In which Tommy is awkward and Merton doesn't catch on to the subtext. (Merton/Tommy)
Give him a tiara and crown him Drama Queen: it wasn't as if Tommy had said anything, but Merton was positive that his best friend was rolling his eyes at another perceived bout of Merton-style melodrama. And fine, maybe Tommy hadn't seen him quite like this before, but Tommy was comfortingly consistent in his awkward guy-like sympathy before chuffing Merton beneath the chin with an encouraging: buck it up, Merton old buddy, old pal! It was only a matter of time before Tommy lost patience and tried to nudge and grin and joke Merton out of bed and back to his feet--and Merton was not in the mood to be nudged, grinned and/or joked anywhere, thankyouverymuch.
It wasn't as if Merton didn't appreciate the fact that Tommy cared enough to try to cheer him up--but some things couldn't be made better with a pat to the back and a campy B-movie night marathon. Merton stubbornly screwed his eyes shut and burrowed deeper beneath his blankets as the mattress dipped with Tommy's weight. Tommy had obviously decided that the time--and Merton's week-old bedding--was ripe for a well-intentioned version of the I Know What You're Going Through (Even Though I Was Always Too Cool For Words) intervention.
And Merton should have known better than to forget that Tommy was more than a good-natured, middle-of-the-road intellect. The silence that settled between the two boys nearly made Merton squirm, but: he's a cagey one, Merton thought, trying to reeeeel me in with my own curiosity; well forget that. It ain't gonna work, buster--I know what you're up to. Not that it had ever worked before, but Merton was betting that being surly and uncooperative enough would eventually chase Tommy off and leave Merton to at least one more day of snivelling brooding.
Tommy sounded serious. Wary. As if he was actually, really worried about what was going on in Merton's head. Tommy cared, Merton had known that since the earliest days of their friendship--Tommy wouldn't have done a fraction of what Merton had asked of him if he didn't have more than a passing interest in Merton's well-being. But Merton had never, ever heard Tommy sound like he was hurting just as much as Merton was over yet another relationship gone bizarrely, life-threateningly off-kilter. In fact, Merton had always felt that Tommy was rather amused by Merton's dating disasters: Pleasantville's Golden Boy chuckling indulgently over the antics of his romantically inept buddy.
"Go. Away," Merton said and hated the petulant whine he heard in his own voice. He sounded like he always did upon discovering that someone had taken the last of the Yoo Hoos, or upon hearing their high school gym teacher cheerily announce yet another outdoorsy, sweat-intensive field trip. But he wasn't a kid anymore, Merton thought, and he hadn't been sulking for days just because his black jeans had faded and no longer perfectly matched his favourite shirt.
"Can't do that, buddy," Tommy said. Damn sneaky wolf, and Tommy moved so fast that Merton didn't have time to do more than yelp in protest as Tommy tore back the blankets covering him. Merton hissed like a vampire exposed to sunlight and curled in on himself tighter, pushing his blotchy face into his pillow. Tommy's hand returned to its perch on Merton's shoulder. "Merton," he said, "Merton, talk to me."
"Don't wanna," Merton whined--and to hell with adulthood, anyhow. It wasn't as if college life was treating him any better than high school had. Maybe he ought to consider returning to a state of infancy: he could while away the remainder of his days eating soft foods, laid out in bed with a stack of his favourite comics, books and movies close at hand. Merton could even picture Tommy and Lori as they stopped in to visit him every now and then: telling him about their great friends and great jobs and eventually, their wonderful spouses and kids before they stopped coming at all and left Merton to his miserable, loveless life--
Tommy's hand flexed against Merton's shoulder. "Look," Tommy said, "I'm sorry. About--Lilah." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. Tommy had hated Lilah from the get-go, Merton remembered, and turned away from his pillow to catch the hopelessly at-sea expression Tommy wore. "I know that you liked her, Merton--"
Liked her, Merton echoed bitterly, liked her. Lilah had been willowy, with clear green eyes and a thick tumbling mane of golden-brown hair. She'd had a lovely smile and an infectious laugh and she must have been laughing at how eager Merton had been, at how very stupid a warm smile and a companionable touch could leave him. He had worshiped her, had all but stopped breathing when Lilah had parted her legs beneath his palms and had smiled up at him. Merton felt his stomach clench and shuddered.
Merton made a small, pained sound low in his throat. He lowered his lashes, blurring Tommy's patiently concerned face. "You don't understand, Tommy," Merton said. Because hell, Merton thought: it wasn't as if anyone--least of all Merton--had expected him to lose his virginity before Tommy did. Merton made another choked noise at that thought, a chuckle that mutated into something darker before it reached Merton's lips. "We didn't exactly spend all of our time holding hands and making kissy-faces at each other."
That was new, Merton thought, watching the expressions flickering across Tommy's face--too many of them moving too quickly for Merton to read. Tommy's voice was low and uncomfortable when he said: "I kinda figured that one out on my own, Merton."
Oh, Merton thought. "Oh," he said weakly. Merton had come back to the dorm smelling of Lilah and sex and Tommy had left their room sometime shortly after Merton had returned. He hadn't come back until that morning, after Merton had put his clothes into the laundry and had taken a shower and how had Merton managed to forget those wonderful wolf-senses he'd been studying for so long?
It should have been the perfect opportunity for gloating and some not-so-subtle one-upmanship with Tommy: Lilah Connor was beautiful and smart and she'd chosen Merton--not Tommy "The Cutest Boy at Pleasantville High" Dawkins. At first, it had been something too wonderful and too private to share, and now--now it was all Merton could do not to pull away from Tommy's touch and crawl into as deep and dark a hole as he could find.
Tommy shifted closer, hand smoothing circles against Merton's back. "I know that things didn't work out the way you'd hoped--"
"She tried to kill me, Tommy!" Merton said sharply. He'd had his hands up her skirt and his mouth on her belly when Lilah's skin had shifted and Gods, Merton still felt sick and the very memory of what had nearly happened. Worse that the succubus revelation--and that had been plenty bad enough--was the fact that: "I'm never going to find anyone."
"I mean it, Tommy," Merton said--and yeah, that'll teach Tommy to be sensitive and understanding an unpleasant corner of Merton's mind sneered. "The only girls who don't think that I'm a freak and a loser are the ones who are trying to kill me." Merton sniffled piteously: "odds are, they think I'm a freak and a loser, too. I'm never going to find someone who likes me, Tommy."
Tommy cleared his throat, looking more nervous than Merton could ever remember seeing him. "I like you, Merton."
"Well," Merton said, "that's just great, Tommy, really. We can go bowling and watch movies and--oh, yeah: girls will throw themselves all over you and you'll forget all about me," Merton continued with all the skilled self-pity he had accumulated over the years. Tommy looked as if he had just been informed that every television station in North America was taking off pro-football in favour of yodelling--stunned and injured and hopelessly lost. Merton softened his voice into a less accusatory whine: "I want someone to spend the rest of my life with. I want someone who'll love me, someone I can love--Never mind. Just. Forget it."
Tommy rumbled low in his chest: no wolf, just pure frustrated Tommy Dawkins. "Can the self-pity for a minute, Merton--I'm trying to tell you something here, okay?"
"I think I've earned the right to my self-pity," Merton snipped. "Excuse me if my emotional trauma is putting a crimp in your--"
"You can be such an annoying dork," Tommy sighed and took Merton's face between his palms. "Now shut up and listen," Tommy said firmly: "I like you, okay?"
"Okay, okay," Merton huffed, "I heard you the first time, Tommy. I like you too: mi compadre, mon ami, moy droog, my bosom buddy, the bestest friend I've ever had."
Tommy's jaw twitched. "Are you trying to drive me crazy?"
Merton pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I don't think so--but my mom is a big believer in the unconscious. So. Who knows, really? In the deepest recesses of my mind, I may be harbouring some resentment towards you which manifests itself as--"
"Irritating babbling?" Tommy suggested helpfully.
"Well," Merton said, "I wouldn't have put it quite like that, but--yes."
Tommy offered Merton a lopsided smile. "Just--hold off on the babbling for a sec. Please."
They were already so close that their arms and legs were nearly sharing the same space on the bed, but Tommy inched even closer: a sinuous squirm that landed him squarely in front of Merton. Sharing close quarters wasn't exactly out of the usual for them, and Merton might not have noticed at all if Tommy wasn't looking at him so intently. Merton was beginning to suspect that this was meant to be some sort of An Event of the highest order.
Tommy's thumb began a slow sweep against Merton's cheekbone. He traced the line of Merton's jaw and ran the pad of his thumb across the dip below Merton's lower lip and down his chin. Tommy quirked his eyebrow at Merton: you okay, buddy? and fit his hand against the base of Merton's skull. And maybe Merton hadn't been at his best up to this point, but by God, he was starting to catch on now because Tommy was right there and--
Merton mewled and stretched towards Tommy, hands flying outwards to fist in the other boy's shirt. Kissing Lilah had been exciting, daring: like climbing a mountain while always worrying about an avalanche at the back of his mind. And Merton hadn't ever let himself think about Tommy--because they were best friends, and guys didn't think about that sort of stuff even if they did spend an inordinate amount of time snuggled under another guy's arm--but this was comforting and intense in a way Merton had never before imagined.
They stretched out the kiss--one last nibble, flick of the tongue, brush of the lips--even as the need to breath slowly drew them apart. "Gah," Merton gasped, "_gah_." Tommy's face filled the entire range of Merton's field of vision. His eyes were huge and shinning with humour and affection and a healthy dose of his own sense of--_gah!_ Merton's hands had locked against Tommy's shirt-front. Tommy clamped his hands over Merton's when Merton started trying to peel his fingers out of the stretched cotton, one-by-one. "You like me?" Merton said weakly.
Tommy laughed amazed! exhilarated! as his forehead lowered to rest against Merton's. "Your genius never fails to amaze me," Tommy agreed. "I said so, didn't I?"
"I thought," Merton squeaked breathlessly, "that you meant it in a manly, platonic, guy-who-helps-me-with-my-homework way."
"Well, that's nice, I guess--but I'm kinda fond of the you're-the-best-thing-ever sorta 'I like you.'"
Merton sucked on mouthfuls of air that smelt of laundry detergent and soap and Tommy's warm skin. "I thought I was an annoying dork," he said into the curve of Tommy's neck.
"Sure," Tommy shrugged, "you are--but I'm sort of hoping that you're willing to be my annoying dork."
And wow. Just wow. This was much better than the Get Your Ass Out of Bed speech Merton had been expecting--Merton blinked and his mouth fell open in sudden horror. "You had to do this now? My hair is a mess! My face looks awful!" Merton glared at Tommy suspiciously. "You'd better not have some sort of sickly-Merton kink, or this thing is over here and now."
Tommy snerked. "Not so much--although your hair does look cute like that," Tommy said, lightly tugging at Merton's squashed and tangled spikes. "I just wanted you to feel better. You do feel better, don't you?"
"So long as you didn't just add sexual favours to your How To Cheer Merton Up list," Merton said. "Not that I think that isn't a nice pick-me up--because, believe me, it is--but pity isn't really one of my turn-ons." Sure, he had taken pity for affection in the past, but not with Tommy: not now, not ever.
"No pity in sight," Tommy promised. "Merton J. Dingle--I like you."
Those had to be the best words ever, Merton thought and grinned at Tommy. "I like you, too, Tommy."
Tommy beamed. "Well. Cool."
"Cool," Merton agreed, blushing and laughing and tugging on Tommy's T-shirt. "Although you could have just said so."
"Dork," Tommy said.