Tim stood behind the edge of the wall, watching quietly as the police approached Oscar.
The party stopped after Zoe’s bloodcurdling scream pierced through the music and laughter, but nothing killed it faster than the sound of sirens and two policemen being pointed towards Oscar.
Everyone stood still, watching flabbergasted as Oscar was placed in handcuffs. He twisted in their grip, trying to explain his innocence to them, trying to find someone who would speak up for him.
And when Oscar’s eyes met Tim’s, a chill shot up Tim’s spine.
Those eyes were always brimming with happiness and mischief. Oscar was always the first person to brush away the negativity, to remind them that things were never as bad as they looked.
But now there was no joy in those eyes. There was nothing but raw terror and distress, and it wrapped itself around Tim’s throat in a vice-like grip. Because he was there when Zoe died, when she’d stumbled a little too much over the edge, when Theo turned back in horror and found him frozen in place.
Because Tim knew that Oscar was innocent, and he was the only one who could prove it. But Oscar’s hands weren't the only pair that were tied, and there was nothing that Tim could do to help him.
Tim broke eye contact, looking away sharply, but Mabel caught his gaze. Her eyes were shining with unshed tears, begging Tim to do something. And for a second, Tim took a step forward, ready to reassure her that he’d do something about it. But then it hit him— the reason why Oscar was getting arrested, the reason why he was standing there quietly.
“You, or that friend of yours— what’s her name?”
It was then that Tim realised he couldn’t stay. He had to leave.
He walked away quickly, taking long strides as he moved through the lift lobby. The lift hadn’t moved since the police arrived on their floor, which meant that he didn’t need to wait. The doors grinded open slowly and Tim walked in, keeping his eyes lowered all the way as the sound of heels clacking against tiles chased him.
“Tim!” Mabel cried, “They’re sending away Oscar!”
Tim slammed his finger against the lift button, unable to lift his eyes. He was afraid of what he would do if he did, that he would break down and spill everything to Mabel— because Mabel knew him. Mabel was always able to read him like a book, as if Tim was someone who wore his emotions on his sleeve. But this was one time that he couldn’t tell her anything, because it wasn’t just about Oscar or him, it was about her own life being at stake.
Oscar was his friend. Oscar was like a brother to him. But Mabel—
“You said you saw someone with Zoe! You have to tell them!”
And lose you?
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The way that Mabel screamed his name haunted him for the rest of the week.
Tim had been avoiding Mabel for a few days, and in that time, Tim learnt a lot.
Tim learnt that it was difficult to avoid the person you’ve spent your life carving out a space for. Not only was it his first instinct to pick up all her calls and reply to every one of her texts, it was hard to retreat into his room and let his parents send Mabel away when she came to his door. It was hard to watch her text messages grow increasingly aggressive, when sorrow turned into hurt that boiled into fury.
It was hard to put down his phone when his mind never stopped wandering to Mabel, because he learnt something else.
He learnt that he was in love with Mabel.
He learnt that the protective feeling that washed over him whenever he saw her cry wasn’t just the feeling of a best friend wanting to cheer her up. He learnt that the little, ugly feeling that clawed through his chest when Mabel talked about her crushes on other boys wasn’t just disinterest. He learnt that the feeling of tearing himself away from her, like scooping out his insides and hollowing himself, wasn’t just grief.
It was heartbreak, grief, and everything that Tim couldn’t put a name to.
And when the text messages started slowing down and his phone stopped lighting up with unanswered calls, Tim learnt something else about himself. He learnt that he was capable of keeping his silence. And eventually the text messages stopped altogether.
When Oscar’s picture ended up in the papers after his sentencing a few months later, Tim realised that it had been a while since he had last seen Mabel.
Tim looked out of his room. Two seasons had gone by and he hadn’t even noticed it. Time passed in a blur when you weren’t really present. He was on autopilot, and he had been on autopilot for the last few months.
There were no new messages from Mabel.
Distantly, Tim thought that a part of him died that night when Zoe fell over the edge. He thought that a part of everyone died with her. Oscar’s innocence, Mabel’s trust, and him..
Which part of him had died that night?
Tim pondered on it for a long time, staring out of his window overlooking the park. The tea in the cup he was nursing had gone cold, and the sun began its descent, hiding behind the skyline of all the rooftops nearby. And still, Tim had no answer.
It was New Years Eve again.
This time last year, Tim was combing back his hair, worried that it looked too mature for him. This time last year, Mabel was teasing him about his hair. This time last year, they were taking a picture together. Tim put a hand on the small of her back gingerly, afraid Mabel would shy away from his touch if it were any firmer.
Instead, Mabel leaned back, pressing her back into his palm, and the shutter sound echoed in the apartment.
But this year, Tim was in his home clothes, a long sleeved shirt and pants, hair uncombed and falling all over. He had a glass of red wine in his hand and his phone in the other, watching the clock on the screen countdown to midnight minute by minute.
It was quiet enough in his apartment that Tim could hear the faded music of the party upstairs cascading down the floors. And when he closed his eyes, Tim could almost pretend that he was up there instead of here. He could almost pretend that he was dancing with Mabel, watching her eyes twinkle in delight as he tried to outdance her. He could almost pretend Mabel’s hand was in his as she led him out of the crowd, claiming that he wasn’t drunk enough to truly let loose.
But the illusion shattered the moment he opened his eyes.
He was lying on his sofa with opened packets of chips littering his coffee table and an almost empty bottle of wine towering over them. It was hard to describe the emptiness he experienced, because feeling empty didn’t mean feeling devoid of anything. Emptiness was its own entity, and emptiness consumed.
He reached over and picked up the bottle. But when he tipped the bottle over until it was upside down, only a trickle of red flowed down the mouth into his glass.
Maybe it was time to open the other bottle. Tim smiled wryly at the thought, because he didn’t need Mabel to refill his glass this time. He was doing it himself, and part of him thought that if Mabel were here now, she’d be proud of how fast he was letting himself go.
The bottle slipped out of Tim’s hand.
He heard it hit the floor before he realised what had happened. He looked down belatedly, feeling strangely detached from everything happening at the moment. And as the bottle rolled into his peripheral vision, Tim almost choked on a laugh. Yeah, Mabel would be really proud of him if she could see him now, drunk and alone on New Years Eve. She would be really fucking proud of him. What was it she used to say to him? That—
There was a knock on the door.
Tim turned to the door, furrowing his brows. There was a knock on the door, or at least he thought there was. But he wouldn’t put it past him to be hallucinating now. Tim waited for another moment, but there was nothing, so Tim brushed it off, turning back to pick up the bottle.
But there was another knock, and then a voice that he hadn’t heard in a long time calling his name.
It happened in slow waves. First came the recognition that that was his name, and next came the realisation that it was a familiar voice.
And then came the connection of putting them together.
Hearing her voice almost broke Tim all over again. When the text messages stopped and the first year of college began, it was almost as if Mabel had never been in his life. It was almost as if none of the Hardy Boys had ever existed, with Zoe no longer with them and Oscar locked up behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
Hearing Mabel’s voice again wasn’t just proof that they existed, it was proof that there was a point in his life when he was well and truly happy. It was proof that there were better days, and they were gone.
And now he was here.
“Tim! I know you’re in there! I can see your lights are on! Stop avoiding me!”
Tim could feel himself standing up, dragging his feet sluggishly towards the door with the glass of wine still in his grip. As he got closer to the door, he could see Mabel’s shadow slicing through the yellow light of the corridor spilling into his dark apartment. He wondered if she could see him moving behind the door as well, if she could see how he was swaying slightly.
He planted a hand on the door, steadying himself.
“Tim! Open the door. Can we just—” a pause, “Can we talk? Please?”
Talking to Mabel sounded nice. It was the only thing that Tim wanted to do for the past year. Talking to Mabel always cheered him up. She made everything better, even if they were still objectively bad. She would know what to say, she would know how to piece him back together again.
Tim’s hand wandered over to the door knob, wrapping his hand around it before clarity struck him in the voice of Teddy Dimas.
“If not, I can’t be sure that you won’t end the same way as this girl tonight.”
Sobriety came back to him in a heartbeat, in Zoe’s spine-chilling scream, in images of her toppling over, arms flailing and legs turning upwards.
“You, or that friend of yours.”
Tim felt his entire body turn to stone as nausea washed through his system, flooding out the alcohol with nightmares of Mabel falling over, of always being just a second shy of catching her.
He released the door knob and sank to his knees quietly, dragging his hand down the door as he did.
“Please?” Mabel tried again, voice wavering. “It’s been a really long time since I’ve seen you and I— I miss you.”
Tim could hear desperation seeping into Mabel’s voice, the same kind in Oscar’s words when he was held in handcuffs. Tim could recognise it because there was a kind of distinct despair in it, like they knew there would be no happy ending for them but they still had to try.
“It’s been a really long time and I..” Mabel’s voice cracked. “I need you, Tim. I need my friend, okay? I’ve been trying to be strong because you won’t talk to me anymore but I—”
There was a thump against his door before he heard Mabel sob in a strangled voice. He leaned his forehead against the door, screwing his eyes shut before he started tearing up. He couldn’t let Mabel know that he was here with her, just on the other side of the door. He couldn’t let Mabel know that he felt the same pain spread across his body, simultaneously sharp and numbing.
He would always be with her, but she couldn’t know that anymore. She couldn’t see him anymore.
“Why can’t we talk anymore?” Mabel sobbed, words muffled by the force of her hiccups, “Why can’t we be friends anymore?”
Tim shook his head against the door, letting his head roll along the cool wooden surface. Tears pricked Tim’s eyes despite his attempts to shut off his emotions. They were pouring out of him from the crack that Mabel’s words left on him, and they were pouring out uncontrollably.
“Why can’t we be friends anymore? I miss you so much and it’s— it’s the anniversary of Zoe’s death today. And she’s not here anymore, and Oscar’s not here either. And you— you haven’t been here too. And I really need you, Tim. I need you and you’re not here.”
There was a long pause.
“You’re not here and I don’t know how to reach you anymore.”
Tim cupped his mouth to stifle any sound he would’ve made. Tears leaked out of his eyes, trailing down his face to disappear in his palm.
In his mind, Tim could see her on the opposite side of the door. Tim could see her hugging her legs to her chest while her hair curtained her face. Tim could see her rocking back and forth while crying to herself, trying to wipe away the tears on her face with her clothes. Tim knew this because he used to be next to her. He used to sit next to her quietly, keeping an eye on her until she came out of her shell. Mabel would rest her head against his shoulder, still hiccuping every few seconds, and Tim would sit with her until she smiled again.
But that was a lifetime ago. Tim would never sit with her again, and Mabel would never smile at him again.
“Why won’t you talk to me anymore?” Mabel said, crying openly. “Why did I have to lose you too?”
Tim didn’t have an answer to that. He didn’t think he ever would.
They used to see Mabel off when her mother came to fetch her back to Long Island.
They’d go for a round of hugs starting with Zoe, who would always whisper something into Mabel’s ear that made her squeal in a mix of disgust and amusement. Oscar would go next, giving her a strong hug that lifted her off the ground before patting her head with a crooked smile.
Tim always envied the casualness of Oscar’s touch, how he made it look so simple to go up to Mabel and hug her. Deep down, Tim always wished that he could’ve done the same thing. He was Mabel’s friend long before Zoe and Oscar ever were, but it always felt like an insurmountable obstacle to touch her the way that Zoe and Oscar always did.
Finally, Mabel would turn to Tim, wearing a cryptic smile on her face that Tim could never figure out. Mabel looked at him as if she knew what he was thinking about, as if she could read his mind and was amused by what she found there. And when Tim didn’t make a move, Mabel would take it upon herself to walk up to him and bury her face into his shoulder, embracing him tightly. Tim would bury his face in her hair, as if time would freeze for them.
Their hugs were never as easy as Zoe’s hugs were, and not as flashy as Oscar’s. But there was a different intimacy in their hug that ran deep beneath, something missing from the others.
And now as Tim stood behind the stone walls, watching Mabel’s mother lift her bags into the boot of their old car, he realised that things were never going to be the same again. Zoe would never wave to Mabel in her exaggerated fashion, Oscar would never bump his shoulders against Tim’s sympathetically, and Tim would never hold her again.
Time never stopped for anyone, but Tim wished it would. He wished it did.
Mabel turned around and let her eyes roam across the length of the Arconia, gaze catching on a specific room, a specific window. She stared for a long time, waiting for Tim to look out of his window.
Tim could pinpoint the exact moment when Mabel realised it wasn’t happening, when her expression crumbled and she pressed her lips into thin lines.
Mabel’s mother tapped on her shoulder, urging her into the car with words that Tim couldn’t hear. Mabel looked back sharply, nodding as she hopped into the back, slamming the door shut. As the engine roared to life again and the car started moving, Tim stepped out of the building’s entrance, just in time to see the car shrinking in the distance.
Just in time for Mabel to look over her shoulder and spot him.
He could see her eyes widening, opening her mouth to tell her mum something. But Tim didn’t linger a second longer, and the car never turned back.
Tim’s phone lit up with messages all over again. Like a dance routine that they were quickly becoming familiar with, Tim never opened any of her messages, even if he read every single one of them from the little notifications that buzzed his phone.
Just like the first time, they tapered off at some point, and Tim had to experience losing Mabel all over again.
It was better this way, Tim thought, although he wasn’t sure why anymore.
Some people said that a hard break was the best kind of goodbye you could give anyone. Tim thought so too.
But it didn’t mean that he didn’t miss her any less.
College was a never ending fight against the steep learning curve. Tim used to think that freshman year was the adjustment period, but the second year of college was teaching him that the fabled adjustment period only ended at graduation— and maybe not even that.
Being the only son of a couple that excelled in climbing the corporate ladder placed a lot of expectations on his shoulders. Although they never said anything about it, he could tell that they were secretly happy that he wasn’t friends with Oscar and Mabel anymore, even if it came at the cost of Zoe’s life.
They never asked how Tim was coping with Zoe’s death or the implosion of his circle of friends, and Tim never offered anything. They went on living as if none of it ever existed, and it was easy to live like that when there was almost nothing left to suggest otherwise.
It was even easier for Tim to throw himself into his school work. If he wasn’t in lectures or tutorials, he’d be studying. And when he wasn’t, he would be in the gym. In the last three years of college, Tim was the busiest that he had ever been.
It wasn’t until his graduation ceremony that Tim realised what he had been doing, when his cohort mates took turns taking photos with different groups of friends in their graduation gowns, each carrying bouquets of flowers that covered half their bodies. He observed wordlessly as they laughed together, throwing their caps up in coordinated poses right before the camera captured their smiles.
Tim had a photo with his parents who asked nothing about his friends, if he even had them or not. And when he went home that night he realised that they should’ve been there today, pulling him into reluctant hugs and messing up the hair he put too much effort into styling.
That was the first time Tim realised that it wasn’t a hunger for success that drove him to achieve top grades in college— it was loneliness.
Tim was supposed to be asleep. Instead, he was staring at Mabel’s contact on his phone, trying to suppress the overwhelming urge to call her.
He shouldn’t do this. The logical side of his head told him that cutting her out of his life was the correct decision. It was the only way that the both of them could move on, it was the only way that Tim could guarantee her safety.
But it was late at night, and it had been so long since Tim had seen or heard her voice. And he was beginning to forget. He couldn’t remember the deadpan way she spoke, he couldn’t remember the way her voice cracked when a giggle cut her off, he couldn’t remember the way she used to turn to him with a smile on her face when she called his name.
He was beginning to forget her. Even though Tim promised himself that he’d keep a distance from Mabel, to let their friendship go quietly, it was harder than he ever thought it would be. It was hard to lose her in so many ways, but he was forgetting her. He was losing her again, and he was losing the only part of her that he was still allowed to hold on to.
He tapped on the call button before reason took over, and to his surprise, the call connected almost immediately.
“Tim?” Mabel’s voice came over the speaker, slightly groggy but alarmed.
He could hear some shuffling sounds over the phone, fabric moving against fabric, and Tim could tell that his call had woken her up. Guilt pierced his heart. Maybe he shouldn’t have done this after all. Tim pulled away from the phone, about to end the call when Mabel spoke again in a hurry.
“Tim— wait,” she said, as if sensing his thoughts. Tim paused, finger still hovering over the red button. “Please don’t hang up.”
Tim swallowed thickly, nodding even though Mabel wasn’t there to see it. There was another pause and Tim thought that Mabel was putting together an argument, a plea for him to come clean with what he saw that night, to go to the police with her and make things right again.
Instead, Mabel said, “How’re you?” and Tim froze in surprise. He tilted his head, puzzled by the disconnect between his expectations and reality, but Mabel spoke again. “How’ve you been? You haven’t— you didn’t reply to any of my messages,” and in a lower voice, Mabel said, “I’ve been worried about you.”
Tim didn’t know how Mabel could do this. There were so many things he wanted to tell her that he didn’t know where to begin. There were so many things that he’d bottled up over the years, things he kept pushing to the back of his mind. And now that he finally had the chance to say them, they had already coagulated into an indistinguishable mess.
I used to dream that we’d go on a road trip after graduation, Tim wanted to say, I don’t know where we’d go, but I know that Oscar and I would have to take turns driving because you and Zoe never got your driver’s licenses.
Tim’s smile thinned as he scrubbed a hand down his face.
And when we’d get a flat tyre, Zoe would lose her patience watching Oscar unscrew the wheel like he wasn’t entirely sure he was doing it right. And I’d be useless because no one ever taught me how to change a tyre. You’d climb onto the roof of the car and you’d draw us bickering, and you’d show me how dumb we looked struggling with a stupid tyre. Your fingers would be smudged with charcoal and you’d try to rub some on my face, and I’d help you wipe your hands with a wet tissue that I brought along because of Oscar’s eating habits.
I don’t know where we’d go— I don’t even think we’d know where we were going until we were there, Tim thought, but I know that we’d have gone together if we had the chance.
But instead of saying everything he’d been planning to say for years, Tim choked out a quiet, breathy laugh. He blinked away the familiar stinging sensation in his eyes, chewing on his lip to stop himself from getting carried away by his emotions.
How was it that after such a long time, after mustering up the courage to call her again, he wasn’t even able to say a single word to her?
A long time passed in silence. Mabel waited for Tim to speak, and when he didn’t she realised that he wasn’t going to.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to speak,” Mabel said quietly with a hint of disappointment, “But can we just stay on the line? Please?” there was a beat before her voice dropped even lower, “I’ve missed you.”
Tim sucked in a deep breath, nodding weakly with a regretful smile. I’ve missed you too. I’ve missed you so much, you have no idea.
True to his word, Tim stayed on the line the entire night. He could see Mabel on the other end of the phone. He could see her curled in a fetal position with her blanket pulled to her chin and an arm under her pillow, just like how they used to sleep when they were younger, squeezed onto the same bed with their legs poking each other’s.
And even though she wasn’t here anymore, hearing her exhale steadily over the speaker made it feel like she never left.
Neither of them spoke again, letting each other’s soft breaths lull them to sleep.
It was the best sleep that Tim had in a long time.
Summer was nice.
Summer was opening his windows and listening to the sound of the city drifting in. Summer was having long days and doing less laundry. Summer was independence from his parents, who were moving back to Japan to take care of his grandparents. Summer was answering calls from HR about interview schedules.
Summer was redecorating the apartment. Summer was taking out his full collection of the Hardy Boys series and arranging them on the shelf in his living room. Summer was finally unearthing the picture Mabel drew thirteen years ago. Summer was examining the drawing like the first time he saw it, the oddly shaped figures and messy lines scribbled across the paper. Summer was folding it back and slipping it into Mabel’s favourite book, The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook.
Summer was accepting that things were never going back to the way that they were. Summer was closing a chapter of his life.
Summer was moving on.
Tim knew he was getting that job the moment he left the room, and it put him in an unusually good mood. He was in such a good mood that when strangers brushed past him on the sidewalks, Tim didn’t even think about clicking his tongue or turning back to glare at them.
It was rare for him to be having such a good day. Tim couldn’t even remember the last time he had one, so being able to experience this high felt like a victory in itself. It felt like a step in the right direction. He was finally putting the past behind him and good things were coming. He was finally in the driver’s seat again.
And it felt good to finally wrestle back control of his life again.
Tim slowed to a stop at the traffic light, waiting for the green man to light up. With a smile spreading across his face, Tim shoved a hand into his pocket, surveying the area distractedly until the green man came on.
It wasn’t until Tim was already halfway across the road when he spotted an unmoving figure at the corner of his eyes. It wasn’t until Tim turned, facing the front, that he saw Mabel standing frozen in place, looking at him as if she were seeing a ghost.
Tim understood the feeling completely. They used to be so deeply entrenched in each other’s lives that after being ripped away from each other, Tim was still being haunted by Mabel everywhere he went. He was seeing her face in crowds where she wasn’t, he was hearing her voice in places she’d never been to. And seeing her now, standing on the sidewalk with an inexplicable expression on her face, felt like another one of those instances when Tim would turn around sharply, searching for Mabel, only to realise that it had all been in his head.
Except that this was real. Except that when the green man started blinking and Mabel took a step forward, Tim took a corresponding step back. And when that wasn’t enough, Tim took another step back before he spun around fully, walking away quickly.
He could hear Mabel chasing him, calling his name over and over as they moved against the crowd, shoulders bumping into other strangers’.
Tim hastened his footsteps, about to turn the corner of the building when a firm hand wrapped around his wrist, pulling him back forcefully.
“Tim!” Mabel snapped. Her voice trembled with frustration, and Tim had only heard it once, just before she broke down into tears outside of his door three years ago.
Tim turned around slowly with dread filling his stomach. Mabel had a deep set frown on her face, angry lines bracketing her mouth and her brows drawn together tightly. Briefly, Tim thought that it didn’t even look like Mabel. Tim could count the number of times that he made Mabel angry on one hand, and never on any of those occasions did she ever look at him the way she was now, with so much bitterness and hurt swirling in those beautiful eyes.
“Mabel,” Tim said weakly, “I didn’t see you.”
“Yeah,” Mabel scoffed, “because you just randomly froze up in the middle of the street before running back.”
“I forgot to get dinner.” Tim said immediately, too fast for it to be anything but a lie. Mabel searched his eyes silently with her lips disappearing into thin, shaky lines.
“You know,” Mabel jabbed a finger into Tim’s chest, raising her chin as she stepped forward. “If you’re gonna lie to me, at least have the decency to look like you believe the shit you’re saying.”
A few passersby turned their heads, side-eyeing them curiously while walking away. Tim tried to pull his hand away from Mabel’s grip, starting to feel embarrassed that they were drawing so much attention to themselves.
“Mabel, stop,” Tim hissed, “Can we do this somewhere else?”
Mabel barked out a laugh, harsh and jarring and hard. “Oh, okay.” Mabel nodded, letting go of Tim’s wrist like she had been burnt. She shook her head incredulously, looking off to the side for a second before turning her eyes back on Tim, rage burning in them.
“Alright. So where do you wanna do this?” she spat, “Do you want me to text you to arrange an appointment? Or do you prefer calls? Because it’s worked so well the last few years, hasn’t it? Because you’ve been so responsive, haven’t you?”
Tim couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the vitriol in her words. He deserved it. He knew it was hurting her when he ignored all her calls and messages, when he pushed her out of his life, but he still did it anyway. Mabel had every right to be angry about it.
Tim lowered his gaze, unable to say anything, and his reluctance to push back only made Mabel more incensed. She stared at him for a long time, waiting for him to say something. But Tim kept his silence, and after a long pause Mabel realised that this was as much as he was ever going to say to her.
“Did you have fun ignoring me?” Mabel asked tightly, goading him. “Did you sip your expensive alcohol and laugh at my texts? Did you enjoy a nice, comfortable life knowing that Zoe’s dead and Oscar’s in jail because you wouldn’t—”
“That’s enough!” Tim raised his voice. Mabel shut her mouth instantly, taken aback by Tim’s outburst. “I don’t need any of this, Mabel!”
They were quiet for a long time, staring at each other, trying to understand each other, trying to find the person they recognised from the stranger standing in front of them now. And when Mabel’s expression closed off, Tim knew that she hadn’t found the Tim she knew.
“Yeah. Sure. I forgot,” Mabel said, eerily calm, “You’re a different person now, aren’t you? Slicked hair, fancy suit and shiny shoes. Must’ve been easy for you to move on.”
Mabel took a step back, putting distance between them. The moment she did, Tim knew that this was it. This would be the last time they would be standing together as friends, if he could even call them that anymore.
“You’re right.” Mabel said firmly, “It is enough. I’m tired of— I’m tired of trying to reach you. You obviously don’t want it. Message received.”
Tim didn’t get dinner that night. Instead, he headed straight back home and downed a bottle of wine, and then another. He hadn’t even realised that he was calling Mabel until her voicemail echoed in his apartment. And it shattered the fragments of his heart to hear her voice all over again, one that wasn’t soaked in animosity, one that used to call his name a long time ago.
He was drowning in his own grief. Tim had already lost Mabel twice before today, and he had to go through it all over again, this time with front row tickets when she decided to walk out of his life for good.
But even after all that was said and done, Tim still loved her. He was still so deeply in love with her that he let her go time and time again, because Teddy’s threat resurfaced every time Tim thought of holding onto her. He was still so deeply in love with her that he would maintain his silence for her to find happiness elsewhere.
Tim only wished he could’ve held her one last time.
Tim woke up the next day with sunlight washing out everything in his vision. He groaned miserably and rolled over, fully intending to continue sleeping. But the sound of paper crunching under his weight caught his attention. Despite the pain pounding behind his eyelids, Tim forced his eyes open just enough to find a piece of paper under his arm.
Curious, Tim pulled it out and smoothened out the creases, trying to read the words through his blurry vision. It took a long time for Tim to recognise the words written in smudged ink, but once he did, it was easy to recognise that this was a letter.
This was a letter he had written while drunk, when his hurt and pain were most fresh.
Tim couldn’t finish reading the letter. Part of him already knew what was written, because it always came back to him in the limbo between falling asleep and being asleep.
Instead, Tim folded the letter and hobbled over to the bookshelf, painstakingly finding that one book he hid Mabel’s drawing in so that he could slip this in as well. Just like the drawing, Tim would have no reason to open this letter again. Mabel made it clear to him yesterday that they were no longer friends, and this book was the graveyard where the remains of their friendship came to be buried.
When Tim sobered up the next day, he realised that he was shouldering the blame for everything. He realised that he had been carrying the burden of Zoe’s death and Oscar’s incarceration and it destroyed his friendship with Mabel. He lost everything while the Dimases went on with their lives as if nothing had ever happened.
Everything started with the Dimases. And they would share the same blame for everything that has happened. Tim would make sure of it, even if it would take his whole life to make it happen.
He was going to bring them down and make them lose everything the way that he had.
The good thing about being alone in life, when you worked a job where you went home for a quick shower and minimal sleep, was that no one would miss you.
Tim’s colleagues, on the other hand, had lots to complain about. If it wasn’t about their partners arguing about how neglected they felt, it was about the missed anniversaries and cancelled evening dates. Sometimes, Tim thought that it was better that he didn’t have anyone, not even someone to call a friend, because he could dedicate all his time and energy into things that mattered.
Staying for two years in a hell job wasn’t the easiest thing that Tim ever did, but life got much better after being poached to bigger banks where clients were easy to get and money was even easier to make. It was only in his third job that he landed a portfolio big enough to start his hunt for Angel’s jewellery, buying as much of it as he could get his hands on, hoping that one of it would be the emerald ring that would exonerate Oscar and finally pin Zoe’s death on Theo.
And when the boxes of jewellery he kept them in started piling up, Tim decided that he needed a more inconspicuous way to keep them. Something systematic and effective. But it didn’t occur to him to keep it in his books until he was cleaning his apartment one weekend, wiping off the layer of dust on their spines when he realised he could repurpose them into something else. One book for each batch of jewellery he bought.
In some ways, Tim thought it was poetic that he was hiding them in these books. In some ways, it felt like they never left him. Tim didn’t smile very much anymore, but the thought that his friends were still in his life, even if it was just this, put a faint smile on his face.
Being alone never got easier. It hardened some parts of him, but it also chipped away at the vulnerable parts. And once you started letting it in, it became an infestation that grew into a part of you.
He knew he was withdrawing. He knew it was unhealthy to be so isolated from everyone, to be so lacking in any meaningful human connection, but after being alone for such a long time, it was hard to remember what he was missing in the first place.
There was a woman who had been staring at him.
Tim didn’t know when it started, but he knew when he first noticed it. He had been standing alone in the elevator, waiting for the doors to grind to a close when she slipped in between the thin gap. For a small woman carrying a such bulky music case, Tim was surprised that she was still so nimble on her feet.
The doors shut loudly behind her. She slotted herself into the space between Tim and the walls of the elevator, flashing him a sheepish smile while she pressed the button for the sixth floor.
“Hello,” she said. Tim took a disinterested glance at her before averting his gaze. The easy smile on her face turned a little stiff at the corners. “Haven’t seen you around lately.”
This caught Tim’s attention. He turned back to her with a bewildered frown. “Excuse me?”
“Oh,” the woman laughed, embarrassed. She lowered her head, hiding her smile. “I meant that I usually see you when I come back from rehearsals late at night. But I haven’t seen you around lately.”
Tim nodded slowly, sceptically. “Right.”
“I hope that didn’t sound too creepy or anything.”
Tim offered her a tight smile before the lift chimed on the sixth floor, doors sliding open lethargically.
“Well, this is me,” the woman said, gesturing to herself as she stepped out of the elevator. Tim waited for her to get out quietly, following her with his eyes. Just before the doors closed, she turned around with the brightest smile that anyone had given him in years.
“I’m Jan, by the way,” Jan said with honey dripping from her words. And the doors closed.
Tim started seeing Jan around the Arconia more often after that night.
He heard about this before— the Frequency Illusion. After you noticed something for the first time, you were more likely to see it around, and Tim saw Jan around a lot more.
He saw her in the mornings when he was rushing to work, squeezing into the packed lift next to him. He saw her when they were waiting for the lift together at night. He saw her when he was going to the gym on weekends when she waved at him with a bag full of groceries.
And every time that Tim saw her, Jan had a lovely smile on her face. He didn’t want to admit it, but it started to make him feel seen— and it felt good.
So it came as no surprise to him when the distance between them in the elevator started narrowing, when Jan’s polite smiles turned coy, when he started to steal glimpses of her from the corner of his eye.
It only came as a surprise when it actually happened, when the tension between them exploded into passionate kisses against the walls of the elevator.
Jan pulled away, breathing heavily. “Yours? Or mine?”
It took Tim a moment to understand the question. “Yours.”
When the doors of the elevator opened, they stumbled out with new creases on their clothes. It took Jan longer than usual to open her door with how her hands trembled, but the moment that they were in, everything happened in a rush.
Jan was easy to be with. She was experienced, she knew what she wanted, and she wasn’t shy about getting it.
While this wasn’t how he imagined his first time happening, it was the first time in a long time that he could remember holding someone close to him. It was the first time in a long time that he was held by someone else, that he felt any kind of connection with someone else, and it broke something inside of him after everything was over.
He had been so fucking lonely for so long that he didn’t even recognise it anymore, but there was a time when he wasn’t. There was a time when he had friends who saw him for who he was and accepted him, even loved him. And now they were gone, and Tim had pushed away the only person he had ever loved in his entire life.
He had been so fucking lonely for so long that he forgot there was ever a time that he was in love. That there had been a girl he couldn’t look away from, a girl who could make his insides melt with the sound of her laughter, a girl who kept him awake because of her atrociously loud snoring.
The same girl who was crying outside his door, begging him to talk to her. The same girl who stayed on the phone with him even when he didn’t deserve it. The same girl who was on the brink of tears on the street, realising her best friend had turned into a stranger.
And even after all that time, Tim was still helplessly in love with her. All he wanted was to see her again and tell her how sorry he was, but instead he returned to the arms of someone who couldn’t ever begin to fill the space in his heart that Mabel left when she walked out of his life.
He was still in love with Mabel.
Tim and Jan were lying next to each other, staring at the ceiling while catching their breaths when Jan turned to him, studying him. He could sense that she wanted something, because she was never this quiet after a round of sex. He turned to her, furrowing his brows in confusion when he saw her gaze fall onto his lips, slowly leaning in.
They had never done this— kiss outside of sex. It was too intimate, much more than Tim was willing to give. Having sex to scratch an itch was one thing, but giving yourself to someone wholly was another thing entirely.
There was only one person he would ever think about giving himself to in that capacity, and she wasn’t next to him.
Tim pulled away, chest rising and falling with the sudden realisation. “I can’t do this anymore.”
Jan went still, narrowing her eyes in confusion. “I’m sorry?”
“I can’t do this anymore.” Tim pushed himself up, hooking his legs over the edge of the bed as he got off.
“What’re you talking about?” Jan chuckled, wearing a stiff smile on her face. Tim refused to look at her while he put on his clothes, and once he was done zipping up his pants, Tim turned to her.
“I can’t have sex with you anymore,” Tim said, “I’m ending this now.”
Jan leaned back, all the humour evaporating from her expression, leaving serious eyes and a deadpan expression. She studied him for a long moment, searching for something in his eyes.
“Why?” Jan asked, voice dropping. She leaned back against the headboard, cocking her head to the side. “Surely there’s something bothering you. Are we moving too fast for you? Or perhaps.. is there someone else you’re not telling me about?”
There was a controlled, dangerous tension in her words, accompanied by a shift in her body posture that struck a chord of fear in Tim. His whole body stiffened up immediately, a fight or flight response, and he didn’t know if he was more alarmed by his own reaction or how such a subtle change in Jan’s expression seemed to bring out a different side of her, something that Tim had never seen before.
And with the way that she was scrutinising him, he knew that everything hinged on his answer. He shook his head lightly, trying to dispel the suffocating atmosphere.
“No,” Tim said honestly.
Jan waited a moment, still searching his face for a telltale sign of a lie. But when she found nothing, her shoulders sagged in relief. Just like that, all the unease in the air between them dissipated and Tim could breathe easier again, although he tried not to show it. Instead, he redoubled his efforts in getting dressed.
Jan sighed softly to herself. “Then what’s wrong? And don’t say it’s the sex— because I know that’s a lie.”
Tim shrugged, pulling his shirt over his head. “This isn’t me. I don’t want to do casual sex anymore.”
Confusion flashed across Jan’s face before it morphed into a dreadful happiness. “Well, that’s a rather roundabout way of proposing to make things official, if you ask me.” she joked.
Tim turned back as he pulled on the hem of his shirt, straightening it down his stomach. He stared at her for a long time, trying to parse her, but the more he looked, the more he didn’t understand.
The mirth on Jan’s face disappeared slowly, the fog of denial clearing away with acceptance of what was happening.
“You’re serious,” she said flatly.
Tim threw his hands in the air. “Yeah.”
Jan worked her jaw for a long moment, sizing Tim up wordlessly. There was a fire in her eyes, the slow kind that gained momentum as it spread, the kind that spelt danger.
Finally, Jan said, “Alright. I guess we’re done, then.”
“Yeah,” Tim agreed.
His hair was still dripping when he sat on the foot of his bed, picking up his phone.
It had been years since he last saw Mabel, and he wasn’t sure where they stood now. Mabel had made it clear that they were no longer friends. But what were they if they weren’t friends anymore?
Tim’s finger lingered around the call button, staring at Mabel’s contact with uncertainty and the fear of rejection twisting his stomach into knots. After another long moment of hesitation, Tim forced his finger down onto the screen and the familiar ringing started, breaking the quiet in Tim’s apartment.
Every ring was another dig in Tim’s confidence. Every ring was another moment for all the regrets Tim had to wash up on the sore of his consciousness. Every ring was another time that he pushed Mabel away, a call left unanswered and message unread.
It would be fair if Mabel decided to return the favour now. Tim accepted that maybe this would be the final nail in the coffin of their friendship. He would leave her alone if she decided that she didn’t want him in her life anymore.
But the call connected, moments before it would have been automatically disconnected by the service provider, and Tim’s heart lurched up. He sat up straight, palms growing sweaty with nerves, and slid the phone between his shoulder and ear, clamping it down with his head.
Understandably, there wasn’t much to hear over the phone. It was late at night and even from his apartment, Tim could see that there weren’t many people wandering the streets in the dead of winter. But aside from the very soft breaths he caught every few seconds, there was no indication that Mabel was ever on the other side of the line.
They sat in silence for a long time. Mabel was usually the one who would break the ice, she was usually the one who initiated something that would ease Tim into the conversation. But Tim could feel the cool of her silence through the phone and he thought that he was lucky she even picked up the phone at all.
It was his turn to reach out to her. And after all those years of pushing her away, wasn’t it only fair?
“Hi Mabel,” Tim said quietly.
Mabel’s reply didn’t come until a few seconds had gone by in silence. She sighed warily, like being on the phone was something painful to her, and Tim felt a pang of sadness that this was what their friendship had become. Something painful, something dreadful.
“Tim,” Mabel replied monotonously.
Tim smiled sadly. He walked over to the window and sat by the ledge with one leg up, resting his elbow on his knee while looking at the park across. The trees were barren under the winter sky. Their skeletons stood in the dark, edges pointed and hard and ready to pierce, so unlike how soft they looked during spring and summer when leaves grew on their branches so lushly.
Tim remembered that Mabel loved being in the park. While he wasn’t a fan of being mosquito food, he’d follow Mabel to the park. When there were unoccupied benches, they’d hog one for the entire day, and when there wasn’t they’d lay on the grass. Mabel would take out a sketchbook from her bag and start drawing strangers in the park while Tim re-read the Hardy Boys, and every once in a while Mabel would elbow Tim to look at her work.
They weren’t always good, but they were always better than the last one. Tim would shrug indifferently and tell her that, and Mabel would roll her eyes at him, but she never stopped asking for his opinion.
Distantly, Tim wondered if Mabel had pursued the art degree that she always dreamt of. He wondered if she was working as an illustrator or an interior designer. He wondered if she was happy where she was today, because it would justify everything he had done if at least one of them was happy.
“I miss you,” Tim admitted softly with his heart in his throat. He pulled his knees to his chest as he buried his face in them. “I never stopped missing you.”
There was an even longer pause this time. And then there was the sound of footsteps padding across a hard floor, the sound of Mabel pacing around the room, before it stopped abruptly.
“I miss you too,” Mabel whispered.
Tim shut his eyes, taking measured breaths while relief washed over him. It made him feel better that he wasn’t the only one feeling this way, stuck in the past while lying to themselves that they’ve moved on. It made him feel better that Mabel still cared for him enough to miss him, even if he didn’t deserve it.
“I still have your drawing.” Tim looked up, gaze darting across the open door to the living room where his bookshelf was. “The one you drew of the beach near your house.”
“You said it was bad.”
“No, I said it wasn’t very good,” Tim corrected.
“Yeah, you were always pedantic as fuck too.”
Tim could hear a smile in Mabel’s voice as she spoke, and it put a smile on his face as well. Tim shrugged nonchalantly, biting back his smile. “I think it’s important to get the facts right. You can’t look at the big picture without the details.”
“You won’t see the big picture if you’re always focused on the details.”
“Maybe that’s why we worked together so well,” Tim said, melancholy seeping into his voice, “You always saw the bigger picture where I only saw the small details.”
It doesn’t go past Tim how he spoke about them in past tense, and by the length of the time it took for Mabel to reply, she noticed it too.
“Yeah,” Mabel said half-heartedly.
Awkwardness crept back into their conversation. It seemed to be a permanent fixture in their relationship now. Tim’s smile faltered as he turned back to the window. He could see half of his reflection in the window where the park was, where it was dark enough for his window to act as a mirror, and Tim thought that the man in the reflection looked pitiful at best.
“I found it the other day when I was packing the place,” Tim said. He didn’t mention that it had been years. “I didn’t know what to do with it, so I kept it.”
When Mabel didn’t say anything, Tim took it as his cue to continue.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, Mabel,” Tim confessed weakly, “I had— I had a plan. I thought that I was doing well keeping to it, but nothing ever feels right. Nothing has felt right since—” he inhaled sharply, chewing his lip in thought, trying to pull himself together.
It was difficult to talk about Zoe’s death. Part of Tim realised that this might be the first time he was actually acknowledging Zoe’s death, the first time that he talked about it with someone. Maybe that was why it was so hard to verbalise his thoughts— because he spent nine years suppressing them that it was hard to remember where he buried them in the first place.
Eventually, Tim sighed exasperatedly, carding his fingers through his wet hair.
“I miss them too,” Tim settled on saying. It wasn’t everything he wanted to say, but somehow it encompassed nine years of sorrow. “I miss Zoe and Oscar too.”
“But you didn’t say anything,” Mabel said after a beat, and Tim realised too late that he had steered the conversation into uncharted territory. “I don’t understand you, Tim. You said you saw someone fighting with Zoe that night, so why didn’t you say anything?”
Tim rubbed a hand over his eyes. This was his fault.
“I thought you trusted me.” Mabel said.
Guilt ballooned in Tim’s chest. It wasn’t only because of her words, but the way her voice wavered, like she was doubting the truth of her words, like time had eroded her belief in the fact that Tim trusted her. And suddenly, Tim had doubts about his own decision to withhold the truth from her.
Why couldn’t he tell her the truth? That he had seen Zoe and Theo arguing that night before Zoe started pushing Theo, trying to provoke a response from him. That Zoe had pushed too much, too hard and ended up falling off the edge? Why couldn’t he tell her—
“If not, I can’t be sure that you won’t end the same way as this girl tonight.”
Terror struck Tim like a bolt of lightning.
“You, or that friend of yours— what’s her name?”
Memories of Zoe falling over flashed through his mind, and terror shot up from Tim’s stomach. Tim lurched forward with the need to dry heave, hand grasping around his neck instinctively, trying to throw up something that wasn’t there.
Teddy’s threat on his life had never scared him and Teddy realised it when Tim wasn’t fazed at all. Not pretending that he feared for his own life was one of the biggest regrets that Tim had. If he did, Teddy wouldn’t have to find something else that truly scared him. If he did, Teddy wouldn’t have added Mabel’s life to that threat.
If Teddy were anyone else but Teddy Dimas, Tim wouldn’t have believed that threat. If Teddy were anyone else but Teddy Dimas, Tim would’ve told Mabel the truth even before that night was over. But Teddy Dimas was a powerful man with connections, and that gave his threat all the credibility it needed to shut Tim up. Tim didn’t know the extent of Teddy’s ability to make true of his promise. He couldn’t do anything that could hurt Mabel.
Teddy’s promise was a vice around his throat that had tightened its grip over the years. Teddy’s promise was the gap in their friendship that never stopped growing. Teddy’s promise was Tim reliving Zoe’s death everyday.
“Mabel..” Tim trailed off, already hating himself before the words were out of his mouth, “Why can’t you let this go? Why can’t you just move on?”
A pause punctuated their conversation.
“Why can’t I— Why can’t I move on?” Mabel bristled, voice shaking with rage, “Zoe’s dead, Tim. Zoe’s dead and Oscar’s in jail and you said you saw someone with Zoe. You saw something that could’ve stopped Oscar from going to jail and you’re telling me to let this go?”
“You’re the fucking reason that I can’t move on, Tim!” Mabel said in clipped tones, words coming out in a rush, “I still dream of that night— I still hear her fucking scream when I go to sleep. And you know what? You’re still calling me years after you abandoned me. So don’t preach to me about moving on when you can’t even talk about Zoe’s death nine years after she’s dead.”
The call disconnected.
Tim threw his phone onto his bed, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes just so he wouldn’t have to feel them sting with tears again.
Jan sent Tim a message a week later telling him that he’d left some of his things at her place. Tim couldn’t remember leaving anything behind— he was meticulous with stocktaking and he knew for a fact that he wasn’t missing anything.
More importantly, Tim remembered the apprehension that seized him the last time they met. Mabel always joked that Tim never had a good gut feeling about anyone, but this was one time Tim thought that Mabel would agree with him.
Feel free to throw it away, Tim replied. And then he blocked her number.
Seeing the therapist on the sixth floor didn’t help much— not that Tim ever expected it to, anyway. But it was something adults did, so it was something Tim did.
At least he was talking to someone outside of work.
When his phone buzzed with Cutter’s name pushing down the other notifications on his screen, Tim knew there was only one thing it could be about.
Tim excused himself to the toilet, locking himself in a cubicle before checking the message.
I found the emerald ring, but it’ll be steep.
Excitement bloomed in Tim’s heart. He didn’t care how much it would cost. He’d just gotten the fattest bonus he ever received because of his investment for Sting’s portfolio— being able to work obsessively was one of the only good things that came out of being alone. That ring was priceless, and Tim would cough out whatever Cutter wanted for it.
Tim’s heart raced as his thumbs flew across the screen, leaving sweat stains wherever his fingertips jumped.
When can I get it?
The reply was instantaneous.
One month. Earliest.
Tim marked down the date and started his countdown. It gave him a renewed sense of purpose in life, something definite to look forward to.
It took ten years for him to get to this point, and he was going to make it worth the cost he paid.
Tim had spent ten years solving the equation of how to bring down the Dimases. The only variable that Tim didn’t factor in was Mabel moving back into the Arconia, and it threw off the entire equation.
Mabel had grown into her own person in the way she dressed and carried herself. She wasn’t the girl who wore mismatched shirts and jeans anymore, and neither was she the awkward teenager who experimented with makeup and heels. The Mabel that Tim saw exuded an air of self-assured confidence. The Mabel he saw was beautiful but closed off.
And seeing Mabel around the Arconia again was difficult for many reasons.
Tim could lie to himself and say it was difficult because it was a reminder that they’d grown apart. He could lie to himself and say it was difficult because there was no trace of the Mabel he knew, that Mabel’s life had branched away from his in irreconcilable ways.
He could, but he wasn’t going to try. Tim knew the real reason why it was hard to see her around again: because it was hard to avoid the only person you’ve been thinking of.
But Tim only had one chance to take down the Dimases, and he’d messed up too many times to let this opportunity go.
Tim could see her loitering in the lift lobby on his floor the moment that the doors pulled open. Mabel spun around the moment that the ding of the lift echoed through the empty corridors, waiting for him with an expectant expression.
Tim already knew what Mabel was going to say before she said it. But his meeting with Cutter was still a few days later, and Tim wasn’t going to risk anything.
“Back off, Mabel,” Tim said sharply, giving her a wide berth while keeping his eyes ahead. He could hear her footsteps trailing behind him, closing the gap he tried to keep between them. “You can’t disappear for ten years and then show up and start dragging up a bunch of shit from when we were kids.”
“Oscar’s getting out, Tim,” Mabel replied in a level voice, watching Tim struggle with his keys. And then her voice took an accusatory edge when she continued, “You can make things right. You know what happened that night, you didn’t even say anything.”
He knew that this was what Mabel was going to talk to him about. This was the only thing she had ever spoken to him about for the last decade. But weren’t they friends? Didn’t that count for something?
Couldn’t she have even pretended to care about him?
“Look, if this is all you came back for—” Tim snapped before he knew what he was saying. Mabel stared at him, taken aback by the abruptness of his pause, waiting for him to finish that sentence. But Tim wasn’t going to. He shook his head and sucked in a breath, clenching his fists. “I don’t want to think about back then. I’m a different person now.”
For a moment, Mabel’s cool composure shattered and Tim was able to look inside and see the disappointment clouding those dark eyes. But then all at once the curtain of steel fell across her eyes and cut him out again.
“Jesus. We are different,” Mabel murmured, “And I don’t need people like you in my life.”
“Fine. Good.” Tim swallowed, averting his gaze, “So.. if you see me around the building, act like you don’t know me— because you don’t.”
“Happily,” Mabel said curtly, “Fuck you.”
It was the first time that Mabel had ever said that to him, and the pang in his chest stung harder than it had in years.
Tim watched as Mabel walked away, pressing the elevator button impatiently, and he realised that even if he were able to pin Zoe’s death on the Dimases and exonerate Oscar, his friendship with Mabel would never recover. There was too much bitterness festering between them now, and Mabel was convinced that Tim had really moved on.
She really hated him now, and this was something that Tim couldn’t change.
With his throat closing up, Tim pushed open his apartment door, stopping to remove his shoes at the doorway when he was tackled from behind, and throwing them on the floor. Tim landed on his stomach, elbows hitting against the wooden flooring with loud thuds before he registered a heavy pain on his shoulders where someone’s head hit him.
Tim struggled to look over his shoulders. “Mabel?!” he yelled, turning himself over while Mabel straddled him, planting her legs on both sides of his body. “What the hell are you—?”
“Is that it?” Mabel said hotly, hair spilling down her shoulders. Tim closed his mouth when he heard the slight tremor in her voice. Mabel misinterpreted Tim’s silence for an answer. She grabbed his sweatshirt in fistfuls and hauled him upward, giving him a hard shake. “Is that it?” she repeated desperately, “You’re just— throwing away everything? Aren’t you gonna fight for it? Can you at least act like I meant something to you?”
Something wet fell onto Tim’s cheek and rolled down his face. Mabel gave him another shake, and this time he was able to catch a glimpse of her face.
Mabel was biting onto her lips with tears leaking out from her narrowed eyes. Her face was flushed with anger and despair, both taking turns to surface in those beautiful eyes and Tim loved looking at. The longer that Tim stared, the more the angry slope of her brows began wavering.
She was falling apart in front of his eyes.
“Do you wanna know the real reason why I can’t move on?” Mabel’s gaze bounced around the room as she chuckled humourlessly. She took a deep breath, squeezing her eyes shut while a few fresh tears escaped, hanging onto her chin before they fell.
“I can’t move on because I still love you,” Mabel’s voice cracked as she laughed breathlessly, shaking her head. “I can’t move on because I still love you.”
Time fell away at that moment, with Mabel’s tears falling down like all the glittering diamonds and jewellery they used to see. Time fell away at that moment, with Mabel offering her withering heart to be burnt. Time fell away at that moment, with Tim watching as all the walls Mabel built around her collapsed like a castle of sand, washed away with the pain of confessing ten years of sadness.
Time was stopping for him now. No, time was turning back. All the years of loneliness, all the years of grief washed away were being replaced by memories of happier days. Days spent lying together in the park, days spent making up adventures in Tim’s apartment, days spent squeezing onto each other’s beds, arguing about trivial things that Tim couldn’t even remember anymore.
Love leaked out of Tim’s broken heart as Mabel let go of Tim’s shirt to wipe her face with her sleeve, sniffling in frustration.
Tim pushed himself up as much as he could, supporting his weight with one arm. He leaned in and gently cupped Mabel’s face with the other hand, wordlessly brushing away stray tears with his thumb. Mabel stared back at him defiantly, preparing herself for whatever she thought Tim was going to say.
“I’m sorry,” Tim said earnestly. Mabel’s face fell, exposing the surprise underneath. She searched his eyes, not willing to believe what she heard.
“Tim..?” Mabel said shakily.
Tim leaned up to press a kiss to her damp cheek. Mabel gasped softly, tensing up. Tim pulled away enough so that he could make eye contact with her, so that he could see the light blush dusted across her face. They were close enough that he could feel her heavy breaths fan against his face, they were close enough that he could smell a hint of perfume on her neck.
They were close enough that he could see Mabel’s gaze flicker to his lips before looking back at him. They inched forward slowly, closing their eyes as they moved, and as Mabel wrapped her hands around his nape, pulling him forward—
Their noses bumped against each other’s.
“Fuck,” Mabel muttered under her breath, letting go of Tim to rub her nose.
Laughter bubbled up from the depths of Tim’s stomach. He was sure that this wasn’t either of their first kisses, but they were still so bad at it when it came to each other.
Mabel glared at him. “What’s so funny, asshole?”
Tim’s laughter faded into a grin that split his face in half. He pinched the tip of Mabel’s nose lightly. “You,” he said, “you’re a pretty bad kisser.”
“Oh, like you can say anything about it,” Mabel grumbled wetly, “You forgot to tilt your head too, dumbass. We wouldn’t be talking now if you did— we’d be kissing.”
“Okay.” Tim shrugged. “Shall we try that again?”
Mabel froze momentarily before nodding stiffly. She looked away while slipping her hands around the back of Tim’s neck, sighing resignedly. “I guess we can try again.”
But when the moment that Mabel’s gaze flitted back to meet his, a smile broke across her face— the most radiant one that Tim had seen in ten years. With their smiles reflecting on each other’s faces, they leaned in, tilting their heads this time, until their lips touched tentatively.
Mabel’s lips were soft as they moved against Tim’s lips. The kiss was gentle, slowly pushing against each other as they held each other closer. Mabel’s hand slid up the back of his head, threading her fingers through his neatly combed hair while Tim wrapped his hands around her heart-shaped face, pulling her impossibly close to him.
They kissed with all the tenderness of a first kiss, and the passion of a last kiss. They kissed like dance partners meeting each other for the first time, getting acquainted with every step they took. They kissed like they were telling each other everything they couldn’t put into words, like they were pouring ten years of bottled up emotions and love into each other.
They kissed like they would lose each other again if they stopped.
When they broke apart for air, Tim’s hand on her face grounded her back to the present. He drew circles into her cheeks, silently asking her to come back to him.
And Mabel did, looking at him like it was the first time she was really seeing him, eyes scouring over every part of his face, drinking him in. She was painting a picture of Tim in her head that she would never lose again.
“I’m sorry,” Tim said again quietly, “that it took me this long to realise that you loved me.”
“Love,” Mabel corrected with a teasing lilt in her voice.
Tim rolled his eyes even though the corners of his lips began curving up. “Who’s the one being pedantic now?”
“The difference between ‘love’ and ‘loved’ is not insignificant.”
The deadpan expression on Mabel’s face gave way to a crooked smile, one that had her eyes curving into crescents. In those eyes, Tim could see all the love and affection that had been there since they were kids. Always looking at him, always directed at him, always waiting for him to claim it.
And it was Tim’s turn to do right by Mabel. It was time to break his silence.
Tim’s smile waned. “I’m sorry that I left you alone,” Tim murmured, “I never stopped loving you too. I promise that I was always going to find you again, after I managed to link the Dimases to Zoe’s death. But I guess you found me first.”
It took a moment for the meaning of Tim’s words to sink in, and Tim could see the exact moment it did, when Mabel’s smile began slipping and her head straightened.
“Tim?” Mabel said carefully, “What’re you talking about? The Dimases?”
Tim took a deep breath. It wasn’t easy to break a secret when you’ve kept it for years, but it was time.
“I saw Theo with Zoe,” Tim explained calmly, hesitating before adding, “the night she died. His dad threatened that if I said anything, you’d end up like her.”
A deep crease formed between Mabel’s brows as her eyes rounded in shock. “What..”
“It took me ten years, but I found it again.” Tim looked deeply into Mabel’s eyes as his fingers ghosted across her skin, drawing her attention back to him again. “I found the emerald ring Zoe was wearing before she died.”
Mabel gasped, her jaw dropping. “I don’t understand..” Mabel said, barely above a breath. She covered his hands with hers, digging her fingers between his palm and her face as a new light touched her eyes: cautious hope. “Tim.. what’re you saying?”
Tim let go of her face to hold her hands tightly in his, curling his fingers around hers while he looked at her gravely.
“I’m saying that I know how to prove Oscar’s innocence. I’m saying that we can finally clear his name.”