Fandom: Harsh Realm/Mysterious Skin
Summary: Tom and Neil tell some truths and some lies, and aren't sure which is which.
Note: Latest in a series that includes (in reverse chronological order) Breaking Point, Funny Games, And We'd Never Know, Manners May Prevail, Complications, and Devotion.
Neil comes in at the tail end of it with an armload of firewood. He isn’t surprised that Mike wouldn’t tell him it was coming beforehand, but he thinks he might have liked to know, so in the end he’s unable to decide whether or not he’s hurt. What he guesses he is, more than anything else, is relieved, though it’s a cautious kind of relief, a relief that’s waiting for something. To see how it all comes out. A relief that doesn’t want to commit.
He sits back down by the fire and feeds it slowly. He isn’t looking at them anymore, can’t even see them from where he’s sitting, close together in a clearing a few yards away, everything about them tense and unhappy. He didn’t get a good look at their faces, but there had been something about the set of Mike’s mouth. Something hard and resigned.
Neil supposes he could have guessed which way this might go.
Tom comes back alone. He stops a few feet from the fire, gaze landing on Neil, all hesitation and nerves. He takes a step backward. For several seconds Neil thinks he might actually turn and run, and there’s a certain comedy in the image, and he has to bite back a thin laugh. That’s Tom, all the way down to the core. Even with something like this, something that is really pretty much entirely Mike’s fault, he’s tripping over himself to not be confrontational. And it’s fear as much as it is consideration.
Neil shakes his head, lifts a sooty hand and beckons. Tom is clearly still engaged in some kind of internal wrestling match, but he’s also sitting down, and Neil thinks that’s good enough to go on.
Besides, it’s getting darker. They aren’t near any settlement. The darkness here is as complete as darkness gets. Close to the fire is the safer place to be.
Tom shakes his head, licks his lips, fidgets with nothing in his lap. “He’s... he said he wanted to take a walk.”
Neil manages a faint smile. “So I guess it didn’t go so well.”
“No, it’s just...” Tom trails off, closes his mouth, opens it again but stays silent. Dexter trots over and noses at his hand, and Tom seems to launch himself into the business of scratching behind the dog’s ears with a sort of desperate gratitude. Something to do. Neil looks back at the fire and wonders what it says about this whole mess that all the trouble in the world hasn’t been enough to distract them from it. Not completely. Running, fighting, shooting, starving and lost in a dying forest, this has always been there in the background.
So it goes with people who discover that they need each other.
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” Tom says at last. He isn’t looking up. The fire is throwing shifting shadows over his face, changing expressions that may or may not be illusionary. “I mean, he... we... He knows I’m... what do you even say to that?” He finally looks up, the changing expressions solidify, and Neil almost laughs again, because Tom is honestly asking him, looking for a clue, a direction, anything. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Tom looking this lost, and that’s saying something.
“So what did you say?”
Tom shrugs, face twisting with discomfort that shows like the too-prominent bones under his skin. “I said... I said that I have a fiance. I said it was crazy. The whole thing is crazy, Neil. Anyway, he has you, so shouldn’t he...” He trails off again. Dexter whines and nudges his hand, which has stilled like the rest of him. He looks plaintively at Neil. “Shouldn’t he?”
“I dunno.” Neil scrubs a hand over his face, realizing too late that now there’s soot smudged across his cheeks, but on the other hand he doesn’t really give a fuck. Dodging bullets is easier than this. “People are fuckin’ complicated, Tom.”
He feels the leather of the collar rubbing gently against his neck. Sometimes he forgets it’s there. Sometimes he can’t.
It takes Tom a few tries to ask the next question, and when he gets it out it feels like something wrenched. “Aren’t you, you know... jealous?”
And Neil almost wants to laugh again, at the question and at the first flush of surety that it’ll be easy to answer--followed by the realization that it isn’t. He isn’t jealous; that’s the easy part. Why he isn’t is where the question and easy part ways. He had looked at Mike and Tom tangled together on the ground, breathing hard and bruised, and it hadn’t seemed like anything other than right.
Perhaps it’s something about being owned, rather than owning.
“I’m not,” he says, because it’s true and because he wants to go with easy for now, wherever he can find it. “Look, Tom, Mike and me... it’s complicated, okay? But I know he’s not gonna drop me for anyone else. I don’t worry about that.”
“So what about...” Tom digs the heels of his boots into the ground and tilts his head back, lines of his throat standing out harsh in the shadows and moving light. There aren’t any stars in the sky. There’s no moon. At first Neil had wondered if it was just heavy cloud cover, but now he’s starting to think that they don’t even exist out here, that all their lights are going out one by one. He watches Tom’s throat bob as he swallows.
“What about... what happened...” And Tom doesn’t need to go any further, which is good, because Neil isn’t sure he’ll be able to spit the words out, wound so tight and twisting around himself like a pair of hands dry-washing and wringing. Neil knows what he means. That one time by the fire. That one time that Mike had receded into the background, and he hadn’t felt guilty about that either.
That had felt right, too.
Neil chuckles. It’s rough, and he hopes it doesn’t sound as forced as it feels, and he feeds the fire another thick branch and doesn’t look up. Flame licks out and sends a flash of pain across the tips of his fingers and he takes it like he’s taken every other bit of punishment doled out to him over the last few months.
He wonders when he really decided to stop fighting. Just how much Mike had really had to do with it.
“I’m not picky,” he says, settling back on the leaf litter and stretching his legs out in front of him. The pose he’s taking, he knows what it is and what it does and he knows that he mostly can’t help it. Loose, languorous, sensual in the most casual kind of way, a passive kind of flirtation that speaks about that lack of fight. That willingness. Come on. I’m up for whatever. “It was just a thing, Tom, okay? Don’t make it into more.”
“Okay.” Neil still isn’t looking at Tom, doesn’t see him blush, but he can practically hear it in the tightness of his voice.
“You told him no?”
It’s Tom’s turn to laugh, a quick, sharp bark of it. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.”
“Then don’t worry about it. He’ll back off.” Sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach even as he says it. Mike had better back off. He doesn’t think Mike’s a bad man, not at all, but even now, no isn’t something Mike is exactly used to hearing. It’s hard to know just how he’ll take it. Sulking might be the worst. It might not be.
“Okay,” Tom says again. He doesn’t say anything else. There’s still no sound from the surrounding trees besides the usual creaks and whispers, the fragile shivers of dead leaves. No animals. No birds. Neil’s glad he isn’t alone here. Hopes Mike will come back soon. Hopes...
Please let this be the end of it. Okay? Please.