He’s been fighting again, Tim has, though that’s rather a generous word for it, for what scrawny little Timothy Pearson can stand his own against. But he has his dignity to defend, however flimsy or ill conceived. Despite what the headmaster threatens, what his mother scolds, he just can’t seem to keep his fists away.
Besides, when Adam and Graham Kelsey come picking punches and spitting names, you don’t back down, not unless you want them hounding you the whole rest of the year. So when they come for Tim—an inevitability, the boy’s more scrap and scruff than anything, perfect bait for boys of the Kelsey ilk—he has two choices, watch his back until the summer holidays, or face them then and there, cornered in the third alley on Henley Street.
He chooses the latter, and that’s where Bertie finds him two hours later, crumpled on the pavement, his back to the nearest wall, and his head tipped to stem the flow of an impressive nosebleed.
There are no formalities between them, no need for Bertie to announce himself, just a deep sigh then the gentle certainty of his hands, coaxing Tim into a less contorted position, cradling the back of his head, dabbing at the blood with the hem of his coat sleeve. The usual and all, because this is hardly the first time Bertie’s found him like this, and it won’t soon be the last, either. Because Tim’s always had to fight his way to earn his place on any hierarchy. Since they became mates at 10, when Bertie stood his ground between Tim and a hoard of sixth forms, the latter has staunchly refused to accept his best course of action is, oftentimes, just keeping his head low and his mouth shut.
Advice Bertie has recited, cajoled, pleaded, threatened, and pleaded again each time with middling to no success. Because, worst of all, Tim has his dad’s pride. That’s what his mum says, anyway, when Bertie escorts him home and she traps him in the kitchen with bitter tea and no milk because they can’t afford it.
“I just don’t know what to do,” she says, over and over, shaking her head, making Bertie think of a broken rocking chair.
“M’sorry Miss Pearson,” he says, and pretends to sip his tea, because his own father taught him how to be a gentlemen before he died, and that’s the pride Bertie carries with him. That’s also why he can’t begrudge what Tim holds onto, kicking and screaming and biting back twice what the world lashes his way.
“I just don’t know,” repeats Tim’s mum. “Oh, but you’re such a love, Bertram, thank you. Thank you.”
And Bertie lets her hold his hands and fret, and all the while he thinks of Tim, passed out in his bed with his eyes like aubergine and his swollen lip leaking red down his chin, staining his collar.
For now, though, on this nippy October evening, he’s sat in the third alley on the right of Henley Street where Tim stupidly stood his ground against the two meanest boys in their year, and instead of a strange and sad mother’s hands in his, it’s Tim’s, seeking out the precision of Bertie’s fingers as he catalogs the cuts and bruises blooming open across Tim’s cheeks and forehead, his throat. Like chill-bitten pansies, like a string of ash pearls.
“Christ, what’d you let’em do?”
“Ouch,” Tim replies, exhausted.
“Baby,” Bertie says back. “Not even touching you.”
“You were,” Tim rebuffs. “Ergo,” he raises a finger, “ouch.”
In spite of himself, Bertie smiles. He’s a tough lad, himself, similarly tall for thirteen, but filled out to fit the stature. It lends him a pretty good buffer, keeps the older boys at bay, and it means he can afford private moments like these. Because he is not a fighter, and he’s never so content with life than when Tim comes to him, defenses lowered only in that way he allows for Bertie, and the two of them can simply be together, quiet and safe and unbothered by a world that keeps trying to pigeonhole them into roles they were never made for.
Here, on Henley Street, in the deserted third alley because the first is better for shortcuts, anyway, Bertie stays with Tim, scolding him gently, calling him names that mean nothing unless he wants them to, cleaning what cuts he can, and placing cold bits of rubble stone on the least severe bruises.
Tim’s tense for a while, stiff and guarded propped on Bertie’s shoulder, and wincing enough to make Bertie’s chest pang, but he settles eventually, expression slackening to a frown, brows un-pinching, until, with a heavy sigh, the tension goes out of him entirely, his full weight falling on Bertie.
“Mum’s gonna kill me,” he says, all fluttery and hoarse in that way that makes Bertie’s stomach ache.
His eyes, fallen shut, glisten at the corners, and Bertie fights every instinct to dry them.
“Nah,” he says, a lame attempt to approach the oddly expectant moment.
“She just patched this coat,” says Tim.
“You can have mine.”
“What? No, s’brand new.”
“No, well I mean yes, but,” Bertie stumbles over his words, curiously flustered, “I mean my old one, if you want. Mum’s just going to throw it out otherwise.”
Tim blinks up at him, shifting so his cheek lays flush to Bertie’s shoulder affording an angle that makes him look pleading, almost.
Bertie swallows hard, nods. “F’course.”
Tim grins, all lopsided with those slightly crooked teeth of his, his eyes crinkling, warm as the cinnamon and orange peel his mum simmers on the stove to scent the house for December evenings.
Tim smells nothing like that, an acrid tang of copper and sweat clinging to his person, but it sifts just as sweetly through the air between them, stinging the back of Bertie’s throat. Which burns afresh as Tim sighs, closes his eyes, and squirms closer to his friend, nuzzling his cheek on Bertie’s shoulder. His hair, always pushing the limits of dress code, comes loose from where he’s tucked it behind his ears, falling across his face in a succession of curtaining ringlets.
Sans his better judgement, Bertie lifts a hand to brush it back, nails skating the surface of Tim’s brow, the skin soft and warm.
With his eyes still closed, Tim shivers, his mouth parting just a sliver around an airy hum.
“S’nice,” he mumbles.
And it just doesn’t add up. It can’t. That this moment should feel any more impossible than the countless other times Bertie’s tended to Tim after the very same fight. That each second should slow so distinctly, Bertie watching himself in bullet time, sees his hand travelling down, stroking Tim’s cheek, tracing the jutting bones, gaunt and underfed.
That Bertie’s pulse should tremble with such unnameable fervor, because they’re yet too young to understand the gravity of love beyond their simple, steadfast camaraderie, and all the same he can’t stop himself, can’t stay his hand as it cups Tim’s chin, lifts his head, as his own dips down to meet his friend in the no man’s land between their tumult and their calm.
It’s less than a second, a brush of lips to each other’s, nothing of spark and epiphany, only the gentle give of Tim’s thin mouth, the curve of a smile stymied to shock.
But nothing of reprimand, of ‘What are you doing?’ of revulsion or trust in tatters, only a new and thrilling consequence, another suture tugging them ever close to one another, a nascence brought to culmination.
An ‘Oh, I guess I’ve wanted to do that for a very long time.’
And ‘I can’t believe you just did that… do it again.’
Because December evening eyes are open again, staring back, sharing the surprise of a first kiss without preamble, no dares from friends or jeers from bullies.
“I–I’m sorry,” Bertie blurts, because that’s what the moment feels best for.
He doesn’t pull back, though, doesn’t stop holding Tim. Can’t endure the gaze that takes him in. Can’t look anywhere but.
“S’okay,” is what Tim comes up with, suitably ineloquent.
“I–you… yeah?” And so what if Bertie sounds a little dumbstruck? He’s earned that.
Tim chews his lower lip, as much contemplation as it surely must be taking stock of where Bertie just was.
“Yeah,” he says at length, the single word seeming to echo, nervous to giddy in its reverberations, and where they hold one other, fingers curl tighter, wordless insinuations.
Bertie gulps, licks his own lips gone dry in the interim.
“O-okay,” he replies, and bends down again, incremental motions, gauging every one of Tim’s.
His friend doesn’t move, doesn’t shy or startle or recoil, just stays there, waiting.
So Bertie makes sure to do this next one right, dredging up rehearsed images from magazines and television programs so he can figure how to angle his face, where everything should go to make it better, perfect, fireworks or whatever adults like to call it.
He achieves exactly none of this.
And Tim mutters, “Ow,” a garbled syllable as Bertie’s nose bumps into his cheek, jabbing one of his many bruises.
Bertie rears back, “Sorry!” but Tim’s laughing and pulling him in, and they’re so clumsy at this, and it’s lovely and good and nice . Just so very nice to be sitting in an abandoned alley with your best friend, kissing him, laughing with him, kissing him again. Because he’s so sharp to the world, and soft only for you, and you’d do anything, everything to stay so special to him, to stay in this evening and keep that world away from him, to keep him safe.
“How long’ve you wanted to do that, then,” Tim asks, a small age later, forever grinning through his wounds.
Bertie coughs, face aflame in a match strike flush from his nose to his hairline, and Tim laughs all over again.
“Shut up,” Bertie grumbles.
Then, “I… dunno.”
And Tim’s prompt reply, “Don’t believe you.”
“What! It’s true.”
Tim does as instructed, but little does his obedience extend beyond those parameters, every other bit of him capable of purveying insufferable smarm keyed up to a hundred. His grin. The way his tongue sticks out between his teeth. His glittering eyes. Bertie wants both to smack him, and kiss him.
The latter augurs less burdensome results, so he does, and can’t seem to stop till the air around then smarts a nasty bite of early twilight at the back of his neck, and the two boys realize they’ve wasted the better part of an hour snogging in the third alley on Henley Street where just about anyone could have walked by and seen. But no one did, no one comes this far down Henley, which is why the Kelsey’s stalked Tim here, and why Bertie never stopped to think very much about what they were doing.
“Mum’s definitely gonna kill me now,” Tim sighs, letting Bertie help him to his feet.
He sways, stick thin on his gangly legs, and with so many reasons to stagger, it’s a miracle he stays upright. Which is all the more excuse for Bertie to not let him go, for them both to fumble and blush as their hands entwine, Bertie’s thumb curling over Tim’s.
“S’okay,” he assures. “We’ll explain it together.”
Tim nods, grateful, his shoulders unpicking themselves from their impulsive hunch.
“Thanks,” he says, and because he’s terribly so full of surprises, leans over and presses a quick peck to Bertie’s cheek.
Bertie hiccups something to the effect of ‘Gh,’ but, well, he rather did instigate all of this, so can’t begrudge Tim his boldness.
“I mean it,” Tim adds. “Dunno what I’d do without you.”
And in the dim shadows, there on Henley street, Bertie squeezes Tim’s hand like he might never let go again.
“Of course,” he says. He promises.