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Theo wakes up to a scratchy, dry throat and weak grey light filtering in through the windows. His head, surprisingly, isn’t pounding with the force of a supernova – rather, it’s a dull ache behind his eyes he knows he can tolerate until he finds some painkillers. He slowly peels his eyes open, letting himself adjust to his completely new surroundings. Everything is different and most decidedly not the plaster walls of the Amsterdam hotel room he’s been staring at for the past week. He’s face-down on a couch, several blankets piled on top of him and a soft pillow under his cheek. He has no idea how he got to the aforementioned couch, but it smells like Polish tea and cigarettes and…and Boris, he realizes with a complicated twist in his chest. Directly in his line of sight is a dark wood coffee table scattered with a half-full ashtray, several mugs, a glass of water, an orange bottle of pills, and…his glasses?

Sitting up, he goes for the water first, both to quell the lurching of his empty stomach and to get rid of the sand in his throat. He wipes the smudges off his glasses with the corner of one of the many blankets bunched around him and then he examines the pill bottle. Vicodin, prescribed to Boris Pavlikovsky. Boris…

Theo looks up to the window as memories slowly trickle back to him. The view outside the pane is jarring, because it’s not the one from his hotel room that he gazed empty-eyed out for hours at a time. Snow swirls down from heavy grey clouds to coat the cobblestones and line the windowsill. The street is dotted with twinkling Christmas lights and pedestrians, couples in long coats and linked arms, children with lollipops and oversized hats, carolers with wide smiles and song booklets in hand. The buildings are different colors, the street wider, the orientation completely different to what he looked out on in Amsterdam, and it floods his nerves with relief. Though the situation is new and unpredictable and everything he hates, it’s not Amsterdam anymore. He’s free of that place.

And Boris’ name is on this bottle of painkillers, which means he’s around. Everything should turn out fine if he’s around; it always has, hasn’t it?

Theo downs two pills with the last of his water and then slowly gets to his feet. He’s still in the clothes he put on that morning – Jesus Christ, this morning? Was it really just this morning that Boris showed up at his door and turned everything around for the second time in what is definitely too short a time period? The thought makes Theo’s head spin and he almost sits back down.

It occurs to him that he doesn’t actually know what day it is, or how long he really slept for. There’s barely a flicker of sunlight behind the snowy clouds in the sky, and considering this was exactly the weather in Amsterdam, it does nothing to help him tell how much time might have passed.

He turns to look around the apartment. Boris’ flat, he realizes now. Antwerp. Belgium. That’s where they were headed this morning, or whenever it was – that’s where he is now. He has a vague memory of climbing into the back of Gyuri’s car and passing out almost immediately, and an even vaguer, more sleep-clouded one of moving himself from the parking lot of this building up to the couch. Out like a light, he hears Boris snicker, before it all fades away.

He shakes his head to clear some of his sleepy fog and begins his slow inspection of the flat. It’s warm and cozy, messy with absolutely no pattern to it, and so incredibly Boris it makes his heart hurt. Coffee mugs and worn boots and empty cigarette packets and a dilapidated bookshelf looking dangerously close to the end of its life, overflowing with yellowed paperbacks in various languages and the strangest collection of vinyl records Theo’s ever seen. He smiles faintly, his chapped lips stinging. Oh, the joyous, careless chaos of Boris.

A short hallway extends off the living room and there’s three doors. The first one is slightly ajar and Theo quietly pushes it open the rest of the way to reveal a bedroom just as unkempt as the rest of the house. Boris is sprawled face-down on the bed, snoring away, curls splayed across the pillow like spilled ink.

It’s been a long, long time since he’s seen Boris like this, clad in boxers and vulnerability. He almost forgot how it felt. After a moment of hesitation, he crosses the room and climbs up onto the bed. He sits next to Boris with his knees pulled up to his chest and suddenly he’s fifteen again – sharing a bed, stomachs uncomfortably empty, disoriented by the vague hour, one or both of them passed out.

“Boris,” he whispers, poking him in the ribs. “Boris, wake up.”

Boris groans, his eyes flickering open. His gaze lands on Theo and a lazy smile spreads across his face. “Ah, Potter,” he drawls, looking up at him from under heavy eyelids. “You’re alive.”

Theo looks at him dubiously. “Are you?

“Oh, yah, of course.” Boris shoves himself up into a sitting position, leaning against the headboard. Dark purple circles ring his eyes, tangled hair falling into his face, echoes of Vegas. Underneath the sleeve of his ratty old shirt Theo can see the edge of a bandage wrapped around his arm. His entire body must be burdened under a weight that he won’t ever show, a lifetime of compounded horror and God knows what else he’s been through. There’s only a shadow left of the teenager that Theo once knew, but it’s all the good things: his fearlessness and his easy smiles and his ability to bear the world on his shoulders. Life hasn’t broken him like it has Theo.

But Theo’s heart aches for him anyways. It twists and yearns and wonders just like it has every day since they separated as kids. There’s an entire chunk of his life that Theo wasn’t – couldn’t have been – a part of, and not knowing a single thing he went through and not being able to be there for him, not able to repay everything Boris did for him in Vegas – it hurts to think about.

“Potter? You still there?”

Theo blinks as he realizes he’s been staring dead-eyed at Boris for way too long. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m…” He shakes his head. “What time is it?”

Boris lets out a yawn as he checks his phone on the nightstand, squinting at the screen. “Almost five.”

“PM?”

“Yah.”

Theo tightens his arms around his knees. “What day?”

“Still Christmas.” Boris frowns in concern as he looks Theo up and down. “You sure you’re okay? You took the pills I left out for you, yes?”

“Yeah, I did. I’m fine. Just, you know.” You know. Traumatized, scared out of my mind, dehydrated, a fucking murderer. He doesn’t have to say it aloud – Boris knows. He’s never not known.

“Up, then, come on,” he says, throwing back the blankets. “Take a shower and we’ll have dinner.”

“Wait –“ Theo splutters, his arms going slack around his legs. Boris pauses, waiting for him to speak, and he swallows past the paranoia in his throat. That fucking paranoia. It hasn’t left him in ten years. “I don’t really want to go out. For dinner.”

Boris makes a face. “Of course we’re not going out, tupitsa. Is Christmas, no one is open. And even if some place was open, you look like you have the plague. Nobody would let you in.”

“Fuck off,” Theo sighs. He feels a little bit of the tension leave him with the exhale.

Boris smirks and pulls open a drawer. After a second of rummaging around, a handful of clothes hits Theo in the face and knocks his glasses askew. “Shower, then dinner.”

 

The door in the hall across from Boris’ room opens into a tiny tiled bathroom. Avoiding the mirror above the sink, Theo stands under the showerhead and turns the water up as high as it’ll go, letting it scald his skin, his nerves, his bones, until he can’t feel anything anymore.

He closes his eyes and he sees pain. He sees chunks of dusty rubble and clouds of gray matter and the cold absence in his life where his mother should be. He sees red hair and morphine lollipops and a lifetime of pointless obsession that led absolutely nowhere. He sees black eyes and split lips and bloody cuts and bruises on the face of the only person he loves. And then right there at the center of it all, constantly demanding to be seen, is the painting. That goddamn painting. It ruined him yet it kept him alive. It was his purpose and his addiction and his downfall. He loves it and he hates it and he never wants to look at anything else ever again and he wants to burn it to ashes.

He opens his eyes. It doesn’t matter now.

He washes his hair twice and scrubs his skin until he’s raw, until he’s sure all the remnants of Amsterdam have been washed down the drain. Then he towels off and dresses in the clothes Boris gave him – worn flannel pants and a baggy sweater that smells like everything else in this house: like Boris. Like home.

He catches himself in the steam-coated mirror. To his mild surprise, he doesn’t look absolutely horrible. In fact, were it not for the hollowness in his eyes, he’d look normal, okay-passing.

He lets out a heavy sigh, his fingers digging into the countertop. He hates this version of himself: this ugly, lost, shattered shell of a human being, constantly high and untethered and numb. He didn’t used to be like this, he thinks. But that was years ago. That’s farther back in the past than he’s capable of seeing.

The tangy scent of fruit and something bitter wafts through the apartment, pulling him out of his thoughts. He leaves the bathroom and his reflection behind, and when he sees Boris standing in the kitchen – now wearing his long wool coat over his shirt and boxers – he immediately knows why everything smells more like propane than it should.

“Are you really trying to cook?” he asks skeptically, grabbing a blanket off the couch and wrapping it around himself like a child in a cape. He wants to smile at Boris’ choice of attire – really, he wouldn’t have expected anything else – but it just isn’t quite there yet.

“Sochivo, Potter,” Boris calls. “Good for the soul.”

“What the hell is sochivo? Did you just make that up?”

“I did not. Is traditional Slavic Christmas dish. Well, Christmas Eve, but we’ll be fine.”

Theo frowns, peering over Boris’ shoulder at the mess of bowls, measuring cups, and ingredients spilled all over the counter. Bags of dried fruit and nuts, jars of honey and herbs and a carton of milk. There’s a three-pound bag of wheatberries on the floor, and Theo doesn’t even really know what a wheatberry is. “Boris, you can’t cook to save your life.”

Boris pauses his inspection of a stained recipe sheet to raise an eyebrow at Theo. “This is traditional recipe from my roots, Potter, I think I can cook it perfectly fine. I bought everything weeks ago, have just been waiting for the right time.”

“Have you ever actually made it?”

“Does it matter if is in my blood?”

“Seriously?”

Boris lets out an exasperated huff. “How about I start –“ using his wooden mixing spoon to gesture, “- and you help me and if – if – things go wrong, you can do it. Or we eat toast.”

Theo shakes his head, resigned. “Whatever. Just please don’t catch me or yourself on fire.”

Cooking with Boris is peaceful in a way nothing has been for a while, despite the fact that they bicker and get in each other’s way the whole time. They slice dried fruit and chop nuts and boil the wheatberries and measure out spices. Theo ends up doing most of the work, even though he has absolutely no clue what this dish is supposed to look or taste like, while Boris reads out the recipe to him. Dusk falls over Antwerp and darkens the snowy sky until eventually they have to turn on the warm yellow house lights. Every time Theo looks over at Boris, he’s humming some Ukrainian holiday song as they work, the lights from the Christmas tree in the living room dancing across his face: bright purples and blues and greens and every other color of the rainbow, reflecting the spirit Theo knows glows bright inside. They have the sounds of each other and floating in through the open window is the singing of carolers on the street below, Judy Garland streaming from the neighbors’ balcony, bright cheers of Happy holidays! all around.

It’s a Christmas that truly feels like Christmas, and Theo can’t help but think it wouldn’t be anything at all if Boris wasn’t here.

An hour or so later, the sochivo turns out to be a bowl of sweet wheatberries mixed with dried fruit, nuts, and poppy seeds, all congealed together with honey. It makes it out of the oven alive and edible, and they’ve almost survived the whole ordeal when Boris burns his hand on the pan. He immediately lets loose a string of expletives in three different languages and Theo rolls his eyes, taking the pan and setting it on the counter.

“Fuck, we almost made it the whole way through. Quit being a baby.”

“I’m a burn victim, Potter! Look at this!” He shoves his hand in Theo’s face – it’s nothing, smaller than a dime on his palm. Theo swats it away.

“Jesus Christ, you’ll be fine. Go run it under some water.”

Boris groans like it’s the end of the world but opens the faucet over the burn anyways. While he stands there swearing under his breath, Theo divides the sochivo into two bowls between them and waits for Boris to finish whining over his first-degree burn.

“You done yet?”

Boris shuts off the tap with a huff and a glare at Theo. “Yes, I’m done. Unsympathetic bastard. I could lose a leg and you would not care.“

“That is not true and you know it.”

“Mhm. What do you want to drink?”

“Surprise me.”

Boris opens the fridge. “Well, all I have is vodka and grape juice.”

Grape juice?

“I don’t know! Grocery shopping is not the top of my priority list.”

Theo opts for the grape juice, Boris for the vodka, so with their food and drinks in hand they stretch out on the blanket-laden sofa, backs against the armrests, legs overlapping in the middle. They could sit properly on it, Theo belatedly realizes, with their feet propped on the coffee table, but they’ve already fallen right into their old teenaged routine of existing in the same space. It’s all very second-nature, and back then it got to the point where Theo didn’t even realize it was happening. It was just loosely interlaced fingers or shoulders pressed against each other or Theo’s head in Boris’ lap. It just was.

“Same time?” Boris asks, nodding to their food.

“Yeah. One – two – three.”

They take a bite. Theo fully expects to hurl it right back up, because honestly, he and Boris always have been and probably always will be shitty cooks, but it actually tastes really good. Warm and fruity with echoes of Christmas. With the grape juice in his Welcome to Belgium! coffee mug and the holiday music that Boris puts on the record player, it’s…well, it’s perfect. Theo didn’t know anything in his life could even be perfect anymore, especially not in this way, but this is about as close to it as it comes.

“Hell of a last few weeks, no?” Boris says, slumping against the armrest. “Not how I wanted to see you again, no way.”

Theo slowly finishes his spoonful of sochivo, contemplating Boris’ words. “How did you want to see me again?”

Boris waves a dismissive hand. “Not like that. Not for that reason, you know?”

“Yeah,” Theo mumbles. How had he thought about seeing Boris again? He had had a multitude of dreams over the last eight years – typical situations like running into him on the street, weird far-fetched ones that only exist in dreams like meeting him in a café in Maine. Theo’s never even been to Maine. But he never thought the day he finally found Boris again would be because of the Goldfinch. Between Maine and Amsterdam, he’d take the café, hands down.

It doesn’t matter now, obviously. What’s done is done. But when he realizes that Boris just effectively admitted to thinking about seeing him again, he eats another spoonful to hide his smile. It feels good to know it wasn’t all one-sided, at least.

Boris talks and talks for the rest of dinner, telling him stories from the life that Theo missed out on, all the wild things he did and the friends he made and the people he slept with and the places he went; Nova Scotia, Oslo, Tijuana, even back to his old hometown of Alice Springs in Australia. Theo tells him about life with Hobie, about Kitsey and Pippa, about how he’s selling fakes and charming elitist Hampton mansion owners out of their money. Boris laughs at that, vodka sloshing around in the bottle as he lowers it from his lips.

“You’re a criminal, Potter. A good one.”

Theo rolls his eyes. “Mirror images, asshole.”

Boris waves a dismissive hand. “You should come work with me. Furniture, art, all the same kind of fraud, no?”

“At least I’m not involved in shoot-outs on the daily.”

Boris shrugs, taking another swig from the vodka. “Keeps you on your toes, adds to the excitement.”

Theo snorts. “Have fun being excited when you’re six feet underground.”

They’re far past done with dinner, so Theo washes the dishes with Boris’ ‘help’ (all he does is sit there on the counter and drink grape juice straight from the carton, but that’s typical) and then Theo collapses onto the couch and kicks his feet up on the table while Boris looks for a movie.

“What’d you pick?” he asks suspiciously as Boris puts a DVD on.

The Nightmare Before Christmas. You’ve seen it, yes?” Theo shakes his head and Boris’ jaw drops. “Never?

“Boris, it’s an animated kid’s movie. When the hell would I ever watch that?”

“But it’s a classic,” Boris groans, dropping down onto the couch right next to him. Since he’s too short to reach the table, he just throws his legs on top of Theo’s.

“Is it even a Christmas movie?” Theo says skeptically. “It looks more like a Halloween movie.”

“Well, both, technically, works for either one because is that good, but just shut up and watch it and decide for yourself.”

So Theo shuts up and they watch the movie. He couldn’t really care less about the story of it all (the whole skeletons-and-Santa thing throws him off) but he doesn’t mind one bit. His attention is being diverted elsewhere because Boris is pressed up against him, warm and breathing easy, head resting on his shoulder. He’s got a cup of grape juice mixed with vodka that they’ve been passing back and forth. It’s not enough to get Theo really tipsy, but it takes the edge off everything, helps his eyes flicker shut halfway through. He’ll watch a thousand ‘classics’ if it means he can stay this close to Boris.

The movie goes on forever but in a good, languorous sort of way. After what feels like hours, Theo opens his eyes to see the credits rolling. He’s on the verge of really falling asleep, pleasantly warm from the alcohol and having Boris against him all night. In his dreamy haze, he feels Boris lift his head up, and he turns to meet his eyes.

“Merry Christmas, Theo,” Boris says softly, and the next thing Theo knows, there’s soft lips pressing a kiss to his cheek. Warmth blossoms from that spot on his skin and spreads all throughout his body like syrup; the need to move as far away as possible wars with the urge to get so close they’re sharing breath. Theo stares at him, at a loss as his heart skips every other beat.

“Merry Christmas,” he finally says, faintly. Boris’ mouth quirks in a ghost of a smile and there’s something in his eyes too, some emotion that Theo’s seen before but doesn’t know how to name. All he can think is do it again, please, God, do it again. He hates how much he wants it, absolutely despises the way every single bit of him is drawn to Boris, but there’s a part of his heart that still lives in the desert of Vegas, on that thin mattress with the AC numbing his mind and a boy made of pale skin and sharp bones and unconditional love lying next to him. And that part doesn’t care how Theo feels about it. It just desperately craves its other half like hell, the one that it was without for eight years. It’s a burning ache right there in the center of his chest, pressing so painfully against the confines of his skin that it chokes him, and he can’t get rid of it. Sometimes he wishes he could burn that part of him away, but then the knowledge of what he would become afterwards, without those memories of loving and being loved, scares him out of the idea.

Boris stands up and his absence turns the spot where he was pressed against Theo into a cold ghost.

“Where are you going?” The words slip past Theo’s lips before he can draw them back, and Boris gives him a look.

“Why would I sleep here on this shitty couch when I have perfectly good bed right down the hall?”

Because I’m here. Theo wants to kick himself. Maybe he drank more than he thought. “Oh. Yeah. Right.”

After a moment, Boris raises his eyebrows at him expectantly. “Aren’t you coming?”

“Where?”

“The bed, glupyy. You don’t want to sleep on that.”

Theo’s mouth goes dry. He has so many memories of sleeping next to Boris, having that presence, knowing he’s there the whole night – but he doesn’t need that anymore, not like he used to. He doesn’t need Boris just to go to sleep. He’s grown out of that.

“No, I’m – I’m fine here.”

Boris looks at him dubiously. “Are you sure? I can take the couch and you can have the bed to yourself, if you want. Either way, you know I don’t care.”

Theo shakes his head. “Really, Boris, it’s fine. It’s just one night. Don’t worry about it.”

Boris shrugs. “If you say so. You know where I am if you need anything.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

Boris rocks onto the balls of his feet, shoving his hands into his coat pockets. “Sweet dreams then, Potter.”

“Yeah. You too.”

Theo watches him disappear into his room, leaving the door halfway open. The house falls eerily silent then; Theo can hear the low whistle of wind outside the window and the distant sounds of a Christmas party down the street. He blows out a breath, his shoulders slumping as it goes. He makes his best effort to get comfortable on the couch and to ignore the fact that the pillow below his head smells like Boris, and then he finally closes his eyes.

 

He can’t close his eyes.

Every time he does, he sees crimson splatters and four beige walls. Gunshots ring in his ears. The suffocating anxiety, the roiling nausea, the imminent fear of loss – it all comes right back to him in tangible waves, knocking him down like an avalanche that he just keeps getting swept up in. He sees it coming every time but it takes him anyways.

After an hour of tossing and turning and wanting to scream, he sits up. The flat is shrouded in shadows, lit faintly at the windowsills by the bright Christmas lights outside. The unfamiliarity of it all starts to seep under his skin, cold and paralyzing like someone left the window open. He hates it. Though he was miserable in Amsterdam, lost in his own head and getting through each dull day solely because his heart continued to beat and so he had no choice, he knew his surroundings. He memorized every inch of his hotel room so that nothing in there could surprise him. Here, he has no idea what lurks in the corners. He wouldn’t know the front door from the balcony door, and that very fact is making his throat seize up like his chest is stuffed with cotton.

Calm down. It’s just an apartment. It’s Boris’ apartment, for fuck’s sake. He takes a deep breath, holding it tight in his lungs as he stares into the darkness. You’re not in Amsterdam anymore.

Despite all his self-reassurances, he can feel the claustrophobia settling into his bones. He can’t stay here on the couch. He won’t get any sleep – and even though he’s used to that, he knows that trying to sleep here anyways will drive him up the wall and possibly launch him into an anxiety attack, which he definitely doesn’t need right now. So where else can he go?

He closes his eyes. The answer is right there, glaringly obvious. It isn’t a big deal. It’s not. They did this for two years. Boris has always made it clear that it doesn’t bother him in the slightest. It’s as simple as anything else, and yet Theo finds that all of a sudden his body weighs a million tons.

He knows why he can’t go. He knows. He knows because he burns when their fingertips brush as Boris passes him a drink. He knows because his eyes are always on his best friend, even when they shouldn’t be. He knows because, during those years when he was alone and losing his mind and about to punch a hole in the wall or swallow a handful of pills, his thoughts always went to Boris. It was Boris that brought him back to earth. Flashes of Russian words, unexplainable feelings, air conditioner, tight chest, chlorine, rough carpet, soft hands, sand and dust. That was his anchor, then and now. So, yes, he knows why he wants to go to Boris right now, and he knows why it feels impossible to do so, and he’s going to go on pretending he doesn’t know anything at all.

After another ten minutes of lying there and feeling like he’s about to explode, he finally takes a deep breath and swings his legs off the couch. It doesn’t have to mean anything, he tells himself as he pads down the dark hallway. It’s just Boris. This is just normal. This is what we do.

But his heart betrays his head the second he pushes Boris’ cracked bedroom door open the rest of the way. In the faint glow of the streetlamp outside the window, he can make out Boris’ silhouette; he’s sitting up against the headboard, clearly awake.

“Potter?” he asks.

“Yeah,” Theo says quietly. “I – I can’t sleep.”

“I figured.” He scoots over to make room for Theo. “Come on.”

Theo’s shoulders drop, his reservations gone. Of course Boris would be waiting for him. And there’s nobody else for him to go to. If he can’t be his most vulnerable self around Boris, who’s left?

He crosses the shadowed room and lies down on his side, facing Boris’ thigh. He can feel Boris looking down at him, considering what to do, and a second later there’s a hand gently stroking his hair. A lump rises in his throat at the intimacy of it, how breathtakingly Boris it is, and suddenly he’s on the verge of tears.

Don’t fucking cry. Don’t do it. This is not the time to cry.

“Talk to me,” Boris murmurs. Theo takes a jagged breath and it rattles in his chest on its way out. He doesn’t want to talk about Amsterdam or his mother or the overdoses or the painting. He’s already told Boris about all that shit, worn those topics down so far they’re blunt and exhausted, so he just says the first thing on his tongue.

“I missed you.”

He doesn’t know why he says it, really, but it’s more of a relief than he thought it would be to have that truth out in the open.

Boris sighs, his fingers winding through Theo’s hair. “I missed you too, Potter. More than you know.”

“You did?”

“Of course I did. Thought about you every single day.”

Theo’s eyes sting. “Yeah,” he whispers. “I did too.”

After a few minutes of silence, Boris gently tugs on his hair. “What is it?”

“God, I don’t know, I don’t even know why I’m upset.” His voice breaks on the last word; he can’t get past the burning in his throat. He knows he needs to stop right now before he loses it completely, but it’s too late – he’s already opened his mouth. The words just start coming, pouring out of his soul in a very cathartic release, and it’s easier when he doesn’t have to look Boris in the eyes. “It’s just – it’s a lot. There’s so much, I don’t know, everything in my head is so fucked up, I don’t even know when the last time I cried was. I feel like I have years’ worth of – of everything inside me and I haven’t let a single thing out in forever and it’s just all so overwhelming and I can’t do it anymore. I’m lying to everyone, I’ve been lying to everyone for years, and I missed you, Boris, fuck, I missed you so much, all the time, I’m always missing you, and – and it’s –“ The beginnings of a sob slip out before he can hold it back and Boris immediately slides down next to him. “It’s just all so much and I don’t – I don’t know how to – how to deal with it –“

“Hey, hey, Theo – is okay. Is all fine.” Boris wraps his arms around him and pulls him in tight against his chest. Theo buries his face into his shirt as tears start to slip from behind his eyes. “You’re okay,” Boris whispers. “Let it go. Just let it go, okay? I’m right here.”

“It’s – it’s all just – everything is a mess –“

“Shh, Theo, I know.” Boris pulls him closer. “I know. Let it go, moya lyubov. Am right here for you. Just let it go.”

Both his words and his embrace are so familiar and safe that the dam finally breaks. Theo unravels as everything catches up with him; he falls apart all the way down to his core. He cries and cries and cries for God knows how long, choking on his own breath and making an absolute mess of both himself and Boris’ shirt. But Boris doesn’t care at all – he holds him all the way through it. The last time Theo cried like this around someone else was eight years ago, and it was the very same person. Same arms around him, same voice in his ear, same heartbeat against his own. It’s Vegas all over again, except they’re different, they’re older, they’ve changed – but have they, really? At the end of it all, aren’t they still just two deeply wounded souls desperately clinging to each other – to their home – for as long as possible?

He cries. He gets rid of every burden, every regret, every bit of anger and grief until he’s empty and raw. And then, once his head is pounding and he’s exhausted and severely dehydrated, he falls asleep right there in Boris’ arms. The last thing he remembers is Boris whispering: don’t worry anymore, Theo, is going to be okay, all going to be fine. He says it over and over and over, enough to make Theo start thinking it might be true.

 

“Slow down, you crazy child…take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while…”

Gentle singing slowly brings Theo to consciousness. He blinks his eyes open; they’re itchy and dry as hell, no doubt bloodshot and underlined in purple. Aside from that, though, everything is warm. Peaceful. Safe.

“Is alright, you can afford to lose a day or two…”

He rolls over. Boris is sitting up against the headboard, humming a song as he inspects the bandage wrapped around his arm.

“Boris?” Theo croaks. God, how much did he cry last night? Will he even have a voice today?

Boris smiles down at him. “When will you realize Vienna waits for you, Potter?”

Billy Joel. Vienna. Boris used to sing it all the time – the Russian version, too. Theo still has no idea why he latched onto that song, but thanks to how often he walked around singing it during their time in Vegas, it was constantly stuck in both their heads.

Theo couldn’t stand to listen to it afterwards.

“Is your arm okay?” he asks, sitting up. Boris nods.

“All good. Here,” he adds, handing Theo his glasses off the nightstand.

“How long have you been up?”

“Not long. Is only nine.”

Theo looks across him to the window. Snow everywhere, glittering in the weak morning light that strains to break through the heavy clouds. What is it about this place that makes it so serene? Just the view alone helps him relax that much more.

His lips are split and chapped, his throat dry as a desert. He pushes back the blankets and stumbles across the hall to the bathroom, where he cups his hands under the faucet and gulps down as much tap water as he can stand.

“You good?” Boris asks, watching bemusedly as he climbs back into bed with a dripping wet face and the collar of his – Boris’ – sweater practically soaked.

“Yeah,” he says absently, staring at the side of Boris’ thigh just like he did last night, before he had what may very well be his biggest breakdown in the last several years. After it all, though, he feels so much lighter. Sure, he still has to go back to New York and deal with what he left behind – he’s still going to have to find some way to step out the front door without having a panic attack – but at least he doesn’t feel like he has to be running away from it all. That permanent sense of trying to outrun everything, the weight he’s felt since he was thirteen – it’s just gone. It started fading when Boris told him that the painting was dealt with, that he no longer had to think about it every waking moment, and it disappeared completely after last night. It feels good to be a little bit more free now. He inhales, exhales. No more outrunning my own life.

“What’s breakfast?” he asks.

Boris hums in consideration. “Leftovers?”

“Do you not even have cereal?”

“Look, I have not been here in weeks! Most of the food that was here had gone off, and anyways, was not like I could just drop by the shop on our way back from a shoot-out.”

“Could have stopped somewhere on the way over,” Theo mumbles, burying his face into the now-damp pillow. “My bag is here, right?”

“What, do you have cereal in there?”

No, asshole. I just want my clothes.”

“Oh. Yah, here.”

Theo lifts his head and frowns as Boris leans over the side of the bed. A second later his bag flies over and socks him right in the stomach, knocking the breath out of him. Boris cracks up laughing and Theo sits up indignantly, furiously wheezing as he punches Boris’ arm.

“You – fucking – dick!”

Boris keels over in laughter and Theo can’t even land a solid hit so he resorts to bashing him with his bag until he scrambles to the foot of the bed yelling, “Okay, okay! Truce! Truce, you maniac!”

He’s still laughing and it’s so surreal, entirely out-of-body for just a moment, a perfectly preserved snapshot of when they were kids doing this exact same thing. Theo sits back on his heels and glares at him, breathing hard. “You’re the absolute worst, you know that?”

“Aw, no need to be so harsh.”

“I hate you, I really do.”

“You love me, Potter, we both know it,” Boris says with that shit-eating grin of his, leaning back on his arms. Theo side-eyes him, not giving him the satisfaction of a response because he’s closer to the uncomfortable truth than he knows.

Rooting through his bag, it turns out the only suitable item of clothing he brought was his ratty old sweater, so he pulls off the one of Boris’ that he wore all day yesterday, balls it up tight, and flings it right at Boris’ face. Boris swears as it smacks him with a wet thwack.

“I get it, Jesus!”

Satisfied, Theo pulls on his own sweater. “Do you have some jeans I can wear?” His one pair of suit trousers are completely ruined, holes torn in the knees and blood all over them.

Boris nods to the dresser. “Get them yourself, you bitter fuck.”

Theo barely, barely restrains himself from tackling Boris again, because his gaze is frozen on the pale strip of skin between Boris’ waist and where his shirt has rucked up around his stomach. Theo thinks he kissed that spot once, maybe, in another life. Was that real? Or was it some dream he had, back then or possibly years later, curled up on cold tile somewhere and high out of his mind? If it was a dream, how does he remember the way Boris’ breath caught and he shivered underneath him so vividly?

He catches Boris watching him curiously and quickly looks away as his body flushes with embarrassment. God, he’s an idiot, he really is.

But he can’t help wondering, because of the look in Boris’ eyes – maybe it was real. Maybe they were both remembering it.

 

The morning slides by in monochrome moments: gray snow continuously falling outside, black and white movies, Boris’ pale skin next to him the whole time. They watch the few DVDs Boris finds crammed amongst the paperbacks on his bookshelf, and they eat leftover sochivo for breakfast and whatever the Belgian version of Campbell’s tomato soup is with slightly stale saltines when they get hungry again. Last night was nice, but they’re not very inclined to try cooking again. During It’s a Wonderful Life – subtitled in Polish – Theo watches as Boris injects a cocktail of hydrocodone and acetaminophen and who knows what else makes up the liquid equivalent of a painkiller into his arm instead of just popping Percocet like a normal person. They talk about it a little bit, half-heartedly and not enough for Theo to really get worked up over it. Despite being the thing most likely to kill them within the near future, drugs are the things he’s least concerned about right now, and though Boris’ little regard for his own life scares him, telling him he should slow down is just the pot calling the kettle black.

All the while, Theo can’t stop thinking. He’s thinking about Amsterdam. He’s thinking about Boris’ hands running up and down his back last night. He’s thinking about Hobie and if he’s okay, if the shop is okay. He’s thinking about Boris kissing him goodbye in Vegas, and when he looks across the couch to see Boris’ eyes on him, he’s wondering if, were Boris to kiss him again, now, would it be the same?

He hates thinking. This apartment is giving him too much space to think.

It’s almost one and Boris’ high has pretty much worn off and they’re halfway through Casablanca – Dutch subtitles – when Theo starts feeling the stagnancy. He curls and uncurls his toes, gnaws on his lip because he can’t sit still. Ten minutes later, Boris notices.

“Claustrophobic?” he asks, lowering a bottle of vodka from his lips.

“Yeah. I guess so.” It’s growing pains from middle school all over again – his skin too tight for his bones, uncomfortable, restless, everything about him off but no relief no matter which way he moves. Too much thinking.

Boris pauses the movie and laces his fingers together, stretching his arms above his head. There’s that skin again, flashing between the waistline of his boxers and the hem of his shirt, as pale as ever because he’s cursed to look like a vampire for the rest of his life. “You want to go out? Get lunch?”

Theo pulls his eyes away and looks out the window. Snow, snow, snow, speckled with rainbow lights and holly berries. Just the idea of going out sends his pulse racing. Logically, he knows there isn’t anyone out there. He’s not going to step out the door and have a canvas sack thrown over his head or a gun pushed against his ribs, or Boris’. Everything is over, but God, it’s hard to relinquish the safety of these four walls.

Boris senses his hesitation and moves across the couch to sit pressed up next to him, his gaze burning into the side of Theo’s face as he tries to catch his eyes. “Hey. You know you’re safe here.”

“I know.” Gritted teeth, anxiety starting to tremble in his hands. He squeezes his eyes shut tight.

“Nothing is going to happen to you now, you know that. I’ll be right here the whole time. Promise. Am not going anywhere, Theo.”

“I know.

But it’s getting harder to pull oxygen into his lungs. Behind his eyelids he sees the same things he was seeing last night: split knuckles, blood-splattered snow, and, strangely, the dirty plastic window of a Greyhound. He’s lightheaded and on the edge of escalating into a full panic attack and Boris knows it. It’s my fault. My fault. My fault. His self-blame is a litany on repeat.

He feels the warmth of a hand on the back of his neck and Boris presses their foreheads together. The relief of it loosens his chest, but it isn’t much to combat the monster still clawing its way up through his body. He’s clenching his fists so hard he’s about to break the skin of his palms with his nails.

“Breathe with me, Theo. Come on.”

Breathe with me. It’s so familiar, that voice and those words. They saved his life once, twice, he doesn’t really know how many times. Boris saved his life back then and he’s saving him now.

“How do I – how do I –“ Theo gasps, his head spinning. There’s nothing out there, he knows there’s nothing out there, but fucking hell, he almost lost everything, he almost lost Boris, just because of a goddamn painting–

“Focus on me. Me, Theo, is just me – I’m right here. Breathe, come on. I know you can. You’re safe right here. Breathe, Theo.”

Come on, Theo. Come on. Over the ringing in his ears and the pain in his chest, he forces himself to focus on what he knows is safe and real. Boris’ palm on the back of his neck. Boris’ forehead pressed against his. The rise and fall of Boris’ chest that Theo starts timing his own breaths to, in and out, in and out.

The lightheadedness seems insurmountable, no more air left in the room for him to breathe because he’s drowning in memories so blurry and suffocating that he can barely even tell what they are. He’s certain he’s going to pass out, but then Boris places his free hand over Theo’s white knuckles and with each exhale, it gets a little more manageable. Boris keeps talking to him as he tries to get his feet back on the ground, a non-stop string of comforts because he knows exactly how much Theo relies on his voice.

Just breathe. Is over, is all over, Potter. All of it. No one is waiting outside. No one is waiting to take you away. Is all over. Breathe.

He doesn’t know how long it takes but he’s finally stable enough to wander out of the fog in his mind. He opens his eyes, still slightly breathless. Boris is right there and he leans back just a bit to see him fully. His face creased with concern, he gently rubs his thumb over Theo’s cheek.

“You here with me?”

Theo swallows hard. His throat scrapes like sandpaper. “Yeah. I’m here.”

He can’t look away from Boris, but he guesses that’s a good thing since it’s forcing him to focus on something other than the anxiety still roiling in his stomach. Everything is fine because Boris is here, he tells himself. Nothing is going to happen to you because Boris is here. It’s all okay, because Boris is here. Boris is…Boris is touching his face. And his hand. And he’s so close, his eyelashes and his lips and just him, and suddenly Theo’s heart is jackhammering for another reason entirely. Fuck, this is not what he needed to focus on at all. Sure, they’ve been in physical contact pretty much all day – not to mention last night – but this is different. This is way different because all of a sudden, every single fiber in Theo’s body desperately wants to know what it’s like to kiss him – really kiss him.

“Potter. You’re checking out again,” Boris says, waving his hand in front of Theo’s face. Theo blinks.

“What?”

Boris frowns. “You sure you are okay?”

Theo nods, scooting backwards and out of Boris’ grasp before he does something he’ll regret. “I’m good.”

There’s a brief flash of something akin to disappointment on Boris’ face, but it’s instantly replaced with such relief that he lets out a short laugh, and Theo has no idea what the prior emotion was supposed to be. “Good. Knew you would be, you know. Just takes time, yes?”

“Yeah,” Theo says absently. He’s still trying to catch his breath, still thinking about Boris and this not-so-new urge to grab his shirt sleeve and pull him close. “God. Sorry.”

Boris shakes his head. “Stop saying that. I’ll get you some water and then we’ll find something in the fridge to eat, yah?”

Theo frowns as Boris gets off the couch. “I thought we were going out.”

Boris hesitates. “You still want to?”

Theo dares a look out the window again. It’s more tolerable now, a little easier to imagine stepping out there. And he’ll have to go eventually, if not now then at least for his flight home. He doesn’t know if he can stand another minute in here with his own thoughts. He looks back at Boris. “Yeah, I think we should.”

“We don’t have to. Really, Potter. If you want to stay in, we stay in.”

“No, I – I need to get out. Besides,” he adds, standing up, “Anything out there is better than eating whatever shit you have in your fridge.”

Boris grins, ignoring the insult (probably because he knows it’s true). “Excellent. There is a fish and chips shop just down the street.”

“Fish and chips? They have that here?”

“Yah. Amazing. Just the one place, though. And they have this sauce, I don’t know what it is, something sour, who knows, but is good. I eat it every time I’m here. And we can get you a coat!”

Theo winces at the idea of going shopping right now. One stop for food is enough. “Can I just wear one of yours?”

Boris shrugs. “If that’s what you want.”

So ten minutes later he finds himself on the snowy sidewalk outside the flat wearing a long wool coat that actually fits him better than it does Boris. Boris locks the door behind them and claps Theo on the back. “Onward, yes?”

Theo stares out at the street. Dark cobblestones, Christmas lights stringing from rooftop to rooftop, the scent of fresh bread drifting from a nearby shop, snow fluttering down from the gray clouds above. No dark red blood staining the white banks of snow. No one lurking around the corner. Nothing, no one, and yet Theo can feel the paranoia rising in his throat again.

Boris knows. He holds out his hand, palm up. “Is going to be fine, Potter. I promise.”

Theo stares at his hand, pale and scarred. With a deep breath, he lifts his own and laces it through Boris’. His entire body floods with warmth at how easy it is, at the way Boris holds on tight without a second thought. Maybe their hands fit just right together, like they were meant to be there all along; maybe he’s imagining it. Either way, it takes enough of the tension out of him to get him to start putting one foot in front of the other.

They walk. Antwerp is beautiful, glittering with all the shine of Christmastime, and Theo wishes he could appreciate it. He wants to look at the snow-laden trees and old brick buildings and marvel at it all, wow, what a wonderful world, Louis Armstrong was right, but the hole inside him is too big for that right now. He has to patch other things up first, one gaping wound at a time. He doesn’t really have room for beauty.

That’s not quite true, though, is it, a voice in the back of his head says as his eyes catch on Boris. His hair and eyelashes are dusted with snowflakes, his cheeks flushed pink from the cold. It’s so hard to reconcile this smiling, happy-go-lucky version of him with the malnourished, glue-sniffing sixteen-year-old him or the ruthless, bloody-knuckled mafia-leader him – and yet, at the same time, it’s the only thing that makes sense. He told Theo himself: it all comes right back down to love. This version of him is who he has always been at his core, and that fact is a balm to Theo’s constant anxiety. Even when everything else has gone to shit, at least he’ll have Boris. At least Boris will always love him, no matter what he does or what they go through.

He’s starting to realize a thing or two about him and Boris.

Boris catches him looking and he glances away, blushing like a high schooler. Boris’ mouth quirks up in a smile and he looks away without saying anything. It’s not lost on Theo that they’re literally holding hands but he turns into a flustered mess when Boris smiles at him.

The fish and chips place is a cute little corner shop a few blocks away, and they sit at a table by the window and eat from plastic red baskets and watch the snow come down. It’s calm, happy, doesn’t make Theo want to book it back to the apartment. They order extra food so they don’t have to worry about cooking dinner, and when they step outside the shop and Boris offers his hand again, Theo takes it.

All of it is so, so simple, and yet it’s taken Theo ten years to figure it out – or maybe he knew it all along and just didn’t want to acknowledge it. He needs Boris. Life is so much better when he’s around. All the colors are deeper, the ground is more solid, everything is a few shades brighter. And maybe he’s the person Theo is supposed to have by his side for the rest of his life. Maybe that’s okay. He’s allowed to have that, he thinks, if only Boris is just as willing.

He’s turning all this over in his head as they walk home, as they climb the snow-covered steps to the apartment building, as he stands behind Boris and waits for him to unlock the door.

“Potter?”

Theo blinks out of his thoughts and looks up, all the air leaving his lungs in a rush as he realizes how close Boris is. He’s right there, a step above Theo so that they’re eye-to-eye, and he’s clearly concerned.

“What?” Theo says.

“You’re quiet again.”

“Sorry.”

“I told you to stop saying that.” He gently taps Theo’s temple. “What are you thinking about?”

Just this once, Theo decides. Just this once.

“You.”

Boris smiles softly. “Sometimes I think I know you, and then you say things like this, and…” He shakes his head. “You surprise me, sometimes.”

Theo lets out a dry laugh. “I don’t even know myself, Boris. You know me a thousand times better than I do.”

“And you know me better than I do.” Boris shrugs. “Is just how love goes, I think.”

“Yeah, I guess it –“ Theo chokes on his own words as he realizes what Boris just said. He stares wide-eyed at him. How did he know? Was Theo actually thinking out loud earlier? “What? You – what?”

Boris looks at him in fond amusement, his eyes sparkling, and then everything starts falling into place, one thing right after another, so fast Theo can’t keep up.

“Oh,” he breathes. “So you…you really…”

Boris nods. “I really do.”

That’s all it takes for Theo to finally give in. All his thoughts melt away like snowflakes on his skin as he slides a hand behind Boris’ neck and kisses him. Oh. He’s instantly overwhelmed, certain his knees are going to give out because he’s kissing Boris, and Boris is kissing him back, he’s holding Theo’s face between his hands and kissing him, what the fuck, but he manages to stay on his feet. He grabs onto Boris’ coat lapels to steady himself and then it’s easier, he’s calmer, and suddenly everything is peaceful in a way he didn’t think it could be. It’s just them and the snow fluttering down and the pleasure of not thinking about anything except Boris and how he tastes like spearmint and vodka and cigarette smoke.

He's breathless when Boris pulls away, despite it being the gentlest kiss he’s ever had. He doesn’t open his eyes but he can feel Boris right there with him, their noses brushing.

“Me too,” Theo gasps. “I – you know. The love thing. I feel like that too. About you, I mean.”

Boris lets out a soft laugh. “I know, Potter.”

And then he’s pulling Theo close and kissing him again. Every bit of it is beyond exhilarating and Theo is so lightheaded he’s afraid he’s going to fall over, but it’s okay. It’s good, it’s right, it’s the best thing in the world, and it’s…oh. Theo’s heart sinks as he remembers.

He gently pushes Boris back and opens his eyes. Boris stares at him, confused.

“What is it?”

Theo doesn’t want to say it, doesn’t want to ruin this, but he needs Boris to know so that he doesn’t end up hurt. “I have to book my flight,” he says quietly, tightening his grip on Boris’ lapels.

Boris shakes his head. “You don’t.”

“I have to. I have to go back and deal with everything. Everyone.” He takes a deep breath, inhaling the crisp winter air and the intoxicating scent of Boris. “I’m sorry. I should have remembered. I just – I don’t want you to forget that I’m leaving before we start…” He exhales, letting himself slump forward against Boris. “Whatever this is.”

Boris laughs, pressing a kiss to Theo’s forehead. “I have been all yours for ten years, Theo. If you think a little distance is going to make me want you less, you are more a fool than I thought you were.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

“Am just saying. You’re pretty thick.”

You’re an asshole,” Theo retorts, pushing him away with a smile. “Get the door open, I’m freezing.”

Boris grins and it’s only when he turns away that Theo lets himself start thinking again. His heart is pounding, his head is spinning, and he can’t stop smiling like an idiot.

He knows what it’s like to really kiss Boris now.

 

He books his flight home using Boris’ laptop. Midnight departure, one layover in Heathrow that he knows he’ll spend all four hours of bouncing his knee and drinking shitty coffee, wishing he was still in Antwerp or already back in New York. He’ll land at LaGuardia at seven in the morning, dreary and exhausted and still figuring out what to tell Hobie and Kitsey and everyone else.

“All done?” Boris asks somberly when he closes the laptop and sets it aside. They’re sprawled on the couch again, Boris laying half on the cushions and half on top of Theo.

“Yeah.”

“When?”

“Midnight.” Saying it out loud is a sucker punch of reality. He tilts his head back onto the armrest, and he knows they’re both counting how long they have left.

Boris’ voice is carefully neutral when he speaks. “Well, not much longer to go, Potter. How do you want to spend it?”

“With you.”

It slips off his tongue before he thinks better of it. He doesn’t know whether he’s allowed to say it or not, because he’s leaving and doing this might be off-limits now. He lifts his head and Boris props himself up on an elbow, meeting Theo’s gaze, and he nods.

“What do you want?”

More time. That isn’t an option, though. Theo swallows hard. “Kiss me again.” His voice is a lot more hoarse than he’d like it to be. “Please.”

So Boris does, because he has never refused Theo anything in his life. Ever so slowly, in that liminal space where the only sound is Theo’s heart slamming against his ribcage and the tinny record player, their lips come together. And then again. And again. And again. Oh. Theo can’t think. His hands are already shaking, because he’s pathetic and desperate and, maybe, just maybe, in love. He can tell Boris is still hesitant, though, in the way he holds himself just far enough above Theo that their bodies aren’t quite touching. He’s worried Theo is going to snap, change his mind, push him away for the rest of his life. Theo hates being the reason that those thoughts exist at all, and it stings because right now the very, very last thing he wants to do is run.

“It’s okay,” he whispers, tugging him closer. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Of course he’s going somewhere, sooner than he’d like, but they both know that isn’t what he means. Boris takes his words to heart; he immediately relaxes, sinking onto Theo and then their kisses grow deeper, more intense, different to what they were outside. Theo winds a hand into his hair, both to pull him in and steady himself. God. Everything about this – the weight of Boris on top of him, the beat of his heart, the drag of his teeth across Theo’s bottom lip – it’s all so easy. It feels like coming home after an eight-year day and finding the most important person in your life sitting on the couch, waiting up for you.

It’s quickly decided, through soft, urging noises and their inability to let go, that this is all they want to do for the rest of the day, and it gets so much better once they stop thinking about the time they have left and those thick feelings of sadness dissipate. The apartment’s heating is on the shitty side of average so they cocoon themselves in every blanket they can find and just…stay there. Bodies slotted together on that worn couch, hands and lips roaming at leisurely paces, fingers knotted up in hair – this is it. This is all Theo wants. Time becomes a meaningless concept that slips through their minds like sand from a shattered hourglass. They have eight years of this to catch up on and only half a day left to do it, so now that the gates are open, Theo intends to make the most of it.

In the back of his mind, he thinks that his heart was built to love Boris. To love him and be loved by him. But it’s one thing to think it and another to actually experience it, and holy fucking shit, experiencing Boris is some kind of new feeling entirely. Every single thing about him, everything he does, it’s all an overwhelming, unnamed emotion, specific to them alone. Theo is burning up, breathless, silently begging for this to never end because he finally feels okay. He’s not trying to escape his own skin and he's not worrying or thinking about anything at all. It’s just Boris; everything is Boris.

His glasses are gone, discarded somewhere between the carpet and the coffee table. He pulled Boris’ shirt off a while ago too – it wasn’t at all necessary in the grand scheme of things. Now, he opens his eyes to see Boris gazing at him intently. He’s made of dark curls spilling into his face and kiss-swollen lips (Theo has to bite back a smile at that one) and that expanse of pearly white and scarred chest that Theo can’t keep his hands off of.

He slowly, deliberately drags the tip of his finger across the skin of Theo’s waist, never taking his eyes off him. The scrape of his fingernail combined with the heavy look in his eyes makes Theo shiver enough to be grateful for the blankets. God, he’s a fucking wreck. Boris has made a complete mess of him and he loves it.

Boris pauses when his hand drifts over the button on Theo’s jeans, and all of a sudden the atmosphere shifts and everything feels a little bit different. He looks at Theo hesitantly. “Do you –“

“Yeah,” Theo breathes, sitting up. He can’t believe Boris has to ask. “Yeah.

He lifts his arms and lets Boris pull his shirt over his head, warm hands dragging up along his sides and bumping over his ribs. He feels so much like a teenager again, needy and touch-starved. How many times have they done this before? Surely more often than his foggy brain remembers. This is better, though, so much better because they’re sober and present and not doing it for the sake of a distraction. What remains from back then is the urgency and the longing, that heady, intoxicating feeling of I want you, I want you, I want you. Theo’s dizzy with it.

It happens the same way the rest of the day has happened: with murmurs and quiet laughs and impatient hands as they figure it all out. Their move from the sofa to the bedroom takes them twice as long as it should because they can’t stand to be separated for any longer than the time it takes to catch a breath. Theo is completely lost, positive he’s floating two inches off the ground. He’s grateful he isn’t drunk or high or both because he wants to remember every single moment of this: the time they take, the kiss Boris presses to his bare hip, the way he buries his face in the crook of Theo’s neck and gasps his name, breath hot against his skin. Theo, Theo, Theo. And Theo is spiraling; he shudders at every touch, gently kisses over the red crescent moons his fingernails leave in Boris’ shoulders and thighs. He’s untethered and weightless, so caught up in sensation and love and Boris that he wouldn’t remember his own name if it wasn’t the sole thing falling off Boris’ lips.

They lay quietly facing each other afterwards, their legs still stubbornly tangled together, hooked over hips and tucked between knees, feet brushing ankles. The pastel glow of sunset streams in through the window behind Theo and shines right onto Boris, drenching him in beautiful golden light. His eyes are heavy-lidded, focused on Theo, a faint smile on his face. His chest rises and falls with breaths that brush over Theo’s collarbone, and Theo can’t take his eyes off him. He slowly traces his finger over Boris’ lips, below his eye, across his cheek, and then gently pushes sweat-damp curls away from where they’re plastered to his forehead.

A small strangled noise leaves Boris’ throat and he pushes Theo’s hand away so he can kiss him, hard and desperate and unexpected. There’s words in that kiss, a last-ditch effort: don’t leave. Stay with me. Theo doesn’t know what to say or how to make it better. They both know the truth and it’s never going to stop tearing him up inside so he just pulls Boris close and kisses him back.

“I need a shower,” he says some time later, breathless. Boris won’t stop kissing him and he really doesn’t want to complain about it, but the afterglow has worn off and the sheets sticking to his back are starting to make him feel gross.

“So shower,” Boris mumbles into his neck. Theo frowns and nudges him up to look him in the eyes.

“You’re coming with me.” It isn’t a question. Now that he has this, he’s keeping Boris under his thumb for as long as possible.

Boris grins, full of mischief. “Well, twist my arm, Potter. I guess I am.”

They’re in the shower until the water runs cold.

 

The sun is long gone behind the horizon by the time they get around to dinner. Everything is joyful and warm and impossibly good, Theo thinks. They bicker, they blush, they swear at each other and then get stuck making out against the counter like teenagers as they eat leftover fish and chips. Theo was afraid that he’d get lost trying to navigate this new emotional territory, but it turns out it’s the easiest thing in the world. He doesn’t really have to think about it. It’s just like when they were kids, honestly, both of them existing with the glaringly obvious love sitting between them and never recognizing it for what it was. The difference now is that they know what it is and they both want it there. It’s okay. Theo doesn’t have to feel guilty or confused or upset for wanting Boris the way he does anymore. His heart is so painfully full he’s afraid he’s going to explode.

Boris refuses to let him help clean up dinner so he goes to peruse the precarious, overstuffed bookshelf in the living room while he waits. There’s newspapers from all over the world, books with cracked spines in eight different languages, little trinkets that look like they were stolen from someone’s grandma’s house. The bottom shelf is crammed with vinyl records and there’s just as many familiar English ones as there are foreign French and Russian ones. Everything on this shelf must be personal to Boris, special in some way – he wouldn’t have them if they weren’t, so Theo takes his time flipping through all of it. He wonders which record and book came from which point in Boris’ life, and there’s another pang in his heart when he thinks about how much he missed out on.

He turns around to see Boris turning off the lights, leaving just the Christmas tree and its rainbow kaleidoscope that dances across the walls.

“What time is it?” Theo asks when their eyes meet. Boris checks his phone.

“Close to eight,” he says, a tinge of sadness in his voice. Theo doesn’t want to think about it.

They end up on the couch for lack of anything better to do. Theo curls up into Boris’ side, his cheek pressed into his chest. He can feel his heartbeat, so he starts counting. One, two, three, four, five… If he keeps at it he’ll go right to sleep. He always used to, anyways. Boris trails his hand up and down Theo’s arm, his breath softly brushing over Theo’s hair.

“Do you have your phone?” Theo asks. Boris pulls it out of his pocket with his free hand and Theo takes it, opening it to the music. He scrolls for a bit until he finds the song he’s looking for and sets the phone down on Boris’ chest.

Slow down, you crazy child, you’re so ambitious for a juvenile…but then if you’re so smart, tell me, why are you still so afraid?

Even though he picked the song, his throat closes up again. It’s all so close to Vegas. Laying together, listening to music, lulling each other to sleep. Theo missed this so much he feels his eyes stinging. All the time, he thinks about what would have happened if he had just waited one more day. If he had just listened to Boris and not gotten in the taxi, or begged him one more time to come with. So many things could have been different. But they didn’t get to have that.

It’s okay, he thinks, taking a deep, steadying breath. He kind of wishes he could get his shit together and stop feeling like crying every five minutes. We have it now, so it’s okay.

Boris quietly sings along to the song just like he always has, where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about, his fingers gently carding through Theo’s hair. Theo keeps counting his heartbeats, seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight, all the way until the last heart-wrenching piano notes of the song. It’s only emotional because of what it means to him, and to Boris, but that makes it all that much better.

The house falls silent when it’s over. Theo can feel himself drifting closer and closer to sleep; it would be so easy right now, with Boris’ hand in his hair and that safe warmth all around him. He slips his hand under the hem of Boris’ shirt, running his thumb back and forth over his hip just because he can, because he wants to, because he knows Boris enjoys it. The idea of going back to New York almost scares him. How is he going to ever fall asleep without hours of tossing and turning and panic-attack-inducing afterimages? How will he make it work without Boris?

“Get some sleep, Potter,” Boris murmurs. “I’ll wake you up for your flight.”

“Don’t bother.” He’s only half joking.

 

DEPARTURES
London, England – Gate B15 – 00:13 (boarding 23:45)

Theo checks his watch after scanning the timesheet hanging next to the doors into the airport. He has twenty minutes to say his goodbyes, get through security, and maybe grab something to eat before they start boarding his connection to Heathrow. The Antwerp airport is fairly subdued for the late hour; there’s only a few flights going out tonight and most everyone is already inside.

The drop-off zone outside is cold and desolate. Slushy banks of snow line the curbs, lit by the red and green Christmas lights strung up around the airport. Theo can see his own breath, little white puffs that disappear just as quickly as they came. His bag is at his feet; he’s wearing his sweater, and Boris’ jeans and coat, yet he’s still chilled to the bone.

Boris tugs on his sleeve. “Well?”

Theo turns around. Boris stands there, leaning against the car (Gyuri was unavailable and Boris insisted on driving; they’re only still alive thanks to the lack of traffic). Snowflakes in his hair, eyes dancing in the Christmas lights. He’s too good to be true.

“They start boarding in twenty minutes,” Theo says. His voice echoes in the empty space.

Boris nods slowly. “You should get going, then.”

There’s a few moments of silence in which neither of them know what to do. They’ve never been very good at goodbyes, Theo thinks.

“I don’t know what to say,” he finally says.

Boris sighs. “Neither do I.”

Theo drops his head, pressing his face into the crook of Boris’ neck. He breathes deep: cigarette smoke, spearmint, cologne. Boris’ hand comes up to the back of his neck, his other sliding inside Theo’s coat to wrap around his waist and pull him close.

“Going to miss you, Theo,” he murmurs.

“Yeah. Me too.” He’s going to miss Boris more than he can stand; he’ll feel his absence every single day. But it’ll be okay. They’ll get through it; they’ve gotten through everything before. “You’ll come to New York, won’t you?”

“Of course I will. When, though, I do not know.”

Theo leans back to look at him, suddenly terrified that this really is the end of the line, that fate is going to renege on everything it just gave them. “Promise me you’ll come. Eventually. If not soon, then when I’m done with everything, buying back all the furniture and stuff, whatever, just…come see me. Sit still with me for a while.” He holds back everything else he wants to say. Get a place with me. Run the shop with me. Laugh and make dinner with me. Let me wake up next to you every morning and not have to worry if I’m never going to see you again.

Boris blinks, surprised, and it’s then that it hits Theo: his words are echoes of Vegas.

“I promise.” He says it like it was already obvious, something that didn’t even need to be said. “Of course I promise.”

Theo nods. “And call me,” he adds as he remembers their sudden and severe disconnect. “Don’t leave me hanging, seriously. Not like last time.”

Boris laughs. “I will call you so much you’ll be begging me to stop, Potter.”

“Good.” He means it. Though he’ll never say it, it’d be impossible for him to get tired of Boris’ voice. He can already see it: two in the morning, curled up on his bed at Hobie’s, dead tired but the phone pressed to his ear anyways, eyes closed as Boris tells him all about the sunny new place he’s in. Venice, maybe, or San Diego. Somewhere nice, but even that doesn’t matter much. Wherever Boris is, Theo will constantly be wishing he was there too.

Boris takes the lapels of Theo’s coat between his fingers and pulls him close. “You’re still wearing my clothes, thief.”

Theo frowns. “You want them back? Now?

Boris rolls his eyes. “Keep them. Gives me a reason to come see you.”

“What, I’m not reason enough?”

Boris is in the middle of pretending to contemplate it when Theo surges forward and kisses him. It’s hard enough that their teeth click but they get it right quick enough, clinging to each other in the middle of the empty departure zone. Theo tries not to think about anything else. It’s just temporary – he’ll see Boris again, he knows he will, but this life has made him desperate.

In some ways, it’s like their first kiss, the one that Theo never saw coming on a sidewalk in a desert. It’s full of the same sadness, the reluctance to say goodbye, both of them soaking up every last second of what’s left. But it’s different too, because it’s just the end of a chapter instead of the whole book. Their lives just keep overlapping, same time, same place, by sheer coincidence or maybe by love. It’s impossible for this to be it for them, and that’s why it feels different this time around.

But they’re out of time. Theo pulls away, breathless. Kissing Boris is never not going to make him breathless. Boris looks him over, a small smile on his face, and then he nudges him backwards. “I love you, Theo. I’ll see you soon, yah?”

Theo knew this, he’s always known in the back of his mind that Boris loves him, but hearing him actually say it is like freefalling. He gapes at him. “Wait, wait – you can’t just say that right before I leave –”

“I can do what I please, Potter,” he says smugly. “Tell Popchyk hello for me, and your old poofter too.”

Theo can’t believe what’s happening. “His name is Hobie,” he says absently, still lost. Boris is shoving his bag into his hand, pushing him several steps back towards the airport doors. I love you, Theo.

“Hobie, poofter, same thing. Go, you idiot, or you will miss your flight and be stuck with me. Horrible, I know, which is why you need to go now!”

Theo finally gets his wits together and he shakes his head exasperatedly. He looks at Boris, taking in every last detail of him leaned up against the car, snow in his hair, eyes bright like always.

“I love you too, asshole.” He feels himself smile, and Boris grins.

“I know. Now go, Potter. I’ll talk to you once you’re home.”

So Theo goes. He walks backward all the way to the doors so that he can hold Boris’ gaze until the end, and it’s only when Boris waves goodbye and Theo waves back that he forces himself to turn around.

He feels Boris’ eyes on him as he walks into the airport, but when he looks out the window after he checks in, both Boris and his car are gone. A minute later, however, his phone buzzes in his pocket, and once he reads the text he smiles the whole way home like the lovesick fool that he is.

Boris, 11:36pm: going to watch harry potter. will let u know if he is a better potter than you. safe flight love u