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In retrospect, Tim probably shouldn’t have begun their very first conversation on their very first date at the very nice bistro by the Thames (which he’d chosen because he’d panicked and picked the place that was the least likely to earn Jon’s disdainful expression) with, “I really, uh, like your ring?”

 

It had seemed innocuous enough. But from the way that Jon froze up, his eyes affixed to the menu in front of him with suddenly rapt attention, it was painfully apparent that somehow, somewhere, Tim had fucked up. It had barely been five minutes since they’d walked through the doors of the restaurant and their date had officially started, and he’d already managed to ruin it. God, it had taken him months—months—to work up the courage to ask Jon—beautiful, prickly, awkward, and completely oblivious Jon—out on a real, actual date—no, not a lunch date, not a coffee date, a would you like to get dinner with me date?—and he’d already somehow crossed a line he hadn’t known not to cross.

 

“Or, uh. Not?” Tim’s mouth says all on its own, which is worse, so much worse, just shut up Timothy Stoker. In an effort to do some—any—kind of damage control, Tim says, “Sorry, just- just forget I mentioned it. The, er. The mushroom ravioli here is good?”

 

Tim’s never had the mushroom ravioli. It just seemed like a good thing to say.

 

Fuck.

 

Jon still hasn’t said anything. One of his hands has gone to the shining gold ring holding the cream-colored fabric napkin neatly wrapped and is twisting it back and forth, like Tim usually sees him do with the black ring that sits on the middle finger of his right hand. The ring that Tim had seen ages ago, back when Jon had first joined Research, a stripe around the base of his finger that was fractionally darker than the skin around it. It was something he never took off, and Tim found his gaze going to it every time Jon would hand him a book or a file folder or a cup of coffee. He’s held Jon’s hand only once, and the ring had been cool against his fingers, worn smooth from how often Jon’s hands went to it during the day to twist it back and forth, an absent-minded motion done whenever Jon was stressed or anxious or nervous or just deep in thought.

 

Jon’s fingers twitch around the napkin ring, just for a moment, like they’re itching to reach for something else, before stilling, and now Tim just feels guilty. Before he can stop himself, he says, “I- I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable, Jon. I’ve just. I’ve always thought it was nice?” Oh god, stop talking, just stop—

 

“It looks good on you.”

 

Finally, Jon looks up from his menu, his eyes blown wide with surprise. “What?” he says, his voice just a touch rougher than normal, and Tim isn’t sure whether or not to find that incredibly concerning or incredibly hot.

 

Focus, Stoker.

 

Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, he supposes. So, with a shrug that’s meant to seem casual but really, really isn’t, Tim says, “I’ve always thought so. The way you fiddle with it sometimes, it’s- it’s, I don’t know, cute.

 

Cute?” Jon says, that same roughness scraping the edges of the word raw.

 

Fuck it. “Yes, Jon, cute. I asked you on a date because I think you’re cute and because I want to spend more time with you and because I like you. And I just- I don’t know, it just seemed like the ring was something special to you? Maybe should have gone for something like favorite movie first or something, but I already know a lot of that stuff, and I guess I just. Wanted to ask?”

 

Tim’s thrown all semblance of this being a put-together, normal date out the window. Not that anything has ever been normal, or easy for that matter, with Jonathan Sims. Still, he wants this to work. He wants it so goddamn bad he aches. So he bites his tongue, watches Jon’s face, and waits.

 

The waiter comes to their table suddenly and without any preamble, with quite possibly the worst timing ever. Tim has no idea what Jon orders. He just blurts out mushroom ravioli on instinct and orders a mid-priced bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon because if this conversation turns any more sideways, at least he’ll have wine to drown his sorrows in.

 

There’s a brief pause after the waiter leaves, during which Tim can’t help but notice that Jon’s hand has gone back to his ring, twisting it back and forth on his finger with what now seems like an intentional focus, a way to ground himself in the feeling of it against the pads of his fingers. Then, Jon lets out a small exhalation and says, “I’m… I’m not upset that you asked, Tim.”

 

Oh. Tim searches for something to say and comes up with nothing. Relief and confusion curl in his chest in equal measure, and he settles for just nodding, giving Jon what he hopes is an encouraging smile—though it feels decidedly more like a grimace than he’d like.

 

In the interim, the wine arrives at their table, their glasses filled by the waiter and the bottle set near the candle flickering in the center. The firelight refracts off the dark glass and Tim swears he can see it reflected in Jon’s eyes, a repeating reflection of flames in Jon’s pupils that goes on for eternity. Tim takes his glass, feeling the desperate need to have something in his hands, and takes a long sip of the wine. It’s nicely bitter on his tongue, briefly chasing away the salty, nervous taste that had filled his mouth.

 

Jon takes his own glass in hand and tilts it back and forth, watching the red liquid within swirl around and around. After a long moment, he says, “I wear it for a reason, and I… I suppose I’m afraid that you won’t care for that reason.”

 

What? Tim sets his glass down more heavily than he intends to and reaches across the table. When his hand meets Jon’s, Jon flinches ever so slightly.

 

“Sorry, sorry,” Tim says, hastily retracting his hand. Before it can retreat more than a few inches, however, Jon shakes his head and reaches forward, grasping Tim’s hand firmly in his. His fingers are warm and dry against Tim’s, and the ring on his finger is cool to the touch where it presses against Tim’s palm.

 

“Please, don’t- don’t apologize.” Jon looks down at the table, catching his bottom lip between his teeth and worrying it for a moment before continuing, softly, “I just don’t want to mess this up before it’s even begun.”

 

Tim says, with more certainty than he’s ever felt about anything, “You aren’t going to.”

 

Jon sighs, exasperated. “Tim, you can’t possibly know that.”

 

“Yeah, I can. Because whatever horrible reaction you’re expecting from me isn’t going to happen. Unless your big secret is that you’re secretly a mass murderer, or- or that you’re only dating me to use me for some big master plan—neither of which seem likely explanations for the situation at hand—I’m not going to hate you for telling me. If you don’t want to, I won’t pressure you to, but I don’t want you to not do it because you think I’m going to like you any less for whatever it is. I’ve had a year and a half to pine over you, Jonathan Sims—believe me when I say that I want to be here, with you, more than I’ve wanted a lot of things in my life.”

 

Tim really hadn’t meant to say all that, but there it is, and he finds he really doesn’t regret any of it. Well, maybe the pining bit, if only to scrape back together at least a bit of his over-confident and charismatic reputation. Jon’s eyes are wide with shock again, and his mouth opens and closes a few times before he finally says, in a punched-out voice, “A year and a half?”

 

Oh. “Ah, yeah,” Tim says sheepishly, rubbing his free hand on the back of his neck. “Didn’t really think I was being all that subtle, but. Yeah.”

 

Jon looks scandalized. “Tim, that’s the entire time I’ve been in Research! This whole time, you’ve—”

 

He breaks off with a strangled noise, and if Tim squints, he thinks he can see the tips of Jon’s cheeks darkening, though that could just be the flicker of candlelight across his face. “You didn’t say anything,” Jon says finally, after several seconds of silence during which Tim decided to stop pretending like he’d ever been anything other than completely enamored with Jonathan Sims.

 

“Sure I did,” Tim says with a shrug and a sliver of a teasing smile. “Three days ago, when I asked you out to dinner. And now, of course, can’t forget that.”

 

Tim!” Jon’s hand retreats from Tim’s and he pinches the bridge of his nose between his fingers. “Christ, and I thought six months was a long time.”

 

“Six months?” Tim echoes, a wide grin splitting his face in two. “Wait, wait, have you been—”

 

Tim—

 

“—for six months?

 

“Well, it’s better than a year and a half!” Jon snaps, taking his hand away from his nose and shooting Tim a glare that contains about as much heat as a block of ice.

 

Tim laughs and reaches for Jon’s hand again; when Jon sighs and allows him to take it, Tim runs a thumb along the back of it, feeling the smooth texture of Jon’s ring as his thumb passes over it. “Mm, perhaps I should have said something sooner,” he relents, his mouth still curved into a smile. “But I didn’t want to mess things up. I like you so fucking much, Jon, and right now, I can hardly think of anything in the world that could change that. All right?”

 

Jon’s staring at their hands, his forehead creased with lines of mild irritation. When he says, “All right,” there’s still a touch of petulance to it, but there’s something softer behind it as well. Something warmer.

 

“All right,” Tim repeats.

 

They talk about everything and nothing as the evening stretches on, and Tim doesn’t mention the ring. He can tell that Jon’s still thinking about it by the way that his hand goes to it every so often, twisting it around his finger as he talks about the proper types of grass for each climate and the fermentation process for the wine they’re drinking and the food safety protocols put in place to ensure that things like insect legs and metal shards don’t end up in their meals.

 

(“Ew,” Tim says, spitting his wine back out into his glass and giving Jon a look that he hopes fully communicates his disgust.

 

“Sorry,” Jon says with a wince. “Um. But it’s safe? Because of the protocols.”

 

Tim is not convinced.)

 

Despite all of that, the meal is lovely, and the tingling warmth the wine is sending throughout his body is lovely, and Jon is lovely. Tim can’t stop staring at him—at the few curls that have slipped loose from his braid and that now frame the sides of his face, at the crisp cut of the emerald green suit he’s wearing that Tim had almost made a joking remark about before he realized that he found it really, really hot, at the way that Jon’s nose wrinkles and his hand flies up to cover his lips when he laughs, like his joy is a secret to be kept hidden. Tim has to take another long drink of wine to keep himself from blurting out right then and there that he loves Jon; he doesn’t think that an hour into their first date is quite the right time to lay his entire heart bare.

 

They haggle over the check for an embarrassingly long time until Jon finally relents when Tim pulls out the a year and a half is a much longer time than six months, Jon, and also I asked you card. The night is cold and biting when they step out of the warmth of the bistro, and when Jon gives a full-body shiver as they’re walking to the tube station, Tim doesn’t think twice before shrugging off his coat and wrapping it around Jon’s shoulders.

 

“Tim, I can’t take this.”

 

“Oh? Seems to me like you already have it. Would probably be more trouble to give it back at this point.”

 

Jon looks at the ground sullenly, gripping the edges of Tim’s coat with thin-fingered hands and pulling it tightly around him. “Must you always be so- so chivalrous?” Jon mutters, like it’s somehow a crime now to be nice to people.

 

“Only on days that end with ‘y,’” Tim quips, and he wraps his arm around Jon’s shoulders. His fingers brush against the ring on Jon’s hand, settling there as they continue on their way.

 

Tim doesn’t really live near Jon, but he still walks with Jon to his flat, his left hand at some point having slipped into Jon’s right. The ring cuts gently into the flesh of Tim’s palm as they walk, and Tim wonders if Jon finds the pressure of it between their hands as grounding of a presence as Tim does. Then, they’re at the door to Jon’s flat, and Jon lets his hand slip from Tim’s as he fumbles for his keys, narrowly avoiding dropping Tim’s coat onto the ground as he catches it with one hand and retrieves his keys with the other.

 

“I…” Jon hesitates, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth, before continuing, “I had a nice time tonight. I… that is to say, if… if you would like to do it again, I… I wouldn’t be opposed.”

 

Tim chuckles, a soft, quiet noise, and throws caution to the wind, placing a gentle hand on the side of Jon’s face and feeling the prickle of stubble against his palm. It draws a surprised, breathy noise from Jon’s mouth, and when Jon’s eyes find his, Tim sees in them those same nerves from before, when Tim had finally tripped his way into It looks good on you. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t be opposed either,” Tim says with an audible smile in his voice, running a thumb softly over the curve of Jon’s jaw.

 

Jon lets out another little noise, and all in a rush, Tim thinks, I want to kiss him.

 

So he takes a step closer to Jon, lets his eyes fall to Jon’s lips, and says, “Can I kiss you?”

 

The nervousness in Jon’s eyes multiplies tenfold, and in a quiet voice, like he’s admitting to something overwhelmingly tragic, he says, “Is it okay if I say no?”

 

Something sharp shoots through Tim’s chest at that, and he only recognizes it as concern after he’s taken a small, shuffling step back in some instinctual effort to give Jon more space. Tim can see a million thoughts flashing across Jon’s face, none of them good, so he says before Jon can think to- to apologize again or something, “Of course it’s okay, Jon.” He hesitates only a moment before allowing himself to give in to the confusion nagging beneath the concern (and ignoring the hurt below that) and saying, “Is… does this have something to do with the ring?”

 

Because Tim can put two and two together like any researcher worth his salt. And by the way Jon’s hand instinctively flies to his ring when Tim says it, he knows that he’s right. He just doesn’t know why.

 

“I said you wouldn’t like it,” Jon says quietly, and Tim’s heart breaks at the certainty in Jon’s voice. Even though Tim hasn’t said anything yet. Tim gets the horrible, sinking feeling that this has happened before and that whoever had been standing in his shoes then had not been nearly so kind.

 

“Jon,” Tim says firmly, his hand dropping from Jon’s face and finding Jon’s hand instead. He tangles their fingers together and squeezes tightly, hoping that the sensation will ground Jon enough that he’ll be able to hear what Tim has to say and that he’ll believe it.It’s okay. If you don’t want to kiss me, then we don’t have to kiss.” He hesitates, only for a moment, before continuing carefully, “If you don’t want to do… any of that with me, that’s also okay.” He bites back the need to make a joke to dispel the awkwardness and says instead, straightforwardly, “Kissing, sex, all of that—I like them, sure, but I like you more, Jon. So if you don’t want to do any of that, then we don’t have to, okay?”

 

Jon’s hand is stiff in Tim’s, but his eyes when they meet Tim’s are wide and watery and full of a raw uncertainty, like he thinks that any moment Tim will admit that it’s all too much, that Jon isn’t enough, that it just isn’t working out. Whatever he sees reflected back in Tim’s eyes, however, is enough to cut through that uncertainty and leave behind something cautiously hopeful. “You… you really mean that,” Jon says, a strange sort of wonder in his voice, like a child staring up at a truly clear sky for the first time and witnessing the full scope of the stars above.

 

“I do,” Tim says resolutely, leaving absolutely no room for misunderstanding.

 

Jon looks down at where their hands are joined and says, quietly, “Okay.”

 

That same rushing, swelling feeling overtakes Tim in a tidal wave of affection, and he says, “Are hugs okay?”

 

Jon lets out a little huff. “Yes, Tim, of course hugs are—”

 

His sentence ends in a punched-out noise as Tim wraps him tightly in a hug, feeling Jon’s hair tickle the side of his neck and the rapid-fire hummingbird beating of Jon’s heart against his chest. “Good,” Tim says into Jon’s hair. He takes a chance and presses his lips to the crown of Jon’s head; from the way that Jon shivers and presses himself closer into Tim’s embrace, it was the correct choice. So he does it again, holding Jon close and trying to communicate with the press of his arms and the pressure of his lips against Jon’s hair just how much he wants this. How much he wants Jon.

 

“I really should get inside,” Jon says finally, his voice slightly muffled from where his face is buried in the fabric of Tim’s shirt. “It’s gotten to be quite late.”

 

“Mm, just give me a sec,” Tim mumbles into Jon’s hair, holding him a bit tighter to accentuate his point.

 

Jon’s laugh is light and breathy, rumbling against Tim’s chest like the purring of a cat. “Okay,” he says, his smile hidden by Tim’s shoulder. “Okay.”