s cheek in his hand. “Babe. ”
It’s back, that intensity in Ramon’s warm brown eyes that Henry can’t meet. His stomach swoops, and keeps swooping. “I’m not—”
“I don’t want you to think you have to say—”
“You being here is enough—”
“I get it—”
“I just wanted you to know—”
Something in Henry’s voice makes Ramon pause. He draws back the slightest bit, though his hand stays held against Henry’s face. There’s some flash of emotion Henry thinks might be fear behind his eyes, gone as quickly as it appears. Henry exhales heavily.
“I know.” He wraps his fingers carefully around Ramon’s wrist, turns his head to press his lips to his palm. He feels the shudder that runs through Ramon, sees it in the rapid flutter of his lashes. It’s cute, how this gets him. “I know.”
Ramon doesn’t ask what it is he knows, exactly, doesn’t have to. “Okay,” he breathes. “I’m glad.”
The silence between them is heavy, too heavy, with unspoken words. Henry feels, in a sense, frozen.
Then Ramon leans in, pressing his warm, solid body into Henry’s, and kisses him, and it’s like he’s cut the strings. Henry melts.
“Stay with me,” Ramon murmurs. “Please.”
Henry kisses him again, lingering, and whispers through the lump in his throat, “I will.”
She was by the Hawthorne Bridge a few days ago, says you were in that tent for two hours.
Henry feels his blood go cold. Every cell in his body is in fight-or-flight in a heartbeat and yet—
(he can’t move
(he’s shaking his head
Well, you know,
(he would never
do what Ramon thinks he did)
I wasn’t sure until I was looking at you.
(but maybe what he has done isn’t much better)
(he’s not a liar
Who the fuck are you, man?
But it doesn’t matter what he says, because Ramon knows, now.
The ability to move returns to him. He flees.
And just like that, he’s fucked it up all over again.
(And it’s awful.)
I need to take some time off, he says, and wonderful, understanding Lauren lets him.
I can get you two weeks max, she says, a firm hand on his shoulder. Don’t do anything stupid.
I won’t, he promises, feeling like it’s (another) lie.
The drive from Portland up towards the forests of Washington state is about two hours, give or take. It’s plenty manageable. Definitely not the worst drive Henry’s had to make—far from it.
Once the highway’s wound deep enough into the trees—Capitol State Forest, a road sign tells him—Henry finds a quiet place off the road to pull off, under the quiet cover of dark sky and evergreens, and settles in for the night. Sleeping bag in the back of the truck, stars stretching endlessly outwards above; he’s done this a million times before, and yet.
He’s reaching out, for something, someone, and coming up empty. Ramon—
He shuts his eyes against the thought of him, and tries to go to sleep.
Henry wakes up to the lightest drizzle—a mist, really—dampening his face. The sky is soft gray between the faintly swaying pine branches, the morning quiet mottled with birdsong.
More majestic than this?)
Packing up is a quick process; he’s back on the empty road in less than five minutes, watching the trees pass by. The rain fogs his windows. He lets it sit for maybe several moments too long before the windshield wipers clear the way ahead again.
“Yeah, I got family down in Portland. They’re coming up here as soon as they can get their shit packed.”
Henry’s not sure what exactly it is that makes him listen in on this particular gas station conversation. He assumes it must be the utterance of Portland, and the somber-urgent tone of the man behind the counter, muttering tragedy. It had felt, for a moment, like something had grabbed Henry’s hand and led him into the station’s convenience store, like it wanted him to hear this.
So he does.
“They really didn’t have anyone predicting it beforehand?”
“Guess not. Good for fucking nothing scientists.”
What happened, Henry wants to ask, something like panic rising in his throat. What happened in Portland.
“Fucking volcano blows its top off and no one saw it coming. Ridiculous.”
“And, I mean, I’m not a superstitious person by any means,” the man behind the counter continues, sounding almost conspiratory, “but I heard that shit went off 11:11, on the minute—the fuck am I supposed to think about that—”
Henry decides, abruptly, that he doesn’t need the package of beef jerky he’s been staring blindly at for the past two minutes after all.
Portland is emptier than he remembers it.
There’s still a familiar bustle of people, but it’s subdued, and marked by a sea of dust masks, ducked heads and hurried paces. The air feels gray. Ramon’s apartment building looks the same, though. Still dilapidated, still emanating the smell of weed and Febreze. Still feeling, despite it all, almost like home.
Henry gets no answer when he knocks on Ramon’s door. He tries a couple times, calls, “Ramon? It’s— it’s Henry. I wanted to check on you,” and gets only silence. He thinks about the dark spot, at the base of the mountain, and forces the horrible, horrible improbable thought that follows back down. It’s not. He’s not. He can’t.
So he goes to the only other place he can imagine—and how he still remembers where it is, he doesn’t know.
“Mrs. Bayer,” Henry starts, and does not finish. The thin, earnest-faced woman standing on the other side of the doorway stares up at him, mouth agape.
Finally, Audrey Bayer moves. Her expression changes first, brows snapping together—Henry is sure, in that moment, that he is about to die, killed bare-handed by an unstoppable five feet and two inches of maternal retribution—but it falls away in the next moment, and she’s stepping forward with her arms outstretched, pulling him into a suffocating hug. Henry grunts in surprise.
“Henry, oh my goodness.” She holds him at arms-length, looks him up and down with disbelief. “You are the last person I expected to see at a time like this—”
“Where’s Ramon?” Henry blurts. He hates to be rude, but fuck. His chest is going to collapse in on itself any fucking moment now.
Audrey’s whole body stiffens, then crumples. “Oh, Henry. Of course you didn’t—” She paces back, motions him inside. “Please. Come sit.”
Henry can’t remember the last time he stepped foot in a hospital.
The receptionist looks dead-tired; she gives the barest of nods at them when they enter through the automatic doors, her smile strained. Audrey keeps her iron grip on Henry’s wrist until they’re walking into Ramon’s darkened room, at which point she releases him to approach the bed.
Henry hangs back. He can’t see Ramon’s face from where he’s standing, but he sees where his feet must be, where the sterile blue hospital sheets rise at the end of the bed. Audrey pauses for a long moment, then moves away, turns to face him.
“He’s sleeping,” she whispers.
He nods dumbly. “Yeah.”
“If you want to stay—”
“I don’t have to—”
“You can, Henry—”
“I can come back—”
Audrey flicks her chin up, and it looks so much like Ramon for a second, Henry shuts up immediately. “You can stay and wait for him to wake up. It’s okay.”
Henry doesn’t know whether to feel honored, or ashamed, or whatever’s in-between. He just swallows, and nods again. “Okay.” A beat. “Thank you.”
It’s a sad sort of smile that crosses Audrey’s face. “I’m glad you’re back, Henry. We have a lot to discuss, once you’re done here.”
She’s more optimistic than he is, evidently. He doesn’t voice this sentiment, though, just smiles weakly back, hugs her once more, and watches her leave.
He settles back into one of the stiff, sterile blue armchairs, crosses his arms, and waits.
(Ramon wakes up, sits up and looks around, and thinks he must still be asleep.)
Henry jolts to his feet as soon as he realizes Ramon’s eyes are open, wincing when the hospital chair screeches against the floor.
Eyes boring into him, Ramon takes a long, shuddering breath. “I’m,” he starts, then stops, and just stares, for a while. Then, “You shaved.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Henry rubs a hand over his bare chin, gaze slanted towards the floor. “Didn’t want to be eating ash out of my beard for the next two months.”
“Oh.” Ramon’s breath rattles in his chest. “Where were you?”
“Up north. Washington.”
“Looking for dark spots?”
Henry snorts. “Something like that.”
There’s a stretch of silence, then, wherein Henry doesn’t know what he’s going to hear next. Why are you here. I don’t want to see you. Freeloader. Liar.
“I missed you.”
“Please don’t say shit like that to me just to make me feel better,” Henry mutters. “It’s cruel.”
“I did,” Ramon says, tone edging closer to urgent. “Henry.”
“I don’t deserve that.” It’s all he can say.
“No. Henry, no.”
“I was supposed to be there for you.”
“It’s not your fault— I made you leave, I wasn’t fair—”
This isn’t fair, Henry wants to yell. “I should have been there, Ramon, I fucked up—”
“Stop it.” Ramon’s voice cracks. “I don’t want to— can we just—?” He gestures vaguely. “I’m glad—I’m just so fucking glad to see you. Can we talk about all the other shit later?”
Henry allows himself to look up, to look into Ramon’s eyes. The intensity makes the linoleum floor shift under his feet, but he keeps his balance. He meets his gaze, and holds it.
Ramon reaches for him. Henry shifts closer, raises his hand to take Ramon’s. Their fingers lace together, each digit slotting into the empty space between them like puzzle pieces. The corners of Ramon’s lips twitch upwards. His eyes narrow, and he smiles.
It feels like coming home.