Jim is sitting at the table, facing across from Ian, but he’s not looking at him. Realistically, he should at least spare a glance now and then, but something about Ian—this iteration of him, at least—feels foreign, unnatural. His brown hair is disheveled as usual, but it’s got a stiff, sad quality to it. His chin is rough with the beginnings of a beard. His cheeks are somewhat hollow, and they still have a bit of pink from the outside chill. The Ian sitting before him looks so… desaturated, and it’s hard to look at someone when they’re like that. It’s like winter sucked all the color out of him. (Australians were never meant for the cold, Jim can’t help but think.)
So, instead of meeting his eyes, Jim places an elbow on the table, rests his forehead on the back of his hand, and looks down. A cigarette hangs loosely between his fingers. He listens to Ian talk about his travels, about trying to find Kylie and the subsequent heartbreak after discovering her fate. About visiting his parents after and hearing their final words as they disowned him. (Ian doesn’t give any hints as to how that made him feel, but he doesn’t need to. Jim knows all too well what it’s like when a family dies. When everyone says you’re the one who built the coffin.) About feeling lost for a long time. About just walking, because there was nothing else left to do.
Ian pauses a lot when he talks, Jim notices. To think about what to say next, perhaps, or to process what he’s just said. He’s always been a slow talker—unlike his feet, his mouth liked to take its time—but today, he sounds quieter, more sullen. Ian with the volume turned down. Jim frowns slightly, still not looking at him.
“When you walk,” Ian continues, “you meet a lot of nice people.”
Jim silently thanks everyone who took Ian in. Ian slept, Ian ate, Ian (hopefully) bathed. He’s still here because of them. He came back because of them.
“But…” Ian pauses, takes a deep breath. “What I really want… is to feel the warmth of the people who should be closest to me.”
Jim’s throat feels tight. Of course, Ian came back to him; they’re friends, in a convoluted, backwards, artist-muse sort of way, and he would rather stay with a friend if they lived nearby. Jim knows Ian well enough. There’s no other possible explanation for why he could have said that. He pushes away the impossible explanation, like he always does, before he has a chance to entertain it.
They sit through heavy silence for a few seconds before Jim lifts his head, finally looking at Ian again. Everything’s the same as it was when he found him on the street, staring at the chain-link fence in front of the apartment. His eyes, usually big and round and bright hazel, are the hardest to look at. They’re half-moons now, and they’re dull, almost fuzzy. Unfocused. Jim’s chest aches at the sight; he forces himself not to look away.
He takes one final puff of his cigarette before putting it out on the table. Then he moves his chair over, carefully, so he can sit closer. Proximity to Ian seems to be directly proportional to Jim’s heartbeat; he tries to will it quiet, hopes Ian can’t hear it. If his unchanging expression is any indication, he’s oblivious. He doesn’t even make eye contact.
Jim lifts a hand up and pats Ian’s head, the way he always does. He even ruffles his hair a little for good measure.
He doesn’t know what he expected, but Ian looks up at that, meeting Jim’s eyes with his own. Behind all his new roughness, he’s still got that softness, that innocence he seemed to glow with back when they first met. Childlike, but not quite. Pure, but in a different way.
His expression is blank, though, and Jim feels the urge to fill in his emotions the way he wants them. To interpret his aloofness as something else, for a change.
Feeling daring just for a moment, his hand slips down, cautiously, until it cradles Ian’s jaw. It’s prickly in a way it shouldn’t be.
Let me shave your face, he doesn’t say.
Ian draws in a breath. Jim swallows.
You don’t deserve all this pain. All this growing up.
Jim sways forward, ever so slightly. Their faces feel a little closer, a little warmer.
You like running, don’t you?
His heart beats once, slowly, painfully.
Let’s run away together.
Ian blinks, and that moment without eye contact is all Jim needs to pull himself back into reality. His hand slides down to rest on his shoulder (safer, somewhat, but still touching him), and he releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
“It’s awful when you don’t smile,” he says, and he finally manages to say it out loud. It’s the only thing he can say out loud.
Ian’s eyebrows knit together with something like guilt. He tries to smile, but it looks all wrong, like a counterfeit.
Jim laughs a little. “No, no, don’t do it now,” he tells him. “I don’t want you to force yourself.”
Ian’s forgery slips from his face. “Sorry.”
Jim shakes his head. “Don’t apologize.”
Reluctantly, he lets his hand fall away. The silence weighs down on them for a few more seconds before they retreat into the comfort of small talk.
Later, Ian makes his bed on the couch. It’s a familiar routine, one Jim never tires of watching. He leans against the doorway, another cigarette tucked between his lips, and pushes his glasses up as Ian shrugs his jacket off. It feels wrong to look at Ian when he’s losing layers, somehow, so he turns his head away.
Ian lies down on the couch, pulling over himself the quilt Jim always gives him. “Goodnight,” he says quietly.
Jim turns back to look at him and lifts the cigarette from his mouth. “Goodnight,” he responds.
He starts out of the room, but his daring from earlier lingers, inexplicably. He turns back around.
“I...” He pauses, runs a hand through his hair. “I hope you feel warm, here.”
Ian offers him the tiniest smile, and this time, it looks genuine. “I do.”