AN: Set loosely in the New-52 aftermath of that Mr. Oz nonsense (Remember when Tim was sure he was going to die only to wind up trapped in isolation for who knows how long? Yeahhhhh. The ramifications of that, just more OOC and self-indulgent.) Trigger Warning for an action being misinterpreted as attempted self-harm—as well as the mention of other self-destructive behaviors.
*Title from "Vincent" by Don McLean
Paint Your Palette
The shell is rough between Tim's fingers. Ribbed and porous like bone.
He keeps sweeping his thumb over it, appreciating the perfection until, suddenly, the shell pulls away, dipping into a crevice all clotted with sand, and his thumb stops.
The shell's cracked.
Blue eyes consider it, absorbing the rose-white splotches, before Tim lets it slip from his palm.
Despite the darkness of the night, it's not hard to find shells here. He tends to stumble upon them while barefoot, the sharp edges snagging against his skin until he falters to a stop. For the most part, though, he doesn't stop. He walks, keeping his gaze forward. His vision rocks with every step, soles sinking into brown-sugar sand while waves hemorrhage against the beach.
It's calming to be here. The presence of the ocean presses in on him, a monolithic mass of strength—a prison of sorts; he couldn't break through it if he tried.
Tim pauses. Stoops to pick up the new shell at his feet.
It drops back to the sand.
He can hear footprints imprinted on the shore now, coming up to him from the side. Faint breathing follows the noise, someone who's used to running miles at a time, and the steps falter next to him. "Are you OK?" the man asks after a moment of taking Tim in.
Tim's eyes are still focused elsewhere, up on the feather-light clouds christened with moonlight. The wind is ripping them apart in slow-motion, pushing them away, and Tim can feel the brush of it in his hair.
The man sighs.
"Come on," he beckons softly. He doesn't move to touch Tim. Instead, his heels shift in the sand, enough to indicate he's moving to turn back.
Only Tim doesn't move.
He likes the feeling too much. The chilled water ripping into him like shrapnel. The sand eating away at his soles. When he's here, it's almost as if there's still enough of himself left to be torn to shreds.
As far as seaside shacks go, there've been worse.
It's not dilapidated by any means, but the tacky aqua paint is chipping off the wooden exterior, last season's beggarwood is dead in the front yard, and quackgrass stretches toward the top of the fence like it's searching for escape. That fence doesn't do much good, frankly. It's the short, white kind that you can reach over and unlock from the outside.
That's how the man unlocks it that Thursday. They're heading to the…store.
Tim remembers him saying that.
So, the man has a weathered baseball cap on, a tote in hand and Tim in his shadow.
Tim doesn't like the store. It's a standard CVS, but they have to walk forty minutes inland to get there and people stare at him in the aisles like they know there's something wrong with him.
"Home?" Tim asks quietly.
The man shakes his head while riffling through his wallet. "No, not home. The store's fun. You like the store." He says it like he's trying to convince Tim it's the truth, but the teen knows better.
Some bicyclists pass, and Tim keeps his head down.
(He thinks they know, just from that one moment of eye contact.)
(They know he's not all there.)
They make it to the store in thirty-five today—still not fast enough, and Tim barters a bit to see if he can't stay outside by the vending machines instead.
"I'll buy you something," the man mollifies, "and you can help me pick out some clearanced candy."
Tim doesn't want anything you can buy here, though: He wants to go back to the beach. Either that or Peace River out east.
But the man asked him to help, so Tim stumbles in behind him, instantly lost between the bold-print of advertisements and the mirrors they have installed on the walls—just to make the store look bigger. It goes on forever and ever like a big maze.
Tim doesn't want it bigger.
He wants it small. Closed in and safe.
"This way," the man directs gently. He offers Tim his hand, but Tim doesn't take it, just slides behind the man and lets him lead. The linoleum floors are good for not thinking. Tim notes the small specks and scuff marks and is happy he can't see himself in it.
Suddenly, they wander down another aisle, and the floor is lit with the reflection of fairy lights all silver and gold.
"Honestly," the man grumbles as he adjusts his shopping basket, "Halloween's barely over. They start putting this stuff out earlier and earlier, don't they?"
Tim glimpses up without reply. The man's looking at him, a brush of a smile on his face, before holding up a red woven hat. "Then again, winter's winter, even down here. What do you think of this one? You…uh…like red, right?"
Tim blinks at it when the man shakes the hat. He nods (Red. He thinks he does.) before his attention drifts to the ratty ends of his windbreaker.
"I'm going to look for Listerine and some sunblock. You stay here and see if you can't find something you like. I promised I'd buy you a treat, remember?" The man wanders off, checking once to see if Tim's followed, before turning into another section. Tim can still see him in the mirrors and it makes his stomach jerk.
Being spied on.
Bile rises in his throat.
Don't think about that. Think about something he would like. Or…was it something the man would like? Who was he supposed to find something for again?
Tim rubs his temples and tries to ignore the too-loud beep of a cashier scanning barcodes.
Find one thing, he simplifies. Just one thing.
He can do that, so Tim manages to skim the items, counting how many things are red and how many are green, calculating the percentage like it's some kind of game—or just a way to keep sane. He eventually finds one thing that's colorless. Just white in glass.
The inside's a snow scene, palm trees growing around a surfboard shack. Utterly tacky but charming in its own way. Tim picks the snow globe up, his fingerprints instantly visible on the glass, and rattles it to watch the artificial flakes. There's not supposed to be snow near the beach like that. The man said so. It's wrong, but Tim likes that: It's the way the world should be in winter—coated in snow—rather than the way it is, and so he shakes it again.
"You like it?"
Tim whips around. The man steps back to give him his space. "I found everything," he assuages. "Is that what you want?"
Tim looks at the snow globe.
"Alright. Let's check out then."
The man doesn't move to take it away from him, instead letting Tim follow suit to the cashier. She's new, an older woman who probably retired but promptly got bored. She peppers them with well-intended questions.
"Are you two new here?"
"Have you been to Punta Gorda yet?"
"Do you go to school here, honey?"
She's talking to me.
She wasn't before, but now the cashier's beaming at him.
Tim doesn't know what to say. He doesn't go to school. He doesn't do much of anything.
"No," the man answers for him, "we're just here on an extended trip. Family stress reliever."
The woman's reindeer earrings jangle when she nods. Another barcode beeps. "So what do you do? Play any sports?"
She's still talking to me. Why's she talking to me?
"Gymnastics. He's done it since he was a kid."
The cashier's eyes rake Tim over as if questioning why he doesn't have the muscle to show for it—or why the man keeps insisting he be the one to answer. "I don't think I caught your names…."
"Jackson," the man says suavely. He stuffs everything into his bag with careful patience, and Tim shifts behind him. The woman's still looking at him. She leans forward then, whispering despite the fact they all can hear.
"Are you OK, sweetheart? I'm a mandated reporter, you know, and…"
Tim's still stuck on the first question.
"Are you OK?"
She knows, she knows, she knows.
It's like Tim can't move. Everyone's watching him and Tim can't avoid the question; the man can't answer for him on that. He needs to say something. But he's panicking. Can't breathe type. Can't stand or focus.
"Are you OK?" she asks again, more concerned this time.
Before he knows it, he can hear the man calling his name as Tim darts out of the store, shoe soles scrabbling against the sidewalk pavement. He needs air. He needs quiet.
There's nothing out here but open space, though, and the windows of the store still allow everyone to see him; the small parking lot and road are even more conspicuous. It's bright out. 2 pm. He can't go anywhere.
The beach is to the west, though. Follow the sun.
Tim takes a step forward, but the man rushes in front of him before he can go any farther. "Tim, Tim! Hey! It's OK."
(It's not. Tim knows it's not.)
The man holds his free hand up in a staying gesture before pulling something out of his bag. "Here." He sticks the snow globe in Tim's hands, and it's something to do. Tim rattles it, just to make it look like his fingers are shaking on purpose.
They're not trembling.
They're simply holding on to this little world of his own. It's closed off there, and there's only snow and an empty little building. No one's trapped. It's safe.
Tim can hear his own breath churning in his ears. It's leveling out, and the man waits, looking off at the fairy lights spun around a nearby palm to give Tim privacy. "Home?" the man offers softly. He sounds disappointed. Sad.
Tim just shakes the globe again and watches it all fall back into place.
It's early morning. Only joggers are out or old couples or a sixteen-year-old intent on being alone. Another shell's in his hand—a conch, but this one's broken too. Tim still likes these kinds, though, more than the others. They always sound different when they hit the sand…
And when they rattle in the bucket.
Because Tim's not alone out here.
He wishes he were, but the man's following not too far behind, feet crunching in the dry sand as he retrieves each shell that Tim drops. The man's nearly always with him. It's why Tim's skin is sticky with sunblock this time. (Flinching back. "I know," the man placates, dabbing more along the bridge of Tim's nose. "But you're going to burn otherwise. I'm almost done. I promise.")
The teen hesitates as a wave washes over his feet, pushing a shell up over his toes. Tim can instantly tell it's broken, continuing on without touching it, but the man still fetches the shell like he can't let a single one go.
A bipedal rabbit just shrugs in reply, munching on a carrot. Whatever he says next is drowned out by Tim scratching the burnt side off a slice of toast with a spoon. He's sitting criss-cross on the fold-out couch where the man usually sleeps. The foot of the bed's crammed in front of the TV stand and in a position where you have to climb over the mattress to reach the bathroom.
It's comfortable in how compact everything is. One bedroom, one bathroom, and a kitchenette conjoined with the living room. It's cheap enough that the doors feel like cardboard and tight enough that you can hear everything from one part of the house to the other.
That fact is particularly apparent now.
"Dick should've been the one," a voice says. "I'm only making him worse."
(The duck chases after the rabbit.)
"I know. It's just that… Alfred, he barely looks at me."
(A hunter runs off a cliff, legs circling a few times before he realizes there's no ground.)
"I know what Leslie said, but it's been weeks and he hardly talks. Doesn't sleep."
"Maybe we should just come home."
Finished with his current one, Tim picks up another slice of burnt bread and sets into scraping off the imperfection. A different character has since had a rug pulled out from under him to the roar of a laugh track. Tim doesn't think it's funny.
"I'll try. Maybe we'll come back for New Year's at least. I think he misses the snow… Uh-huh… Uh-huh… All right. Goodbye."
A doorknob twists open, the back entry flimsy enough that it jiggles when it closes. "Finished your breakfast?" the man asks, sitting on the armrest of the couch. He gives Tim a grimace-smile when he sees the uneaten bread. Without missing a beat, Tim offers him one, and the man accepts with a sigh.
"Alfred misses you," he says casually, taking a bite, and Tim hesitates in reaching for the next slice.
"Alfred," Tim repeats. The man nods, like Tim was just asking for confirmation. He doesn't realize Tim can't remember who that is.
When Tim opens the door, the man's still awake. He's reclined on the pull-out mattress, feet crossed at his ankles while he reads by lamplight. Tim freezes, like he can turn invisible if he just doesn't move.
The man doesn't look up from his book. "You should be asleep," he says, turning a page.
Tim shuffles, then picks at the wooden doorjamb beside him.
"The coastguard said it's too dangerous to go out right now."
Tim wants to, though. His brain is too scrambled and he needs to have chaos on something outside of himself. The wood splinters into his skin and draws blood. "Think something's wrong…." Tim says.
Tim scratches more at the wood, the noise grating. "…me."
After a careful moment, the man closes his book and sets it on the arm of the sofa. "C'mere," he says, moving to free up some space beside himself.
Tim wants to go back to his own space and his own bed but he complies and drifts over. The man's already produced a box of band-aids from a side table drawer, indicating for Tim to give him his hand. The teen can't say no, but—
(It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.)
Gentle as can be, the man layers the patch over the fresh abrasion, and yet Tim can't wait to break away. "There," the man finishes, not looking offended when Tim pulls back too fast. "Are you going to stay home this time, or are you going to sneak away as soon as I'm asleep?"
Tim can't lie, so he doesn't answer, memorizing the barcode pattern of the fitted bedsheet. It's yellowed from age and doesn't match the duvet or the pillow cases.
The man rubs at his temples, interpreting the silence. "You can sleep here tonight."
It's less an option and more an order. Or a punishment, maybe, for trying to sneak out. Tim thinks he deserves one, but he feels like someone's sticking cigarette butts in his flesh the more he considers the idea.
"Tomorrow?" Tim begs, because he needs to go somewhere. Anywhere.
"As soon as the coastguard says it's safe, we'll go. But for right now, I know you haven't been sleeping, and I also know it's not good for you. So, please, just six hours. That's all I'm asking."
The man nods.
He always keeps his word. (It's one of the few things Tim can depend on.) The idea still makes Tim's skin crawl, though.
He inhales. It doesn't make his stomach untwist.
"Good night, Tim says quickly, flicking himself onto the bed with his back toward the man. He presses his forehead against the pillow. It smells musty like old cologne and dust, and Tim hears the man exhaling sadly to himself as he pulls a duvet over Tim's shoulder, careful not to touch him.
The lamp is swiftly flicked off, the noise settling.
Tim stares at the wall and agonizes over how far away it feels.
Mourning doves call through the open window amidst the sizzling of oil on a pan. The man is cranking a can opener, the lid yawning open in systematic grates and groans. He'd been on a call all morning asking an older gentleman about cooking times and looking mildly stymied while frying ground beef on the dual-burner stove.
The attempts are noble, despite just about every foodstuff in this house inevitably being burnt. It seems like things are going well so far, however, the kitchen dense with sharp onion smells, celery, and carrots.
Tim climbs back over the mattress on his way out of the bathroom, intent on getting the mail like the man asks him to every morning, when he notices the cutting board. Crepey onion skins are littering it, crinkling slightly in the air through the window. A knife too.
Tim tilts his head at it.
He thinks… He remembers that he used to be good with those. The metallic clang of them when they connect. Blades wavering on contact while the hilts stay straight. The snap of his hand when they fly from his fingertips like sparks.
Tim's fingers twitch, moving to touch the plastic handle until someone else dives to put their hand there instead. The second of contact makes Tim's skin feel ripped from his muscles, eyes shooting up to see the man staring at him with a thin expression of alarm.
"It's OK," the man breathes, voice coming out jagged and choppy. His gaze is frozen on Tim's face. "It's OK. I've… I've got it."
Tim stays with his hand clutched to his chest as the man picks up the knife to start back into cutting with split focus. There are definitely more carrots than he needs for this dish, but the man doesn't stop. He glances Tim's way again a few times, owlish, like he's trying to imagine what would've transpired had he not done something.
The doves chirrup.
"Looks like you got a bit burnt yesterday," the man says, voice a forced calm while he gestures to Tim's forehead with his eyes. "There's some aloe in the medicine cabinet."
Tim wavers for a minute, eyes doing a sweep of the floor before he shuffles to close the sink window. The lock slides into place with a rusty rattle and the bird calls lessen.
From there, Tim turns around with the express goal of hunting for the aloe, but he sees the man from behind then and stops. The measured pace of the vegetables splitting against the board echoes, the man's shoulders sloping in tandem.
Tim knows the man loves him.
It's not necessarily something he recalls, but he knows it, in some place deeper than memory and imagination. The man makes aborted motions all the time, like he wants to touch him but isn't sure he can without breaking him. Tim doesn't think so—that he can, but…
For other people, it's just being near them.
Tim drifts back to the man's side, standing close enough to him to make himself light-headed. He should stay, though.
The man's worked through all the carrots they'd bought the other day, dicing them into smaller and smaller pieces. There's no culinary reason for it.
"Everything OK?" he asks without looking away from his work.
Tim vets the man's face in profile—really looks at it. He can tell he's handsome, well-kept, at least in a way that society would praise. Irises sterling and chasmic. The whites glow by comparison, but with the window light washing in from behind, the shadows around his eyes come thick and tired.
He could be anywhere, Tim realizes. Somewhere idyllic that they'd put on a magazine cover, would boast about at parties with bubbling champagne and too-nice shoes and a vacuum-sealed life. Tim knows he has the money for it.
And yet, he's here.
Gradually, Tim tilts so that the top of his head rests against the man's shoulder, just the slightest touch. The contact makes his skull scream, but he knows it means something when the chopping pattern stops for a moment, then tentatively continues.
The tide receded late last night. Oddball plant life is now weeping against the shoreline, and rocks that once were impossible to reach without hiking up pant hems are now walkable. A toddler with a gob hat is stamping around a jellyfish, trying to see if it's alive.
("Mom! Mom! Come see!")
The salt wind tugging at the ends of his jacket, Tim brushes the sand off a tampa drill. It feels almost too perfect, no cracks along the cords or twisted top, that is until the aperture is cleared out enough for Tim to see the chip on the inside.
The man's been eying him. "This one?" he asks.
Tim shakes his head, still running his fingers over the outside of the shell to the point where he might actually split it in half.
The man sighs laxly, then holds up the bucket for Tim to drop it in.
Tim doesn't, though. Just shakes his head again—more fervently this time—and hurls the drill out into the water. The sand crunches when he falls back onto it, his head in his hands.
The man drifts down next to him, silent as he sets the bucket between them and turns his sight out to watch the waves. He doesn't flinch when Tim reaches in and grabs another shell, tossing that one too until soon enough, he's chucking all of them, one by one, back into the gulf—at the gulf—like maybe there really is an invisible barrier there that he needs to break through, like he never really got out of that prison—at least not whole.
The worst part of it is that Tim already understands he'll wake up tomorrow to find the pieces back on the shore, even more broken than they already were.
Pretty soon his nails scrape the bottom of the bucket, sand biting into his cuticles. Tim doesn't bother to move, sits with one hand trapped there while the rest of himself isn't, and they both keep silent as they wait for something to finally change.