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from love and anxiety in real time

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Life sucks, and then you die.

And then, if you’re Jon, you come back.

And then it sucks again.

Because sure, you come back, and that’s pretty cool. You never wanted to die, no matter how shitty life had turned out to be for you. But you also come back knowing that not much has changed, that your once closest friend still hates you, that, just before you’d died, he’d told you that he would never forgive you. And he meant it. And you can’t even blame him.

Actually, if you’re Jon, you come back and it turns out everything sucks even more.

Your once closest friend still hates you, sure, but you hadn’t ever expected him to come back around in the first place. Now, though, everyone thinks you’re a monster—actually, it might be more appropriate to say they know you’re a monster. You probably are one, now. The point is, they’re all avoiding you. You wouldn’t have ever really called yourself friends with the rest of them, but you at least got along enough to talk sometimes. It was at least enough that you were never alone.

Worse, still, the one person who had always been on your side, regardless of if you deserved it or not, suddenly wants nothing at all to do with you. Won’t even tell you why, won’t even look at you. Doesn’t even want you to be in the same room as him, far as you can tell.

So. Life sucks! And then you die. And then you come back. And then it sucks harder.

At least when it sucked before, you weren’t alone. Now everyone just wants to kill you.

Or, at the very least, they don’t want you around. And you’re not quite sure which one is worse.

Suffice it to say, Jon’s been having a record number of consecutive terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days lately. He comes back to the institute with a negative amount of fanfare, most of his colleagues only acknowledging his return by way of either giving him a ten-foot radius or blatantly glaring in his direction for a few moments before turning around and stalking off.

He stays in his office, most of the time. It takes about four days before anyone comes in on purpose.

“God, do you have to be everywhere?”

It’s Tim. Jon had pretty much expected anyone else to show up. Although, supposing his not-quite greeting, Tim had pretty much expected anyone else to be sitting at the desk, too.

“This is my office, Tim,” Jon responds. He doesn’t mean to be short but he’s just so tired. Resurrected for four days, now, and the first person to actually talk to him is one who hasn’t had once nice word to say to him since Jane Prentiss.

Jon had sort of expected Tim to immediately walk right back out the door as soon as he had noticed Jon was back. Instead, Tim lingers, no doubt to yell at him for having the audacity to come back. “Yeah, well,” he says. “Weren’t here for six months, I was kind of relying on this place for pens and all that.”

A thought pops into Jon’s head, then. It’s stupid. Only when he had returned, everything in Jon’s office had been practically turned upside down, nothing in the same place where he had left it. He’d managed to get everything back in order quick enough—the perks of being all on your own, he supposes—but the one thing he couldn’t find was his favorite pen. And, well. “Did you—are you—I would like to know if you’re the reason my favorite pen is gone.”

It doesn’t displace his glare, does nothing to loosen up the clench of his jaw, but the not-question makes Tim go a little shifty. “No idea what you’re talking about, they’re all pens. You barely notice if you’re writing with pen or crayon half the time, anyway, don’t see why you’d have a favorite.”

That was a lie. That was a lie and Tim knew it, because Jon only ever writes with one pen and he knows he doesn’t ever get it confused with anything else because he’s been using the same one for years. And Tim knows, he knows that.

It’s a cheap little novelty thing, confetti fish dancing in a sea of blue, oily water inside the plastic casing. Tim had given it to him as a joke when Jon made head archivist.

He knows he wasn’t supposed to take it seriously. It was embarrassing that he held onto it so tightly, Jon was well aware of that. But he didn’t have anyone else, barely had Tim really, at the time, and to him it felt as close to a celebration as he would be allowed to have. Even when Tim hated him, Jon always kept it in the top drawer of his desk; he never used anything else.

“Tim.”

“Don’t know where your stupid pen is, alright Jon? Haven’t stolen all of them, yet, just use another one.”

And without much more than that, Tim is gone, slamming the door shut behind him.

It’s a little sad that even an interaction like that makes Jon feel less alone.

*

Jon doesn’t see Tim again for a while, after that first time. That’s not a surprise, really. He doesn’t see a lot of people for a while. He doesn’t blame them, he guesses. He can’t imagine what he would do if someone who he presumed to be dead that he didn’t really like much in the first place just…showed up one day, out of the blue, after six months. Not much to talk about, he supposes. He’s missed too much to be a good conversationalist.

Unexpectedly, he ends up talking to Tim before he gets to talk to anyone else.

Jon spends a lot of time laying across the couch in the breakroom just staring at the ceiling. He spends most of his time in his office, holed away from everyone, but sometimes he needs a change of pace. If he sits in a more heavily trafficked area in the archives instead of just staying locked away in his office, he can at least delude himself into thinking someone might at least deign to talk to him on accident.

It takes about a week for that to happen. Probably because everyone is steadfastly avoiding him.

Tim apparently has been left just as out of the loop as Jon has, because no one’s warned him of Jon’s newest habits. He catches sight of him when he walks into the breakroom one day and immediately sours. “Are you following me?”

“Should probably ask you that.” Jon doesn’t know why his first instinct is to joke around. They might have been friends once, but they clearly weren’t now. Even when they were friends, Jon didn’t have this sort of relationship with him, at least not at the end. He doubts trying to crack jokes while Tim can currently be described as “openly hostile” is the right move.

“Are you supposed to be funny?”

Jon sighs. He hadn’t really thought the joke would do anything. Truth be told, he had expected it to just make Tim angry. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t still hoping it would work, though. “Not really. I was here first, though.” He shuts his eyes tight, not wanting to see the look Tim will no doubt be giving him with his next scathing comment.

Instead of another dig, all Jon hears is the scuffed sound of shoes against linoleum—Tim always was one to drag his feet—followed by the sound of someone falling heavily into a wooden chair. He doesn’t want to risk opening his eyes. All things considered, Jon hasn’t had a lot of human interaction lately. He’ll take being glared at from across the room if it means that for once he’s not alone.

People do talk to him, sometimes, but never the way he’s looking for. It’s only when they need something, or they’re trying to brush him off. At least when Tim tries to start an argument with him, he’s engaging him in something. Tim wants him to push back. Everyone else just wants him to leave them alone. And they never stay. They never want to keep him company.

Jon knows Tim well enough to know that he’s not staying to keep him company. Tim doesn’t care how Jon feels, and Jon probably deserves that. The only reason Tim stays at all is because he’d come to this room with a purpose, regardless of what that purpose was, and he wasn’t going to let Jon ruin that. It was pure spite, and that was all.

Still, it’s better than nothing. Jon wonders if Tim is aware that, even like this, he’s giving Jon the same thing he’s been giving him since they’d started working together. That even when he’s angry and wants nothing to do with him, he’s still acting as someone who keeps Jon together when he can feel himself unspooling into a pile of cheap thread.

Jon thinks Tim would hate it if he did know. He hopes one day he gets to tell him. Given everything, he doesn’t think he’d even mind if Tim just responded with a cold glare and a “fuck off.”

*

It ends up being something of a thing. Every so often the two of them will just…find themselves sitting on opposites ends of the breakroom, sharing space. They never really say anything. Sometimes Tim will sigh heavily, like he thinks it’s some great Herculean task just to be in the same room as Jon. Sometimes he’ll make another snarky comment like he had that first time, about Jon following him around. Usually it’s just tense silence.

It probably says something sad about Jon that the hour or two he spends in near complete silence in a room with a man that hates him is the best part of his day.

In fact, it’s so much the best part of his day that it’s the first place he goes after finally getting to speak with Martin. He gets thoroughly rejected in a way that he can’t even be angry about, and the first person he wants to see is someone who’s been much harsher about how little they want to be around him.

But he doesn’t really have time to unpack all of that.

When he gets to the breakroom, Tim is already there sprawled across the full length of the couch. He doesn’t move at all when Jon enters, just stares straight ahead at the ceiling.

Jon almost smiles. He knows it’s done deliberately, something just to annoy him, but it’s routine enough at this point that it just makes him feel comfortable. Whenever Tim makes it to the breakroom before Jon, he makes it a point to steal the space where Jon usually sits. And it’s only Tim making it clear that he doesn’t want Jon to be there, but it’s been a long time since he’s had this sort of back-and-forth with anyone. Even if it is antagonistic, it’s nice.

Jon sits woodenly in one of the chairs at the table across the room, scraping the chair backwards until he can comfortably lean over and rest his head against the tabletop. He lets out a heavy sigh. It’s unclear to him at the moment whether or not he wants Tim to respond—he’s not sure he could handle the argument right now, given everything—but he needs to express his disappointment somehow.

Nobody wants to hear what he really thinks, no one wants to listen and feel sorry for him, but he can at least make it clear that he’s upset. He thinks even if it does prompt Tim to scoff at him it would be worth it for the smallest bit of relief it gives to the pressure building in his chest.

He lifts his head from the table when there isn’t an immediate reaction.

From the opposite end of the room, still staring resolutely at the cracks in the ceiling, Tim speaks. “Martin won’t talk to me, either.”

Jon pauses for a moment. He’s not sure if Tim expects him to answer; if Tim wants him to answer. After a bit, he decides to go for it regardless. It’s not like he can make Tim hate him more. “It’s because he cares about you,” he offers, voice scratchy with disuse. He stares down at the floor in case Tim turns to face him, not wanting to look him in the eye for fear of what he might find. Just because he’s gotten used to Tim’s distaste doesn’t mean he wants to see it directly. “I don’t—I don’t know what he’s up to, but he’s trying to help. I think. I think he doesn’t want us to know about it because he doesn’t want us to get hurt. I’m not sure if it’s—I don’t know if it’s worth it, but if he thinks so then I trust him. I’m trying to.”

“Wow, now you decide to trust people? Little late, Jon.” There’s a bit of the old Tim in that statement. For a second Jon can remember what it used to be like, before. When the two of them were just researchers and Tim was all he had. It doesn’t last long. There’s too much of an edge to the words, an edge that wasn’t there before. Where before it would have come off as teasing, now all Jon can hear is real, genuine contempt.

“I deserved that, I suppose,” he relents.

There’s a pause. Tim lets out a labored sigh. When Jon looks over at him, he’s got his eyes squeezed tightly shut. “You don’t deserve this, though.” When he speaks, his voice is strained; almost like it hurts. “The whole…resurrection, whatever. It sucks. You shouldn’t have to put up with that on top of all of…whatever this is.”

“You mean it sucks that I came back?” Jon is aiming for levity with the question, but as is the case most times he tries, he fails. His voice betrays him, letting too much of the hurt seep through. He knows Tim doesn’t care, he knows that, it’s just…he can’t really deal with hearing it point-blank like that. Especially not today.

“No, I’m not—” Tim cuts himself off with a harsh groan. Jon can’t tell if he’s angry at him or himself. “I’m…I’m saying it sucks that you didn’t have a choice. That it was either die or live and have all this thrown at you. You made the same choice anyone else would have, it’s just unfair that the deck was stacked against you.”

“Oh,” Jon says, frozen. That was significantly warmer than he’d expected, even if Tim had said the whole thing through clenched teeth. “Thanks.”

Tim does scoff, then. “I’m only saying this is one thing you don’t deserve. If people want to give you shit, they should at least stick to the shit that’s true.”

It’s something that sticks with Jon, for some reason. He’s not sure what exactly he does deserve, but…maybe it’s true that he doesn’t deserve this. If Tim can believe that—Tim, a man whose life Jon had effectively ruined, a man who Jon had almost gotten killed—then maybe Jon can, too.

Maybe it’s not his fault, this whole thing. Maybe he’s done a lot to receive all the ill will, but maybe some of it, at least, is unfounded.

He didn’t mean to let his assistants get eaten by worms. He didn’t mean to let Sasha get replaced. He didn’t mean to fall in line with some supernatural terror that forces him to eat people’s trauma. He only wanted to help, he was only ever trying to fix it.

Jon isn’t sure where that leaves him, what he deserves and what he doesn’t. He’s not sure if the revelation even makes him feel any better. It still happened, regardless of his intentions. But it’s the first kindness he’s been given in a long time, regardless of how small and begrudging.

That’s all he thinks about, for now.

*

Jon hasn’t had a single decent cup of tea since Martin decided to stop talking to him. He’d never thought the tea he made himself was bad, before, but now…he’s not sure what he’s doing wrong.

It’s too bitter, it’s too watery, there’s too much sugar, there’s not enough sugar, the tea itself cools way too quickly. Every time it’s a new problem. He hates the taste, so he switches brands. Then it burns his tongue, so he doesn’t boil the water as long. Then the diffuser breaks in his mug and he gets a mouthful of leaves upon taking his first sip, so he switches to bags instead. Then he hates the taste, again, so he switches brands.

It’s never right. And he’d never had a preference to begin with, never cared one way or the other how his tea was prepared. Tea was tea and the only thing he was drinking it for was the caffeine, anyway. He wasn’t sure why it mattered.

Jon can only go so long before he admits that the reason it never tastes right is because it isn’t from Martin. It doesn’t come with a smile and a soft inquiry over where they should get lunch. It doesn’t warm him up before he even has it in his hands like it used to, after he’d gotten over his paranoia and realized that Martin was only using it as an excuse to make sure he was okay.

There’s no saving it then, once he realizes. He resigns himself to choking down mediocre tea for however long, no longer bothering with trying to fix it when it comes out too cold or too bitter or too sweet. Caffeine is caffeine, and all.

The mug he takes a sip from now is chipped around the rim, cheesy slogan worn away from years of use. It’s Martin’s favorite—or it used to be, before things went sideways. Jon figures that if the reason he can’t get it to taste right is because Martin isn’t here, then he can at least pretend by using his old mug.

It burns his throat on the way down. He can feel it settling in his chest. He chokes a little but takes another sip, pretending it doesn’t bother him.

Suddenly the cup is being removed from his hand and its contents dumped down the sink. “Wha—hey!”

Tim says nothing, reaching into the cabinets to fetch another tea bag. He sets about preparing a new cup.

And, alright, fine. Jon is annoying, Tim doesn’t like him, whatever. But really? He’d thought they were at least getting along, at least enough to tolerate being near each other, and now it’s…stealing tea practically directly from his mouth and throwing it away so Tim can make his own? It feels just the slightest bit overkill.

“Look, I know we’re not…friends anymore, and I understand why, but I think resorting to petty bullying is a little—"

“You never make it right,” Tim says. “And I’m tired of watching you sit there grimacing through it for an hour; this is for me, not you. Drives me up the wall.”

That’s…not quite what Jon had expected. It’s enough to leave him standing there, staring openmouthed at Tim as he pours hot water over a new tea bag and adds practiced amounts of milk and sugar. He’s still staring when Tim slides it across the table towards him without a word, hard enough that the tea splashes over the sides a little.

Before Jon can thank him, he stalks over to the other side of the room and throws himself onto the couch, arm resolutely crossed over his face to cover his eyes.

It’s still not perfect. It’s still not Martin. But it is closer than Jon himself has ever gotten. It has just the right amount of sugar, it doesn’t burn on the way down, and the blend Tim’s chosen doesn’t make him want to spit it right back out. For the first time in a while, Jon actually properly feels the warmth from the tea spread through him.

There’s care in it, even if Tim doesn’t want to admit it. Jon resolves not to mention it.

The next time he ventures into the breakroom, there’s already a full mug steaming on the table.

*

Jon is so unused to people seeking him out on purpose after a while that when his office door opens it doesn’t really register.

“I’m sorry.”

Jon looks up from his desk, startled. “Tim?”

Tim is standing on the other side of his desk, hands shoved deep in his pockets and gaze turned slightly towards the left of where Jon is sitting. He takes a deep breath before continuing, jaw clenched. “You, the…what I said, before,” he grits out. “I thought we were both going to die. You did die, technically, and…I’m sorry I was okay with leaving things like that.”

It’s enough for Jon to feel winded. He’s never expected an apology. He’s never wanted one.  I don’t forgive you, Tim had said, but thank you for this. All things considered that was more than he felt he deserved. Maybe he’s started to come to terms with the fact that not everything was his fault. But what happened to Tim was. He’d violated Tim’s trust, ruined their friendship in favor of searching for answers that were never there. Jon doesn’t deserve to be forgiven for that, and so he’s not sure what could have prompted the apology.

He sighs, uncertain of how to respond. “Tim—”

“Had a lot more planned than that, let me finish please.” And it’s not…angry, not properly, not like Jon’s gotten used to hearing from Tim. It’s just frustrated. Labored. Like it’s something he’s spent a long time thinking about and it’s taken a long time for him to figure out exactly how he felt. Only now that he’s decided, it’s not any easier to say. “You were a right prick, most of the time,” Tim continues, “and it didn’t help that I had my own problems already. I was right to be angry with you, for everything you did. But I couldn’t tell what I was angry at most days, either. Me, the circus, that stupid ritual, you. I meant it, when I said it. I didn’t forgive you.”

That much, at least, isn’t surprising to Jon. He was a prick. Tim was right to be angry with him. He did mean what he said, and it was fair that he did. Jon isn’t too naïve to think that any of that changes just because Tim has made tea for him a couple times under the guise of not being able to stand it when Jon makes it wrong. “You still don’t have to,” Jon insists. He doesn’t want this to just be something they’re saying because the world may very well be ending and no one else seems to want their company. It would be worse than never being forgiven in the first place. “I would understand that.”

“Didn’t I ask you to let me finish? I didn’t forgive you, at the time, I meant that. But I don’t like who I was, when I was like that. I know I don’t—I’m not excusing you, you were a dick and I was more than justified, but…I miss you. I still don’t know if I’m…over it, if I do forgive you, but I do know that I want to. I don’t want to be like that anymore.” Tim lets his mouth settle into a smirk, a sight that Jon is sure he would find familiar if it weren’t for how strained and uneasily it appeared. It’s been a long time since Jon’s seen him look like that. And it’s warped, and wrong, and not at all the same, but…he’s missed it. It’s nice. “And anyway, if you’re trying, so am I.”

Jon laughs, albeit a little hollowly. The teasing remark doesn’t quite stick the landing. It falls a little flat, considering, and Tim doesn’t sound even a fraction as fond as he used to when he would joke around at Jon’s expense. But it’s something to cling to. And Jon, despite it all, he does just that. He clings.

Still, though, he gives Tim the out. He always has to give people the out. Doesn’t feel fair to them, otherwise.

“You don’t have to do this for me.”

Tim let’s out a harsh tch’ing sound. “Please,” he says. “Not everything’s about you, you know. Believe it or not, there may have been a few other things pushing me towards this realization.” He shakes his head, maybe a touch self-deprecatingly, and finally drops into one of the spare chairs in the office. “No one likes me at the moment, either. It’s not like I was ever around much, towards the end. And when I was, I made it perfectly clear that I wanted nothing to do with anyone.”

The words that Tim speaks are casual, carefully so, but Jon can hear the underlying hurt running just beneath them. It was the same way Jon felt. He pushed people away, too. It’s understandable that people want nothing to do with him, the way he acts sometimes. That doesn’t make it hurt any less.

“Came back after a couple months in the hospital, and it was the same,” Tim continues, a wry smile playing on his lips. “Here comes good old Tim Stoker, full of piss and vinegar and not much else. I’ve been pushing people away just like you did. And maybe coming back, seeing nobody wanted anything to do with me…maybe that made me understand more.” He looks Jon directly in the eye for the first time since he’s been back.

“You didn’t have to stalk me about it,” he says pointedly, “you could have talked to me. I wanted to help you. Took me longer than it should have to finally just give up. But…it would be hypocritical of me to say that what I did was any better. There were people that wanted to help me. And I never let them. I just let the anger eat me alive and push them away. Not everything’s immediately better just because you came back and I did a bit of self-reflection, but…I’m willing to try and figure it out.”

Hope has never been a friend to Jon. He’s never had many reasons to make friends with it, never tried. But there’s something there, in Tim’s voice, that makes him want to.

“Okay,” he says, voice cracking a bit between syllables. “Whatever you need me to do, I’ll—”

Tim cuts him off there with a decisive shake of his head. “It took both of us to screw this up. You started it, sure, but I finished it. Neither of us wanted to listen to the other. You can’t just follow my lead, if this is going to work then we need to talk—communicate. I don’t want us to screw it up again.”

Jon feels just the tiniest tendril of hope wrap itself around his heart. For the first time in his life, he lets it take hold.

*

Jon never mentions the pen. He’d always suspected, never knew why. He still doesn’t know why, but he catches Tim with it every so often. Twirling it around in his fingers when he’s ignoring work at his desk, clicking it over and over again in a steady rhythm while he stares unfocused at the wall.

He could mention it, he supposes. They’re on better terms now, speaking to each other without yelling or cowering away or staring up at the ceiling to avoid eye contact. More than that, they’re actively trying. Tim wants to forgive him. He’s said he doesn’t, not yet, but…he wants to. He misses Jon. That’s leagues ahead of where they were.

But there’s still a lot for them to work through, and Jon doesn’t want to ruin it. He doesn’t know why Tim decided he wanted the pen for himself, but he certainly doesn’t mind. Jon had only ever liked the pen because Tim gave it to him, anyway. It’s kind of nice to see Tim so keen on keeping it.

More than Tim’s speech from the other day, that gives Jon hope for the two of them. He won’t mention it until Tim does, for fear of ruining it.

Since their last talk, Tim’s taken to slinking into Jon’s office at different times during the day and folding himself into the chair on the opposite side of his desk. Sometimes he just sits there, legs slung over one arm of the chair, fiddling with different things. He’ll take pens from the cup on Jon’s desk, flip through the file folders that are scattered all over the place, tap out different rhythms against a coffee mug. Sometimes he’ll ask about Jon’s day. What else has he learned about how to stop everything, is there anything Tim can do to help without going through statements, does it ever bother Jon exactly how squeaky his chair is when it spins because it sure does bother Tim.

Both sorts of days are nice, in their own ways. On the days Tim doesn’t quite feel like talking, the quiet is never as strained as it used to be. It’s companionable, in its own way. Jon knows that these days come along because, underneath it all, there’s a lot they still have to work through. It’s like Tim said, not everything’s immediately better just because Jon came back from the dead and Tim took some time to self-reflect. But it never feels sad, at least not to Jon. Just sort of contemplative. And it’s nice that Tim seeks him out anyway. That he wants to be there, even if he can’t quite find it in him to say anything.

On the days Tim does talk, it feels…well, not normal, Jon doesn’t think he’ll get to feel something he can call normal for a rather long time, but it makes things better. Even when Tim is clearly reaching for things to say, throwing topics at the wall and hoping they stick, it’s fun. Or, well, Jon enjoys himself at least. Each stilted conversation eventually thaws until there’s a natural back and forth. Each successful attempt at bonding pulls more genuine emotion out of Tim than Jon’s seen in years. Jon thinks he even catches a smile or two every now and again, there and gone in the blink of an eye like Tim hadn’t quite meant to.

It’s one of the first days. The ones where they just sit together, keeping each other company.

Jon usually lets those days sit. But there’s something that’s been on his mind for a while. He’s never been the one to break the silence, not even on the days where they talk, but there’s a first time for everything. And Tim did say that Jon couldn’t just hang back and do whatever Tim wanted. He needed to put the effort forward, too.

He starts here.

“I, um.” Jon pauses for a minute, clearing his throat. Tim turns his head towards him, eyebrow raised. He catches the stress ball he’s been throwing at the ceiling and nods for him to continue. He doesn’t look upset at the break in the silence. Jon could say he even perhaps looks pleased. “I never apologized, properly,” he continues.

At that, Tim straightens in his seat. He swings his legs around until he’s sitting in the chair properly, leaning forward until his elbows rest on the edge of Jon’s desk. Jon notes that he doesn’t look upset or expectant or anything else. He’s just waiting. Just listening.

Jon goes on.

“I don’t want to make excuses.” He stops, choosing his words carefully. Much as he’s been turning the subject around in his head the past few weeks, he hasn’t really gotten far enough to make a script. He thinks maybe it might be better that way. Tim never did like it when he stuck to his pre-manufactured, all business, professional lines. “I was having a hard time, but that doesn’t…we were all having a hard time. You had it just as bad. Maybe worse. I didn’t know, about anything you were going through, not until it was too late, but…I never tried. Didn’t make myself very accessible, even before. Maybe if I had, then we would have been closer and I wouldn’t have gone off the deep end and…I don’t know.

“There’s no use dwelling, I suppose.” Jon takes a breath, daring to meet Tim’s gaze directly. “I should have done better, but I didn’t. And I’m sorry. And I’m…I’m going to do better, now.”

For a minute, there’s nothing. Jon can’t tell what Tim thinks. And then, almost too subtle for him to pick up on, Tim’s lips turn up at the corners. “You’re not used to apologizing, are you.”

Jon’s brain stalls. “Uh, I…well I’m—”

Tim taps at the folder in front of Jon with a familiar pen, confetti fish dancing with the movement. “I know. Thank you.”

Jon dips his head, searching for something to say next. Tim beats him to it. “You know, when…you don’t have to just sit in silence,” he says. “Sometimes I come in here and I’m just not up for it, but…I’m trying to leave you an opening. I don’t know what to say, sometimes. And I can tell sometimes that you’re itching to say something and you just…don’t. So if I don’t want to talk, I’ll tell you, but you don’t have to just assume that. I want you to talk to me.” As he speaks, he focuses on the movement of the pen in his hands, water splashing back and forth as he taps an indistinct rhythm against the folders.

“I’ll ask,” Jon says. Tim looks up again, forehead creased in the middle as he tries to parse out what Jon means. “If I have something to say, and you’re not up for it,” he clarifies. “I’ll ask first.”

Something in Tim’s face softens. He looks back down at the pen in his hands. “This may be your first apology,” he says, “but you’re not so bad at it.”

Unsure how to respond but still desperately, helplessly proud of himself, Jon huffs a laugh through his nose and turns his attention back to the statement in front of him. It’s one he’s already recorded, and he knows it doesn’t have any information he needs, but he skims through it again anyway. It occupies his brain at least, while he still feels like he’s floundering.

Tim taps the pen again, this time against Jon’s wrist. “So,” he says, “as long as we’re having a whole heart-to-heart here. Tell me about Martin.”

There’s a hint of that old, mischievous sparkle in his eyes when he speaks. It’s duller, less excited. Like Tim doesn’t quite have the energy to be like that anymore but he’s trying to anyway. It’s there, though, all the same. Jon doesn’t want to begrudge him, not when he’s making an effort, but the mention of Martin hits him deep in the solar plexus.

Jon hasn’t seen him in weeks. He doesn’t know.

Another tap on his wrist and Jon looks up to see a bit more sadness leaking onto Tim’s face. “We’ll get him back. You trust him, right? He’ll come back.” Jon, too afraid of choking on his words, just nods. “Right,” Tim continues. “So. Tell me about him.”

“You know him, Tim, I—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tim speaks over him, “not like that. We’ve wallowed enough and I want to know exactly what made you finally pull your head out of your ass. Tell me what you see.”

Jon’s a little halting about it, but he tries. It gets easier the longer he goes on. He supposes he shouldn’t feel so melancholy, so wistful, but it’s nice. It does help, a little.

At a certain point, Jon even gets Tim to laugh. Not a full one, not a big one, but it’s enough that Jon can see his teeth when he smiles and that balances out the hurt a bit.

It’s still not the old Tim. Jon doesn’t think he’ll ever get that back. This new Tim is scarred all over, inside and out. But he’s also warmer. Softer. He opens up more. More than he ever did when he was the old Tim.

Jon likes to think that he is, too. Or, well, he tries to think that. He’s had something of a guilt problem for the past few years. And a startling lack of self-preservation because of that guilt problem. And really no idea who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing when all he seems to be able to do is know things without people’s permission and force them to tell him whatever he wants to know and be a punching bag for the worst horrors imaginable. And even then, he can’t even know the things he wants to know, the things he needs to know.

But you know. He’s trying. He refuses to let go of what he has left. Maybe he isn’t human anymore, maybe he hasn’t been for a long time. But Tim still wants to know him. Martin…does too, maybe. He’s there, even if Jon doesn’t usually know where exactly there is for him these days.

People don’t usually talk to irredeemable monsters, right? Or…promise to make sure they don’t die? Surely if Jon was so far gone, he wouldn’t have people trying to help him. If he was as terrible as he feels then he wouldn’t worry about Martin so much, right? He wouldn’t feel such a deep, all-consuming ache when Tim tries to gossip with him about how in love he is because he thought they would both die before he got to see Tim laugh again and he doesn’t even know how Martin is or what he’s doing or if he needs help or if he even wants it and it hurts. Right?

Jon still cares. That’s important. He’s good, he thinks. A good person, that is. He knows he wants to be. That has to count for something, has to even the scales a little bit.

And so maybe Jon gets to be softer too. Maybe it’s even more important for him to do that now.

Tim helps.

*

It’s awkward, the first few times, initiating conversation. Jon’s so thoroughly used to being shut down recently that it’s hard to break himself of the habit of expecting rejection to the point of staying quiet and keeping his head down until someone seeks him out directly.

Tim seems to understand that much. It’s Jon’s problem, expecting rejection. It’s his issue if he feels like Tim not wanting to talk means he doesn’t want to talk to him, specifically. Tim’s never done anything to make him think that way, at least not recently, it’s just something that Jon has to work through on his own.

But he notices. And if Jon’s trying to trust people, Tim’s trying to make sure that he can.

It’s not you, he says once. Just a bad day.

They work on it together. Fixing things is going to take both of their efforts, and so they help each other through their own respective problems.

Sometimes Tim doesn’t want to talk at all. Sometimes he just wants to listen. Sometimes Jon feels the same. Not as often, he’s noticed that recently his bad days are much better improved by talking than not, but there are still days where he doesn’t feel up to much other than existing. Tim takes to asking him first, too.

It’s not long before they’re able to tell what kind of day it’s going to be for either of them before they even say anything. Still, they always ask.

Tim walks in and Jon can already tell what kind of day it is. His shoulders aren’t tight like they are when something’s bothering him; there’s no tension in his jaw like there had been so many times before, back when they had more days spent in silence than not.

But today, specifically, Jon has a question about a statement. He can’t avoid them forever, especially not when there’s still so much he needs to figure out, so much he needs to fix. Tim has expressed before that he wants to help, but Jon knows how much he hates the statements. Sometimes even a really good day turns sour at the mention of one.

Now, especially, it’s important for him to ask.

“Tim, do you mind if I ask you a question about a statement?”

He doesn’t respond for a moment, just turns to face Jon and looks at him with an expression that Jon can’t quite place. For a second Jon thinks he’d calculated wrong, that he’d missed something when Tim came in. But there’s still no tension, no tightness. Jon doesn’t think that Tim’s mad or upset, just…contemplating.

It might just be about the statement question. That’s fine. He isn’t always in the mood to handle them. Truth be told, Jon isn’t always in the mood to handle them, he just has to.

Just as Jon’s about to ask something else, a clarifying question, Tim speaks.

“I forgive you,” he says.

Oh.

Jon had stopped waiting for forgiveness—from anyone, really—a long time ago. Like, before Tim had explicitly said that he didn’t grant him that. It wasn’t that he felt like he didn’t deserve it. Or, well, sometimes he was quite sure he didn’t deserve it at all, but…it wasn’t always just that he felt like he didn’t deserve it.

He was just…used to not getting it. He didn’t need it. Or he’d let himself believe he didn’t need it, because it was easier than thinking that he was such an undeniable screwup that people couldn’t bother waiting around to let him try and fix it.

One thing he knew for sure was that he didn’t need it from Tim. It would have been understandable if what Jon had done to him was something he couldn’t bring himself to get past. And it didn’t have to mean much else. They were still talking, they were still friends. Forgiveness was nice, yes, but Jon was never doing anything to get Tim to forgive him. He just wanted him to like him again.

And he got that. So he would have been fine. In all honestly, he had started to forget that Tim had said he was working to forgive Jon in the first place—that he wanted to get to that point.

Jon didn’t need it. He already had what he wanted from Tim.

So why, then, did he feel like he was about to start crying?

“O-oh,” he stutters, trying not to betray the very startling mix of emotions building in his chest. “Okay.”

Tim laughs and the sound only makes the emotions in Jon’s chest build themselves higher. “Taking it well, I see.”

“I didn’t…I didn’t really expect you to.”

At that, Tim sort of crumples a little. “I know,” he says. “That’s why I am. I don’t think that back when all this started you would have been able to understand anything. I probably wouldn’t have either, if the roles were reversed, and that’s what made me get it. But I do now. You do now, and I can see that. We’re better than we were, and I think that’s only because we finally talked about it. So…I forgive you.”

“Th-thank you.”

Tim tilts his head, settling Jon with a firm but gentle look. “You deserve not to be surprised by people being nice to you, Jon,” he says. “It wasn’t your fault. Yeah, you could have handled some of it better, but it wasn’t your fault. None of it.”

“Oh,” Jon says again, this time sounding distinctly wounded.

He’d done some thinking, before. About what was actually his fault and what wasn’t. What he deserves and what he doesn’t. It hadn’t really gotten him anywhere. Is it his fault, is it not his fault…the things he did, the choices he made, they were only because he was trying to figure things out, because he was trying to help.

But did that negate everything that those choices led to? He’s not sure if he’s capable of being that kind to himself. Jon’s trying, god knows he’s trying, but…it’s hard.

Tim reaches out, flicking at Jon’s wrist. Jon looks up. “It wasn’t.”

Jon hums. He’s not sure what to do with that at the moment. Tim lets him sit with it, leaning back in his seat and letting everything settle. For want of anything else to do, he shuffles the papers around on his desk. The statement he’d been meaning to ask Tim for his advice on sits at the top, letters blurring together as Jon forgets their meaning in place of quietly contemplating the last few minutes.

After a moment, Tim clears his throat. “Do you forgive me?”

Jon startles. “Y-you don’t need me to forgive you for—”

“I do,” Tim insists. “You’re allowed to hate me for what happened. Or be upset with me or whatever. It would be weird if you didn’t.” He takes a deep breath, looks up at the ceiling. “I had a lot of time to think about everything. It was fucked up what you did to me, but it was also fucked up what I did to you. Neither of us handled that well. I forgive you because I understand better now and I can see that you do, too. But it’s your call whether or not you forgive me.”

Huh.

It had already been a given, for Jon. He didn’t hold anything against Tim at all. Jon was going through something, sure, but it’s not like that justified anything he did to ruin their friendship. He hadn’t thought that he was allowed to be upset with Tim for reacting the way he did.

Maybe it had escalated farther than was fair, but at that point Jon had already screwed up so many times and failed at fixing it so many more that he figured that was just how it was going to be. It hurt and he was sad, but that was it. Nothing to be done about it.

When he thinks about it…yeah, he was upset. For a while, especially at the beginning, he was just so…angry that Tim didn’t seem to get it. He wasn’t qualified, he had no idea what he was doing, his predecessor was murdered and no one knew why or by who and he felt like he was being watched all the time by someone, by something, and he thought that he might be next and he doesn’t know why he went off the deep end like that but he was trying to protect himself. Jon didn’t have the time to explain it to him, he couldn’t explain it to him even if he did, because he didn’t know.

He didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t know if he was going to be okay. Jon had lived most of his life afraid and now that fear was worse and he didn’t know who he could trust because it could have been anyone and he was just so damn tired of being afraid, it was easier if he just expected the worst from everyone and cut himself off.

Of course, now he sees why that was wrong. Why that was exactly the intention, getting him not to trust anyone.

By the time he’d figured it out, he was already over it. Jon’s not good at holding grudges, not when it comes down to it.

And it’s not like he’d gotten it either, not like he tried to understand Tim even after he’d gotten over himself. He’d only ever wondered why Tim couldn’t just get over it like he had and understand that there were more important things to deal with. By the time he’d figured it out…well, they were a little busy trying to figure out how to make something explode without dying themselves. With Tim’s history with the circus, it was a little fraught all around. There wasn’t time.

They have time now. Jon’s not sure how much time, but. Enough that he doesn’t want Tim to spend it thinking that Jon holds anything against him.

“I do,” Jon says. “Forgive you.”

Tim, eyes still focused on the ceiling, gives a weak smile. “Thanks, Jon.”

*

“Here.”

A pen lands on Jon’s desk: confetti fish dancing through a sea of blue, oily water inside the plastic casing. “What—?”

“Don’t ask, remember?” Months ago, Jon would’ve balked at the gentleness of his tone. It would have been in stark contrast to his usual taunting sneers. “It’s not like it’s embarrassing or anything, I will tell you, I’d just rather not have it pulled out of me.” And despite the horrifying reality of Jon’s monstrousness, Tim sounds light. It’s still not quite the same, but it’s much closer to the old teasing that Jon remembers. It makes it so that the reminder of his ability to tear information out of people leaves him feeling warm instead of appropriately guilty.

Or, well, Jon does still feel guilty about the reminder, but less so. Tim seems to realize and hastens to clarify. “Not that it’s your fault, I—I know that. Now. That’s why I’m reminding you.”

Jon, not knowing what to say, opts to simply nod in response.

“Right,” Tim says. “First off, I really didn’t steal it. At least not on my own. It was just sort of…on my desk one day. I think it was Martin, trying to patch things up somehow. Make me try and fix everything, even though he clearly wanted nothing to do with me—I thought he wanted nothing to do with me. You’ve said you’re trying to trust him on this, so I am too. I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, not that you get to say I told you so. I’ve told you I forgive you so don’t take this personally, but you’ve been wrong about a lot of things too.”

Once again, Jon nods. “Glad you agree,” Tim continues, once again sounding teasing instead of angry like before. “Anyway. I didn’t mean to keep it. I was going to just leave it or, or throw it away, or put it back in your office all out of place. But I couldn’t. Told myself I was only keeping it to hurt you. I knew you would be upset if you couldn’t find it, and that was the sort of thing that made me happy at the time. Think I even believed it, for a while. But if I was only keeping it to get back at you, why did I carry it around everywhere? Why did I use it to mark up statements I didn’t want to read? Why did I try so fucking hard to keep you from seeing it, if all I wanted was for you to be mad that I stole it? What was the point?”

What was the point, Jon wonders. He knows what it meant to him, when Tim stopped trying to pretend, but he doesn’t want to project. It was something to hang onto when their tenuous friendship was still mending itself. But he hopes. He’s been doing that a lot more, lately, despite his better efforts.

He waits for Tim to continue.

“It was getting old, lying to myself. I didn’t care if you were mad or not, I just wanted it.” Tim laughs. The sound is tinged with fondness and melancholy. “It was so stupid. You told me about the promotion, and you looked so proud of yourself. I was happy for you. Didn’t know what to say, but I knew you wouldn’t want me to make a big deal out of it and at the time I didn’t have anyone else to conspire with, so that was enough to stop me from making a big deal out of it anyway. So I just…reached into the cup on my desk and handed you that stupid pen and said congratulations. I don’t even know where I get it from, it’s so old.

“But you used it. Used the hell out of it, thought maybe it was good luck for you or something. God, you have to special order ink for that thing, it’s so inefficient, but you just kept putting it on your job expenses.” Jon smiles a little. Privately, slightly embarrassed at that having been noticed, but still reminiscing. Back when his only problem was hoping he didn’t get fired because of personal purchases and desperately trying not to get caught at having an emotional attachment to a novelty pen, of all things.

(And the horrible, ever-present feeling that he was being watched.)

(And trying to ignore how viscerally real every statement felt when he recorded it to tape.)

(And worrying about Martin because what had happened at his apartment was not entirely unlike what had happened to Jon when he was younger.)

(And convincing himself that he was fine, everything was fine, he wasn’t being watched, none of this was anything that couldn’t be solved, and everything was going to be okay.)

(Whatever.)

Tim rolls on, unaware of Jon’s memories-turned-internal-crises. Jon, for his part, reigns it in.

“It shouldn’t have meant so much to me that you used it all the time. But it did. I was striking out with Sasha, Martin was nice but I’d only known him for so long. I’m friends with everyone, you know that, but I always liked you more.” Jon most decidedly did not know that. Tim had been friends with everyone to some degree, that much was true, but the fact that he’d thought of Jon as his favorite work friend just as much as Jon had secretly thought of Tim as his favorite work friend…of that he had been unaware.

“You were interesting,” Tim elaborates. “And when you actually kept it, when you used it enough to bleed the company dry in ink expenses, something in my brain told me that meant you felt the same. That we were friends. That you cared, even though you weren’t great at showing it. It was a nice feeling. So Martin left the pen on my desk and I kept the stupid thing. Because somehow, I decided that a novelty pen that I gave you on a whim was the center of everything.

“I missed you. I’d been missing you since you went all weird on me, even though I’d have hated to show it then. And this reminded me of before.”

Huh. And here Jon had thought, all this time, that he’d always been too keen on taking more than he was offered. That he developed attachments too easily and held on too tightly and expected too much from people who really only thought of him as their weird coworker who was only cool one in every fifteen days because he forgot, sometimes, that people generally liked small talk and expected you to respond in kind instead of just saying “yes,” “no,” and “interesting.”

And all this time it wasn’t true. Or at least, not entirely. Jon’s sure that more than a handful of people only thought of him as their weird coworker, and a lot of those people overlapped with people that Jon desperately wanted to connect with but just couldn’t figure out how.

Not Tim, though. Tim liked him. Genuinely, as a friend. Jon was Tim’s favorite, if he was to be believed. That stupid pen meant just as much to him as it did to Jon. It’s nice.

“It wasn’t good luck,” Jon finally responds, picking up the pen from where Tim had dropped it on his desk and twirling it idly between his fingers. “I always thought it was embarrassing, but I used it so often because you gave it to me. That was all. I didn’t really have anyone, at the time. You were the closest thing I had to a friend, and I didn’t even let myself consider that you would think the same of me. You had almost everyone in the institute to call your friend, what would you need me for? So you gave me the pen and I knew it was a stupid joke, but…I wanted something to hang onto. No one else was going to congratulate me, and at the very least it meant you cared, at least a little. Even if it was a joke, it was nicer than anything I’d been expecting.”

He looks down at the pen where it rests between his pointer and middle finger, vibrant blue oil separating into droplets where it meets the water. “Maybe it was good luck,” he considers, “or it became that somewhere down the line.”

Tim snorts, disbelieving. “All that happened, and you think it was good luck? Might be more accurate to say it’s cursed at this point.”

Jon reaches out, tapping the end of the pen against Tim’s wrist. “Got us this far.” He’s not sure what he means, if he’s talking about surviving in spite of everything or if he’s talking about the two of them as friends. It’s probably the second one, considering, but he can’t deny the sheer dumb luck that allowed them to survive long enough to get this far.

Either way, Tim rolls his eyes and smiles like he can see right through him. “Yeah,” he says. “Guess you’re right.”

*

“We need to get Martin away from that creep.” Tim punctuates the statement by loudly crunching a crisp between his teeth.

Jon takes the interruption to ditch the dead end laying on his desk. He sighs, removing his glasses and scrubs a hand down his face. “He doesn’t want our help, Tim. You’re the one who always told me to trust people more.”

One last crunch and Tim crumples the packet in his hands with a derisive snort. “Yeah, I told you to trust people, not let them make stupid decisions just because you’re in love with them.”

Jon already feels a pulse beating at his temples. It’s a conversation they’ve had before.

Never at length. They haven’t really discussed it, or anything. Usually it’s just Tim saying “we should do something about Martin” and Jon feeling desperately sad and hopeless because he misses Martin so much but Martin won’t just talk to him, and then Jon says “he doesn’t want us to Tim, leave him alone,” and Tim hums like he’s disappointed but eventually lets it drop.

“You don’t know it’s stupid,” Jon says, repeating words he feels like he’s said a thousand times already, “he’s trying to—“

“Yeah, yeah, trying to help us, whatever.” Tim waves off his practiced argument, brushing his hands against his jeans to get rid of the salt from the crisps. “It would help more if he was here. If he was talking to us. Part of trusting people is figuring things out together. I don’t give a damn what he thinks he’s saving us from, it doesn’t do either of us any good if he has to sacrifice himself for it.”

“If he doesn’t want our help, we can’t just make him—”

“Don’t you think it’s at least the slightest bit weird that he has to do all this alone?”

Actually, Jon had deliberately been trying not to think about that. He hates that Martin’s alone. He hates that he’s taking on something so big and refusing to accept help. And yes, Jon realizes that maybe it’s a little hypocritical, considering, but it’s stupid, okay.

Or…well, it’s not stupid, Martin knows what he’s doing, Jon is sure, it’s just…worrying. Martin’s always offered help to everyone, even when they were particularly resistant to it, and Jon’s spent half their time together trying to figure out how to help but now that he actually knows how, Martin doesn’t want it.

When Jon doesn’t respond, Tim continues. “Look, Jon, I know you want to show him you trust him, and I get that, but—”

“No,” Jon relents. “You’re right. I…it’s weird. Everything that’s happened recently, and then this? I don’t like it. But I don’t know what to do. The last time I talked to him, I…I don’t know how to get through to him. I don’t know how to get him to accept help when he doesn’t want it. That was always his thing, not mine.”

Tim leans over the desk, nudging at Jon with an elbow. “For what it’s worth, I think you’ve gotten better at that,” he says. “You know, the whole…talking, thing. Helping. And it’s not like you’ll be doing it alone.”

Jon thinks for a moment. It’s not like Tim’s last conversation with Martin had gone any better. It’s what had started them talking in the first place, Jon remembers, that first stilted, terse conversation all those weeks ago. Tim chewing at his own jaw as he sat spitefully across from Jon in the breakroom, tense with anger and still hating him and yet for some reason finding it in himself to let Jon know that not everything was all his fault. Commiserating, despite it all.

And really, everything else was already easier now that Tim was around more. Now that Tim was talking to him, enjoying Jon’s company just as much Jon was enjoying his. This could be the same. If they try to help Martin and it just ends like it had before, at least he won’t have to be failing on his own. At least they’ll both be able to catch each other.

“Right,” Jon says. “Together, then.”

Tim doesn’t quite smile, the topic of conversation is too somber for that, but he does look pleased all the same. “Together,” he echoes.