This turn of events was, Julian supposes, inevitable.
He’s been going out with Aidan – black hair, blue eyes, sharp features – for five weeks and the other man’s finally got him into bed. Julian wasn’t overly keen, but Aidan’s been so patient and bought him this lovely meal tonight. It seemed impossibly rude not to invite him home. Anyway, surely he’d be into it once they got started. Aidan’s kind and funny and quite handsome. How hard could it be to have good sex with a guy like him?
Now Julian’s on his hands and knees with Aidan grunting behind him and he’s trying, he really is. But he’s keenly aware of sweaty hands pawing at his shoulders, his chest, his hips, of Aidan’s hot breath too loud in his ear. His date is fucking him like the world’s about to end, and he feels nothing. His knees hurt, he’s uncomfortably stretched out around Aidan’s cock, there’s a sloppy hickey on his neck and he keeps thinking that he needs to go down to the store later because he’s out of coffee. Aidan mouths at his earlobe, his neck, the top of his spine. It’s supposed to turn him on, but instead he just wants it to be over already. Julian pushes back to meet Aidan’s thrusts, going through the motions and hoping to get him off faster. It seems to work, because moments later, Aidan comes with a sharp cry and collapses heavily on top of Julian. The blond lets out a distressed sound when his date pulls out and fumbles off the condom.
Aidan reaches around to jerk him off, but Julian pushes his hand away. ‘No... I... I’m okay.’ He’s not even hard anymore, and he doesn’t want Aidan to know that. He finds out anyway, of course, his hand insistent until he actually touches Julian.
‘Julian?’ Aidan’s voice is full of worry. He tries to turn him around, but Julian refuses to look at him. ‘Did I hurt you? I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll do better next time.’
Julian takes a deep breath. ‘I think it’s better if there is no next time.’
‘What? No, come on, first times are often awkward, we can work it out...’
‘Can you go, please?’
‘Julian, we need to talk about this –’ Aidan’s visibly shocked when he finally sees Julian’s face, completely closed off, his eyes harsh and cold.
‘I’m sorry, Aidan.’
‘That’s all you’ve got?’ Aidan says, getting angry himself. ‘No explanations?’
‘There’s nothing I can say that would make it better. We’re just not suited to each other.’
‘Because the sex was bad for you? No. That’s not the only thing that matters in a relationship.’
Julian sighs. ‘It won’t work.’
‘You won’t even try. Fine.’ Aidan picks up his clothes and hurries out of the room. Julian’s relief when he hears the front door of his flat fall shut is palpable, at least for a few moments while he reaches for his dressing gown and wraps it around his naked body. He sits on the floor for a while, shivering with cold and a couple of emotions he doesn’t want to put a name to.
Julian bursts into tears. He can’t help it. This afternoon, he’d been excited for their date, picking out a nice shirt and tight jeans. Aidan is, after all, exactly the kind of guy you can bring home to meet your mother. Assuming your mother’s okay with you dating men, which Julian’s is not. They’ve been getting along so well and Aidan’s kept his hints at wanting more than a goodnight kiss reasonably under control. Then as soon as Julian gave in, he felt – well, like he was just a body for Aidan to use. He knows this is an irrational thought, knows Aidan really does care for him. Knows it by the look in his eyes when he finally got Julian naked on his bed. But knowing something to be irrational doesn’t make it go away, and so Julian cries, chokes out great heaving sobs, wipes his eyes on the sleeve of his dressing gown. Winces when he puts his full weight on his sore ass, feeling the ghost of Aidan’s hands all over him.
Julian stumbles into the bathroom what feels like an eternity later, dropping the gown onto the floor. He turns the water on as hot as it goes and sinks onto the floor of the shower. It seems to be all he’s good for at the moment, sitting in a corner and crying. The steady stream washes away the tears on his face. He becomes aware that the water is too hot, his skin hurting now, and turns the temperature down. Reaches for his Sea breeze scented shower gel and scrubs himself down as thoroughly as he can. It doesn’t take away any of the hurt, but at least he now smells like sea salt instead of sweat and regrets.
He melts into his fluffiest bath towel and crawls into bed, towel and all. It still feels like a safe place even though this is where he and Aidan had sex only an hour ago. His tabby cat pads into the room and jumps onto the bed, curling into Julian’s side. ‘Night, Merlin,’ he mutters into the quiet room. Turning off the lights, Julian’s determined to go to sleep. I’ll be fine tomorrow morning. But he soon becomes overwhelmed by his swirling thoughts, assaulted by images from earlier in the evening, from their awkward, too-sloppy kisses to Aidan’s angry eyes when he finally left. I can’t believe I let him, what is wrong with me, why couldn’t I just enjoy it, I won’t ever, it wasn’t like this last time but that’s so long ago I don’t even know...
Maybe I’m just not meant for relationships.
Julian sleeps fitfully, plagued by strange dreams and frequently waking up. Night turns to day eventually, and Julian feels no better facing down an entire weekend alone at home. He doesn’t want to see anyone, but it becomes increasingly clear sitting here and moping around isn’t good for him either.
So he forces down some breakfast and heads out to the library. It’s the only place he can think of as a distraction. He’ll be able to browse for a while and read in peace. The library is quite busy for this hour of the morning – teenagers studying, people reading newspapers. Julian strolls through the aisles for some time, eventually picking up one of his favourite spy novels and settling down in one of the few empty spaces.
There’s a man on the other side of the table, rapidly working his way through a pile of young adult novels. He jots down titles and keywords, flicks to the middle and the end of the books to read a few paragraphs. The man appears close to Julian’s own age – twenty-six –, tall and lanky with short brown hair and a boyish face. He looks up to find Julian staring, and shoots him a bright smile. His eyes linger on Julian’s face, giving him the courage to speak up.
‘You a teacher?’ he says, gesturing to the scattered books and the notepad. The man nods. ‘High school juniors. They hate reading and I’m the lucky guy who gets to draw up their reading list.’ There’s a fondness in his voice that belies his apparent frustration with his students.
‘So how do you get them to read?’
‘By picking books that haven’t been made into movies.’
Julian laughs. ‘I’m Julian.’
‘Nice to meet you. I’m Barry. Is that a Salini novel you’re reading?’ Julian lifts up the book to show him the title. ‘Ooh, it’s the one about the gay spies!’
‘You know it?’ Julian says, delighted. Barry nods, chews on his pen thoughtfully for a moment. ‘Might as well put it on the list. Broaden their minds a little.’
Their eyes meet again and Julian wants... he wants to find out what Barry’s like. How he teaches. What he does on his days off. More than anything, Julian wants to keep this conversation going. ‘Can I... help you with that?’ Barry gives him an appraising look, then shrugs and pushes half the stack of books across the table. ‘Imagine you’re seventeen and hate everything on principle. Which ones would you read?’
‘Obviously not this one,’ Julian says, pushing a thick volume away. ‘Too long, the font is too small, and the title promises only complex boredom.’
‘Ouch,’ Barry says with a grin, ‘I really liked that one.’
‘But you’re not a seventeen-year-old who hates books.’
‘Okay, yeah. Go on.’ Together, they work through the books until Barry has a sizeable list. Then they keep chatting even though their work is done. A librarian walks by and throws them a dirty look for talking loudly. Julian’s phone buzzes in his pocket and he looks at the screen. ‘Fuck. It’s work.’ Julian listens to the caller for a minute and swears again when he puts the phone down. ‘Really sorry to call you in on a Saturday, my ass. She wouldn’t keep doing it if she was sorry.’
‘Trouble?’ Barry says.
‘Yeah. I have to go to work for a bit.’ He looks at his watch. ‘With any luck I’ll make it out by noon, but it could easily be dinnertime too. Shit!’
‘Can I walk you to your car?’ Julian stares at Barry. That’s a strange request. Very... old-timey dating protocol. ‘I – uh, I suppose so, yeah. If you like.’
Barry smiles. ‘Okay. I’ll just put these back on the shelves.’
‘I’ll give you a hand,’ Julian says, putting his own novel back and picking up half of Barry’s books. They head to the young adult section talking quietly. Once they reach Julian’s car parked out front, Barry awkwardly pats Julian’s shoulder and says, ‘Well, I’ll – I’ll see you around? Maybe?’
Julian smiles. ‘You never know.’
The next Tuesday, Julian heads to the park near his office to eat his lunch. His eyes drift from the customers of the grocery store on the corner to a Thai restaurant, a bank and the high school across the road. It’s their lunch hour too, and students are leaving and arriving in the building, supervised by a teacher – Julian does a double take. He leans in to get a closer look, and he’s almost certain now... The man turns around to answer a question. It’s Barry.
Without a second thought, Julian shoves his half-eaten sandwich into his satchel, gathers his belongings, and crosses the street.
This is rather unnerving. Will Barry even recognise him? He’s in a heated discussion with a student (who was apparently not allowed to leave school during lunch) but when he finally spots Julian standing there awkwardly, his face lights up immediately. ‘Julian!’
‘Hi,’ Julian says, ‘Um, I was just sitting there,’ he vaguely gestures to the other side of the street, ‘and I saw you so I wanted to say... hi.’
‘Hi,’ Barry says, unable to hide his smile, ‘Yeah, so this is where I spend my days.’
Julian nods. ‘I see that. My office is just around the corner.’
‘You better not try to sneak out again, Finn, I have my eye on you!’ Barry tells a student who’s intimidatingly tall and broad. Sulking, Finn disappears back into the school building. Julian’s grinning at Barry’s strict teacher persona. It already feels so different from the guy he met at the library that Julian knows this is a front he puts on at work. Barry’s eyes never leave Julian’s face. A strange silence falls between them.
Then Barry rubs the back of his neck and hesitantly says, ‘I don’t suppose you want to grab a coffee later? With me, I mean?’
Julian bites his lip, thinking it over, but there’s really only one possible answer. ‘Sure. I’d like that. I can – when do you finish work?’
‘Uh, around five. How about you?’
‘It varies, but I should be able to get away by five. I can pick you up here?’
‘Great,’ Barry says, smiling brightly. A young boy approaches the teacher hesitantly. ‘Mr Allen, I have a question about the assignment for geography –’ Julian gives Barry a little wave as he listens to the student’s question, and walks away, looking forward to spending time with Barry again.
Julian’s ten minutes late because his boss would insist on briefing him about a new case they’re taking on next week, and Barry’s nowhere to be seen at the school entrance. Did he leave? Shit, why did Spencer have to keep me late today of all days? Julian nervously paces the pavement, kicking a stray soda can into the gutter. Just as he feels a stirring of guilt over littering and goes to pick up the can and throw it in the bin, Barry emerges from the school. Not the most elegant way Julian could make an impression, but it’s too late now.
‘I swear I was supposed to be done by five,’ Barry calls, descending the stairs in front of the entrance. ‘Don’t worry, I was late too.’ Barry joins him with a smile.
‘Where would you like to go for coffee? There’s a little shop around the corner but a lot of students go there too and I’ve seen enough of them for one day.’ Julian laughs, then thinks it over for a moment. His favourite coffee shop is about ten minutes away on foot. ‘I know a place,’ Julian says, ‘Best tea and coffee downtown.’
‘Alright then. Lead the way.’
It’s a sunny afternoon and it feels good to stroll through the green part of the city with a cute, cheerful guy like Barry by his side. In the meantime, he learns that Barry turned twenty-seven in March, that he grew up in Central City, raised by his foster father, and that he teaches English ‘with a side of geography’.
‘So what do you do, Julian?’
‘I’m a civil litigation lawyer.’
‘A lawyer?’ Barry grins. ‘How very fancy. A British lawyer.’
Julian laughs. ‘It’s pretty boring really. I mainly deal with neighbours suing each other over whose turn it is to clip the hedge.’
Barry pulls a face. ‘That does sound boring.’
‘Oh, there’s a good laugh in it occasionally. Some people really are phenomenally stupid.’
‘Tell me about it, I have to teach them.’
Still chatting, they reach Julian’s chosen coffee shop, a tiny place squeezed inbetween a supermarket and a sushi bar. The queue starts out in the street so Julian points Barry to the menu posted by the door while they wait. ‘Hi Julian, what can I get you boys?’
‘Ah, you’re clearly a regular here!’ Barry says with a grin when the blonde barista uses Julian’s name.
‘Oh yeah,’ the barista says, ‘My girlfriend is his best friend. I’m Felicity, by the way.’
‘Barry. I’ll have a regular cappuccino, please.’
‘And a large americano, black, no sugar, as usual,’ Felicity says before Julian has the chance to speak.
Barry refuses to let Julian pay for his coffee. ‘Forget it,’ he says, ‘I asked you to come out with me, I’m paying.’ Felicity prepares their drinks at record speed. ‘Hey Julian,’ she calls as they leave the shop, ‘I approve.’ She winks and nods at Barry. Blushing furiously and nearly dropping his coffee, Julian rushes Barry out of the door.
‘I’m sorry about that, Felicity’s always trying to set me up on dates.’
‘Oh, it could be worse,’ Barry says with a twinkle in his eyes, ‘She could’ve told the entire coffee shop that she didn’t approve, and then where would we be?’ Julian smiles and it turns into full-blown laughter when Barry takes a sip of cappuccino and nearly spits it out. ‘Shit, how hot is this? Oh god I burnt my tongue. Why are you laughing? How can you even drink that?’
‘Oh, I’m used to it,’ Julian says, leading Barry to a quiet square and pulling a water bottle out of his satchel. ‘Here.’ Barry gratefully accepts the cold water and sinks down on a bench, Julian joining him soon. He’s still sipping his coffee but Barry’s put his down, determined to let it cool first.
‘So,’ Julian says after a few moments of comfortable silence, ‘Did you always want to be a teacher?’
‘Of course not,’ Barry replies, ‘I read a lot of comic books as a kid, so I planned on becoming a superhero.’
‘Oh? What went wrong?’ Julian asks with a grin. ‘You know how it goes, my foster father didn’t consider heroics an appropriate career. Which is funny, given that he’s a cop. Anyway, I always liked helping my sister with her homework, even though she’s a year older than me, so teaching didn’t sound half bad.’ Barry carefully tries his coffee again. ‘It’s almost okay to drink now. What about you, then? Why are you a lawyer?’
‘Family tradition,’ Julian says with a sigh, ‘We’ve been lawyers for generations. I don’t mind too much, because seeing justice done is important to me. Of course not every lawyer gets to put criminals away, but.’
‘What would you have done if you’d had a choice?’
‘Astrophysics,’ Julian says without a doubt. Barry whistles in admiration. ‘I’ve always loved science. My sister Emma, she was braver than me. She defied our parents. She was well on her way to becoming a marine biologist.’ A sad tone creeps into Julian’s voice.
‘Was?’ Barry prompts gently. ‘She died when I was twenty-two.’
‘Oh god, Julian, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have –’
‘No, it’s okay, let’s just... talk about something else.’
Barry nods and says the first thing that pops into his head. ‘I read online that Salini is working on a sequel to Hay Fever.’
Julian’s face lights up. ‘Really? That’s my favourite book. I seriously need to buy a copy instead of getting it from the library all the time.’
‘A few of my students picked it off the reading list. Your influence is about to change their lives, Julian.’ Julian laughs. ‘I can’t wait.’
They don’t part until an hour later, Barry heading for the bus stop near the school and Julian meaning to pick up his car at work. He lingers around the bus stop first though, making smalltalk until he finally blurts out, ‘Can I have your number?’
‘I – of course you can. Give me your phone, I’ll put it in.’ Barry hands Julian his own phone in exchange, already open on the Add new contact page. ‘We’ll talk later,’ Barry promises, offering an enthusiastic handshake. ‘Yes, absolutely, I’d like that.’ Julian’s a little giddy with excitement, and that’s even before Barry squeezes his shoulder as they finally say their goodbyes.
Barry routinely rifles through the mail when he gets home. Advertisements for supermarkets, cars and oddly, a retirement home, make up the bulk of his letterbox’s contents. A plain white envelope with his name and address on it catches his attention. It’s from his landlord. Barry reads the letter with growing unease and anger. Terminating rental agreement... Regretfully... Vacate property by September 1, 2017... Hope I have put forward my intention clearly...
‘Shit!’ Barry snarls, already reaching for his phone. His first instinct is to call the landlord and demand an explanation, but he decides it would be wiser to speak to Joe before he says things he may regret later. Joe’s still working, but he takes the time to listen to his son’s angry rant. ‘Barry, listen to me. It’s going to be fine. I’ll help you find a new apartment; three months is plenty of time. And even if we can’t manage by then, you know I’m not going to let you sleep out on the streets. You could always stay with me for a few weeks if necessary. Now calm down – this isn’t the end of the world. You keep complaining your place is a total dump!’
‘Yes, but an affordable dump,’ Barry says grimly.
His best friend Caitlin shows up at Julian’s door around seven the following night. ‘I brought pizza and cheap wine,’ she says, pressing a kiss to his cheek.
‘That is exactly what I need. Come in.’
He met Caitlin not long after he came to Central City, when she advised him on a case as a medical expert. He took an interest in the science behind the case, they discussed it over drinks and became fast friends. Julian grabs glasses for the wine and sets the oven to bake the pizzas while Caitlin updates him on the state of her relationship with Felicity (they decided to move in together, but are still looking for the perfect place to live).
‘How are things with Aidan?’ Caitlin asks, bending down to scratch Merlin’s head. The cat purrs loudly. ‘Not... I’m not seeing him anymore.’
She frowns. ‘Didn’t you have a date last week?’
Julian swallows with difficulty. ‘I broke up with him. I don’t really wanna talk about it.’
‘No, really, Caitlin. Let’s not talk about it. How’s work?’ Caitlin knows when to let it go, but there’s definitely something strange about Julian’s reaction. Especially since Felicity mentioned Julian dropped by her coffee shop with his date only yesterday. Julian checks the pizza and declares it good enough to eat, effectively changing the subject.
Around nine, right before Caitlin leaves, Julian’s phone buzzes. He looks down at it and grins when he sees Barry’s name.
I had a good time yesterday.
Caitlin seems mildly curious, but she asks no questions, instead giving Julian a quick hug and rushing down the stairs. Julian sends back a reply.
Me too. Maybe we should do it again.
They keep texting casually throughout the evening, until Julian realises he has a court case to present early the next morning, and he really should go to sleep.
Barry doesn’t like working by himself, so come Friday night, he heads to his foster father’s house and settles down at the table with his laptop and a stack of papers. Joe asks about his house-hunting, and Barry says he’s set up appointments to view every affordable flat he could find and invites Joe to come along if he’s free. Then he sets his phone to silent and leaves it in his bag. He and Julian have been texting a lot, which is great, but Barry really needs to correct these essays. He’s been putting it off for a week. Half an hour in, someone sneaks up behind him and gives him a bear hug. ‘Barry Allen, as I live and breathe.’ Barry grins and turns around to face his sister. ‘Hey, Iris.’ She throws off her coat and settles down opposite him. ‘Coffee, Iris?’ Joe calls from the kitchen. ‘Yes please, and get Barry some more too. Looks like he could use it.’ Iris pulls out a copy of Central City Picture News, but doesn’t open it yet. ‘Long time no see, Barry. Have you been working in the library again?’
‘A bit. You know I like it there. You can never tell who you might meet –’ Realising he’s said more than he intended to, Barry casts his eyes down to his work. Agitated, he marks another glaring spelling error – in an essay on The Importance of Language Education, no less. He can still see Iris’s curious, teasing expression from the corner of his eye though.
‘Oh?’ she says, her voice carefully kept even, ‘And who did you meet, then?’ Barry says nothing. He knows there’s no escaping Iris anyway. ‘Well?’
‘Just – I met a guy, it’s no big deal.’
‘Then why are you blushing, Barry?’
‘I’m not, just let me work, Iris.’
Joe emerges from the kitchen with three mugs of coffee and says, ‘If you’re dating, don’t forget he needs my approval.’ Frustrated, Barry chucks down his red pen. ‘I’m not dating! I met Julian in the library and we went for coffee once. That’s all.’
‘Sure, if you say so,’ Iris says with a smirk, flipping open the newspaper to show Joe her latest articles. Exasperated, Barry pulls out his phone, and his heart leaps when he finds a text from Julian inviting him to have lunch together on Saturday. He replies I’d love to.
That night, Barry’s too nervous to sleep. He and Julian keep texting, just one more, and Julian’s evidently a nightbird. He tries to get to bed earlier during the week, but the weekend’s fair game. Barry’s already said goodnight once, but after an hour of tossing and turning, he glances at the clock and decides twelve fifteen is still an okay time to be texting his new friend.
I can’t sleep. Why can’t I sleep?
Barry gets out of bed and wanders over to the living room, passing through the kitchen to pick up a glass of milk. His phone buzzes insistently in his hand.
Incoming call – Julian Albert
Barry’s mouth instantly feels dry. He gulps down some milk before answering. ‘Hello?’ he says quietly, respectful of the time even though he lives alone. ‘Hi,’ Julian replies, sounding brightly awake, ‘Having trouble sleeping?’
‘Yeah, I –’ What now? He can’t exactly tell Julian he’s nervous about their lunch date tomorrow. It isn’t even a date. Julian waits patiently on the other end of the line. ‘I don’t know,’ Barry says feebly, ‘I feel on edge. Can’t lie still.’
‘Are you in bed?’ Julian asks casually and fuck, that question shouldn’t make his blood soar, because there isn’t a single hint of underlying motives in that beautiful voice.
‘No. I got back up to get a drink.’
‘Okay. Finish your drink and get back to bed. I’m going to help you.’
‘What?’ Is he suggesting what I think he’s –
‘Have you ever meditated, Barry?’
Oh. Apparently not suggesting that, then. Obviously. What was I even thinking? ‘Um, not really. Not in recent years, certainly.’
‘Well,’ Julian says, and Barry can hear rustling sounds on the other side, ‘If I can just find it – why is my desk such a mess – oh, here we are! You’ll be more comfortable for this if you put earphones in and lay your phone down.’
‘What are you talking about, Julian?’ Barry says even as he gets back into bed and rummages around for his earphones.
‘I’m going to talk you to sleep.’
‘Not likely. Are you going to read to me from the phone book?’
‘A phone book?’ Julian says, his voice full of wonder, ‘Haven’t seen one for years, have you? We’re going to do a guided meditation. Like the ones you can find online.’
‘Okay, I guess? How does that work?’
‘I have a script here. You lie in bed, and I’ll read to you. It guides you to become so relaxed you fall asleep easily. I used it a lot a few years back. You just listen to me and follow my lead.’
God that sounds hot. No, Barry, no. ‘I suppose it can’t hurt to try.’
‘Excellent.’ He can hear the smile in Julian’s voice. ‘Let’s get started.’
Julian helps him to settle down comfortably. Allows him a few minutes to let his thoughts flow freely. Guides his breathing to a slow, relaxed rhythm. He makes Barry relax his feet, his legs, his shoulders and his arms. It’s wonderfully easy to focus on nothing but the soft lilt of Julian’s voice, the British accent weaving a gentle spell on him. His mind drifts, Julian telling him how peaceful and pleasant Barry must be feeling by now. ‘So cosy and warm. You’re so calm, I can tell by your breathing...’
Slowly, Barry slips away into a deep sleep.
When he can hear nothing but quiet breathing on the other end of the line, Julian softly whispers, ‘Goodnight, Barry,’ and hangs up the phone with a smile.
Barry doesn’t wake up until nine thirty the next morning, his head still full of Julian’s words. His new friend featured heavily in his dreams, mostly wrapped up in Barry’s arms. He stretches out lazily and flicks on the light. He thinks about what Julian did last night. It’s possibly the strangest, sweetest thing a near-stranger has ever done for him, though Julian doesn’t feel like a stranger. Anything but, now that Barry has fallen asleep to the sound of his voice. And he gets to see Julian again in less than three hours. Life is good. Barry jumps out of bed and sets about making scrambled eggs on toast. He takes a long shower, using his favourite shower gel and shampoo. Then he rushes downstairs to run a few quick errands and pick up the newspaper. It’ll distract him from getting nervous. Or at least he might glance at the clock a few times less, if he focuses on doing the crossword puzzle.
Around eleven thirty, Barry glances in the mirror, straightens the collar of his shirt, grabs his leather jacket and heads out to the bus stop. The bus is ten minutes late. At times like these, he really wishes he could afford a car, though he never liked driving. Well, at least he doesn’t have to go far. Julian suggested a stroll around a small marketplace before lunch. (He said there would be booksellers, so Barry was immediately on board.) They meet in front of a classical sculpture of some man who was once very important to Central City. Nobody remembers his name these days, and the plaque is faded. Julian’s already there, and oh god he’s wearing a suit and tie, I’m so under-dressed, way to make a shitty impression, Barry.
‘How did you sleep?’ Julian asks by way of a greeting. Barry huffs out a laugh. ‘Pretty brilliantly. Thanks for that.’
‘Not too weird?’ Julian says, his smile wrinkling up his nose.
‘Yeah, it was... really weird. But good, too. Very relaxing. I don’t know where you got that idea.’
‘It was part of a late-night burst of creativity.’
‘Oh?’ Barry says, curiously.
Julian laughs. ‘I was working on some sketches.’
‘Are you an artist?’ Barry knows he sounds stunned, but there’s something about people who can paint that’s always drawn him in. Julian shrugs. ‘An amateur, but yeah.’
‘Pencils, paint, charcoal, chalk. If it sticks to paper or canvas, I’ll use it.’
‘Oh god, that is so ho- cool. Really cool.’
Julian shows off his brightest smile, his eyes sparkling. ‘Come now, Barry. Surely you didn’t think I was just a boring lawyer?’
The market is stuffed full of antiquities, art, sculptures, and indeed, many books. Julian and Barry stroll around, browsing here and there. They each purchase a book because they can’t not, and then Barry leads the way to a Chinese restaurant tucked away in a maze of little streets. Neither of them has a clue how to use chopsticks, so they have a good laugh with that until Julian works up the nerve to ask the waiter for knives and forks.
‘He thinks we’re uncultured brutes,’ Julian whispers as the waiter disappears to dig out some cutlery from the bottom of a drawer.
‘He’d be right, the way you’re handling that chicken is almost criminal.’
‘Oh, sod off,’ Julian says with a big smile.
As they eat, Barry idly wonders whether Julian’s attracted to him. He can’t tell. Julian sure smiles a lot, but maybe he’s always like that. There’s no question that Barry is into Julian. From his blond hair to the tips of his elegant, polished shoes, Julian is gorgeous. The last time Barry got as far as a second date is months ago. And no one’s held quite the appeal for him that this clever Englishman does. Most of his dates look okay but have questionable personalities. He’s been lied to more often than he can count and sooner or later an awkward situation arises when Barry has to reject their premature attempts to get in his pants. Men always seem to assume he’s easy, only to be proven wrong quickly. Julian, however, is quite refreshing, with his clear lack of ambitions in that direction. He just talks, tells stories, makes jokes, and sits there looking way more elegant than he has any right to. Barry feels frumpy in comparison.
The subject of sports comes up. Julian admits to hating gym classes in school, which left him with a lifelong aversion. ‘I occasionally go for a walk or cycle to work, but that’s about it.’
‘God, I’m gonna sound like such a show-off now,’ Barry says, ‘but I swim at least once a week.’
‘I agree, you’re a total show-off.’
They both laugh and Julian says, ‘It must be years since I last went swimming. I like it, but it’s such a bother to change and dry off – and then I have to wash my hair again because of the chlorine – why are you laughing, Barry?’
‘Such lame excuses.’ The waiter brings over ice cream for dessert and since, by his calculations, it’s his turn to ask, Barry swallows a spoonful of whipped cream and says, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’
Julian can clearly sense where this is going. ‘I have a feeling you’re about to tell me.’
‘I think we should go swimming.’ He watches Julian’s pensive expression, hoping Julian’s weighing the risks of having his untrained ass kicked against the benefits of seeing Barry in swimming trunks.
The benefits win.
Finding himself with half an hour to spare before meeting Barry, Julian picks up the phone to call his grandmother. As usual, she replies with a terse, ‘Rose Albert,’ and thaws out considerably upon hearing, ‘Grandma, it’s Julian.’
‘Dear boy!’ she exclaims, ‘I’m so glad you called.’
Julian laughs. ‘How are you?’
‘Oh, fine,’ Rose says, starting in on a story about her meddling neighbours that ends with ‘insults about my only grandson running off to America, probably because he got mixed up in something unsavoury...’ He can tell Rose is still furious at the memory. ‘What did you tell them, Grandma?’
‘That your parents couldn’t stand the fact that you’re gay,’ she says bluntly. Julian imagines that would indeed have shut up her conservative neighbours. His grandmother fires off a large amount of questions about Julian’s life, work, apartment, friends. ‘What are your plans for today?’ Julian sneaks a glance at his watch. It’s okay, he has time. ‘I’m going swimming with my... friend Barry.’ He imagines Rose reclining in her ancient armchair, small and grey-haired but sharp as ever, pulling up an eyebrow at Julian’s hesitation before saying ‘friend’. There’s a smile in his Grandma’s voice when she says, ‘Tell me all about your friend Barry.’
Julian insisted on driving them to the pool Barry always trains at. It’s a bit off the beaten path, and he’s well used to taking two buses to get there, but Julian said, ‘Nonsense, if I’m driving there, I might as well pick you up on the way. Where do you live?’
‘I’ll text you the address. See you at two?’
So now Barry’s loitering around the entrance hall of his apartment building, feeling a bit out of place as he keeps an eye out for a mint green Nissan. Several neighbours have given him odd looks as they walked by. The situation isn’t improved by Julian’s arrival in a car that – well, it isn’t quite vintage yet, but it must be at least twenty years old, a sleek sports car, and it makes a lot of noise. Grinning, Barry gets in the passenger seat and says, ‘I thought lawyers were well paid.’
‘I am,’ Julian says, ‘She costs me a ton in maintenance.’
‘I don’t know anything about cars, but she’s beautiful.’
Julian waggles his eyebrows before driving off. ‘Fast, too.’
‘Oh, you’re such a tough guy, Julian.’ Julian steps on the gas in response.
‘Wait a minute,’ Barry says, after a little while of Julian showing off his driving skills. ‘When we – at the library. You didn’t have this car, it was a modern one.’ Julian pulls a face. ‘No, you’re right. That was a replacement car cause she’d broken down and the garage was fixing her.’
‘Does that happen a lot?’ Julian hums, taking a left turn. ‘More frequently than I’d like, certainly.’
‘Damn, it’s hot in here.’ Julian laughs. ‘Roll down the window. No airconditioning in Rosario, I’m afraid.’
‘Wipe that smirk off your face, Barry Allen, it’s perfectly normal to name a classic car.’
Barry gives him directions in the last stretch towards the pool, a maze of fancy houses and dead ends. The car park is practically empty. They go in and Barry leans over the counter, shamelessly flirting with the receptionist so she’ll let Julian go in for free because Barry has a season ticket and he’s always here. ‘Fine,’ she says, ‘but just this once. I mean it, Barry. He pays next time!’
‘Sure thing, Catherine!’ Barry calls, pulling at Julian’s arm to get him inside before she changes her mind. Julian stares at him with a certain amount of admiration. ‘I never would have guessed. Barry Allen, one of the straights,’ he teases. Barry bursts into laughter. ‘Catherine knows I’m gay. She still thinks I’m pretty.’
‘Well, you are,’ Julian says without a second thought, then looks mortified. ‘Why thank you,’ Barry says with a grin, as they linger awkwardly in the tiled hallway of the pool changing rooms. He watches a beautiful blush rise in Julian’s cheeks and realises he’s about to see this man in very little clothes and great, now I’m blushing too. Julian coughs. ‘Um, I’m gonna go – change.’ Barry, startled out of a brief reverie, agrees, and they disappear into side-by-side changing rooms.
Julian’s already putting his bag in a locker when Barry steps out into the hallway, a little self-conscious in his green boxers. Catching sight of Julian’s lean body in dark red shorts doesn’t help at all. His back is sculpted, his legs are endless, and Barry won’t even allow himself to look at that perfect ass. Julian turns around with a smile. ‘Hi,’ he says, ‘wanna share a locker? There’s plenty of room left for your stuff.’ How could Julian possibly look even more delicious than he does now? He could be naked, his unhelpful brain supplies. Barry swallows sharply to regain control of himself. ‘Sure. Great.’ He bends down to push his bag and shoes into the locker. Julian puts on the wristband with the key and then they’re off to the pool. Barry has no qualms about jumping straight in. He’s used to this, of course. Julian, on the other hand, sits down on the edge and dangles his feet in the water. ‘Fuck, that’s cold,’ he says. Barry gives him a look, almost completely immersed in the water. ‘You’re not planning to sit there all day, are you?’
‘Just till I’m used to it, okay?’
‘Nope,’ Barry says, ‘Take it from me – the best way is to get straight in.’ Before Julian knows it, Barry’s grabbed hold of his hands and jerked him into the water sharply. Julian emerges with murder in his eyes, completely drenched, his blond curls sticking to his head.
‘You are an absolute wanker,’ he says threateningly. For a moment Barry fears he really shouldn’t have done that, but then Julian smirks and pushes him over. Barry shoves him right back and they stage a playful fight in the almost empty pool. Julian ends up pinning him against the wall in the deep end, and the atmosphere between them changes, twists into a new and unfamiliar tension. Barry’s hyperaware of Julian’s hands pressing his shoulders against the cold tiles, of the proximity of their bare chests and the curious look in Julian’s blue eyes. For a moment, Julian leans in and Barry wonders if... But then Julian pulls away and says he wants to see Barry swim, really swim, and the spell is broken. ‘Very well,’ Barry says, ‘I’ll race you to the other side of the pool.’ Julian nods. ‘Okay. But first, I want to watch you swim. Alone.’ He leans against the side of the pool as Barry shrugs, says ‘Catch me if you can,’ and shoots off like a rocket. ‘Bloody hell,’ Julian mutters when Barry reappears next to him. Barry laughs. ‘Told you I train a lot, right? Come on, let’s do this properly, and start from the blocks. Last one back here pays for hot chocolate when we’re done.’
‘Hot chocolate?’ Julian says with a smirk. ‘I wouldn’t be so damn confident that I’d win, Allen...’
He clambers onto a starting block, all dripping and gorgeous, leaving Barry to follow him out of the water. ‘Ready?’ Barry says, ‘Go!’ They dive in simultaneously. Barry’s fast but Julian’s strong, and he swims better than either of them expected. Barry wins – there was never any doubt that he would – but Julian’s pretty close behind. ‘You’re good!’ Barry tells him sincerely, and Julian laughs, panting. ‘It’s really been too long. That knocked the wind right out of me.’
‘Well, there are some hot tubs over there,’ Barry says, pointing. ‘What do you say we relax a bit and then after that, I teach you a few things?’ Julian grins, leans in close, and whispers, ‘I didn’t know you taught physical education.’ That goddamned beautiful accent, sending shivers down his spine. ‘Lots of things you don’t know about me, Mr Albert.’
‘How come this place isn’t crowded?’ Julian says, observing four or five people in the main pool and one family in the children’s play pool. ‘Sunday afternoon, dreary weather...’
‘You saw, it’s a bit of a trek. It’s not a place that people just happen upon, you need to know it’s here.’ The water in the hot tub is perfect and they float around lazily for some time, talking easily. Neither of them are looking forward to Monday and another long work week. ‘This weekend,’ Julian says, his eyes surprisingly serious, ‘has been the best I’ve had in a long while.’ The corners of Barry’s mouth twitch in an effort to hide his giddy smile. ‘It isn’t over yet.’
‘No, you’re right. As I recall, you were going to teach me a few things.’
‘Hmm, challenge accepted.’
They head back to the main pool and Barry improves Julian’s technique to the point that he beats Barry in their final race of the day. Sure, they both know Barry held back, but neither of them mentions it as they head towards the showers. Julian lends Barry his shampoo, which feels surprisingly personal, almost... intimate. It smells delicious, of mint and citrus fruits. They dry off, change and wander into the pool tearoom for the hot chocolate Julian owes Barry. ‘This place serves the best hot chocolate you’ve ever tasted, I swear. All whipped cream and marshmallows,’ Barry confides to Julian. His enthusiasm is catching and the drinks really are heavenly. It seems neither of them want this day to be over, because Julian suggests getting some pizza for dinner.
Barry readily agrees.
When he lived in England with his family, Julian had a ritual he repeated day after day. Every evening before dinner, he’d walk down to the stables to go see the two horses his parents owned. His sister always rode the black horse she called Sydney, and Julian’s favourite was a beautiful grey mare he let Emma name Adelaide to keep with the theme. No matter how stressed he was, the presence of the horses always calmed him down. He’d brush Sydney first, then Adelaide, feed them treats, whisper endearments in their ears and tell them about his day.
He’d love to tell them about Barry.
Julian misses the silence, the smell of the stables, the warm breath of the horses, the way no one in his family ever disturbed him when he was there. Whenever they had some time to spare, Emma and Julian went riding together, but the quiet moments of talking to the horses were all his.
He wonders if Sydney and Adelaide are still alive, and laments the fact he can’t just pick up the phone and ask, because he barely speaks to his parents anymore. Once he came out and it didn’t go down as well as he’d hoped, it seemed easier to visit home less and less. Emma supported him all the way, but when she died, Julian packed his bags and moved to America. There seemed to be little point in staying, and it was all too appealing to start over as someone new. He’s never regretted his decision. Being alone suits him, for the most part, and the occasional meeting with Caitlin is plenty of socialising, especially when she brings Felicity. The only member of his family he likes to keep in touch with is his only remaining grandparent. Rose and Julian speak on the phone every so often. She’s always accepted Julian just the way he is. He didn’t date much even back in England and apart from a few one-time coffee dates, Aidan was his first stateside relationship. And look where that got me.
Barry’s lovely, though. It feels good to have a new friend and today was great fun. He could get used to hanging out with this guy. If only I hadn’t created that awkward moment between us. It’s not even as if he wants to kiss Barry – he was just there. Fortunately he came back to his senses before anything actually happened. Julian’s definitely not looking for another doomed relationship. No fucking way.
The next two weeks pass in a blur of texts, late-night phonecalls and a string of meetings with Barry. They go for walks, drink coffee or wine, Julian takes Barry on a tough cycling trail, they go and mock a silly movie. Being able to talk to Barry at night makes work more bearable. It brightens his day. It also means he may have been neglecting Caitlin a bit, so before she decides to stage an intervention (an act to which Felicity could definitely bring her), he goes over to her place with wine and apologies. Caitlin’s cooking up a very complicated chicken dish and invites him to stay for dinner. Julian settles down in the kitchen to talk while she cooks.
Then Julian’s phone buzzes between them on Caitlin’s kitchen table, and his face lights up in a way she’s never seen before when he reads his text. ‘Hmm,’ Caitlin says pensively. Julian looks up from his phone with a huge smile, his cheeks burning. ‘Who’s that, then?’ Caitlin asks with a grin. ‘Um – a friend.’
‘Oh no no no, I don’t think so. That smile isn’t for a friend.’ Julian doesn’t say anything so she continues, ‘Besides, since when do you have friends in Central City who aren’t me?’
‘It’s Barry. I met him about a month ago.’ Caitlin’s eyes shine with interest. ‘Where?’
‘Library.’ Julian doesn’t seem to be forthcoming about any more details, keeping his eyes on his fingernails. ‘And? Don’t make me drag it out of you, Julian Albert.’
‘Fine, fine. We’ve been meeting up a lot, maybe twice a week. And we text every day, or talk on the phone.’ Caitlin’s smile is entirely too sweet and understanding when she says, ‘But you’re not dating?’
‘What? No, of course not,’ Julian says, like the idea is ludicrous, like it never occurred to him, like he never wondered, late at night, what Barry’s skin might feel like under his mouth.
‘Because we’re friends.’
‘Bullshit,’ Caitlin says, and it’s so rare to hear her swear that Julian actually looks up and asks her what she means. ‘You know what I think, Julian? I think you’re scared. You like Barry. Barry likes you, judging by how much you’ve been seeing of each other. You’ve dated one person in the past two years – one. So it ended badly with Aidan and now you won’t even risk it with someone else, because you don’t want to get hurt anymore.’
‘That’s not true –’
‘Isn’t it?’ Caitlin says softly, then thankfully changes the subject. Julian glances down at Barry’s text. Dinner tomorrow? My treat x
No, he wasn’t imagining it. That tiny little kiss really is there, and Julian wonders what exactly it means. Does this indicate a change in their relat – friendship? Probably not. He’ll bet Barry sends kisses to all his friends. They arrange to meet at a new steakhouse Julian’s been meaning to try. He goes home early, telling Caitlin he needs to catch up on some sleep, but it’s no use really, since Barry keeps texting until well after midnight. He’s been viewing apartments but he hasn’t found anything suitable yet.
On Friday, Julian works until five o’clock on the dot, then he’s out the door. His boss Spencer shouts after him, asking questions about ‘a hot date’, but he ignores her and strides over to his car. He only has an hour to get showered and changed before meeting Barry, so he tries not to stress about the time. Or the traffic jam he inevitably gets stuck in. Or the fact he forgot to iron his blue dress shirt. Or Merlin demanding copious amounts of attention at this crucial point in time. To be honest, it’s a total nightmare, but very much worth it for the heartfelt ‘You look great,’ Barry greets him with. Yes, the night’s off to a good start.
Julian comes home, chucks his clothes off and collapses into bed. He plans to read for a bit, but his thoughts keep drifting to another wonderful evening with Barry. That cute smile plays on his mind, and the way ‘Julian’ sounds in Barry’s voice, and Barry’s long fingers... Julian’s not even aware at first that his hands are drifting over his chest. He reaches out to turn off the light and closes his eyes. Barry’s right there with him in his head, pulling Julian close and kissing him softly. Moments later, his lips whisper over the skin of Julian’s neck. Julian whimpers at the image. He drags his fingers down his sides, his skin tingling at the contact. His nails dig into Barry’s back, pulling him on top of Julian, closer, closer. Julian’s hand drifts lower, over his stomach and to the waistband of his boxers. In his mind, Barry does the same, mouthing kisses over every bit of skin he touches. Julian’s breathless by the time Barry’s head dips between his legs to nuzzle at his cock through his pants. ‘Mm, so hard for me, Julian.’ Julian chokes out a panted breath, squeezing himself through the thin fabric. Barry, who’s been naked all along, slides off Julian’s final item of clothing. Impatient, Julian kicks his underwear somewhere to the bottom of the bed. ‘I know what you want,’ Barry mutters, his tongue darting out to meet the head of Julian’s cock. ‘Yes, that’s it, that’s what I want, please, Barry...’ A shuddering hand closes around his dick and he quickly finds his rhythm. ‘You taste so good,’ Barry says, before swallowing him whole. The slick heat of his mouth... ‘Oh god,’ Julian whispers. The images he conjures up fuel his desire, and he’s barely aware of the moans escaping him. He translates them as Barry’s sounds as he happily sucks Julian off. Then there are two wonderfully wet fingers circling his rim, and he can’t hold back any longer. He thrusts up into Barry’s delightful mouth and comes, shuddering violently. ‘Yes, god, Barry!’ Julian’s come wets his hand and his sheets, and with that, the heated dream is gone. He breaks out of the heady fantasy to find himself unpleasantly sticky. ‘Fuck,’ he mutters, scrambling to find some tissues in the dark. He has to get up to dispose of them anyway, so he pulls on a dressing gown, heads to the kitchen and pours himself a glass of water. He leans against the kitchen counter, sipping slowly, his heart still racing, skin still sweaty.
He’s never been so keenly aware of his feelings for Barry as he is now. Sure, Caitlin’s insinuated plenty, and he knows he loves spending time with Barry. But he hasn’t ever had such a vivid fantasy about him before, let alone jerked off to it, and it leaves a sour taste in his mouth. That can never happen, Julian realises with a shock. Even if Barry’s interested, he won’t last long with someone who doesn’t want to have sex anymore. He’s sure of that now, sure that he can’t let anyone get close enough to use him again. Then there are stupid fucking tears on his cheeks, and he wipes at them angrily. He’ll simply put Barry out of his head, that’s all there is to it. They can be good friends – great friends. One foolish fantasy late at night doesn’t mean Julian’s falling in love.
It takes Barry until their parting on Sunday night to work up the courage to ask the question that has been on his mind for... weeks, probably. Julian drops him off at home and Barry stays in the car for another few minutes. Julian looks at him expectantly, like he knows what’s coming. ‘Julian, I, er... I totally get it if this isn’t what you’re looking for right now, okay, no hard feelings, but I was thinking – do you want to go on a date with me sometime?’ Julian’s eyes widen in surprise – apparently he didn’t suspect this after all. An uncomfortable silence stretches out between them, and Barry nervously fidgets with his seat belt. Julian doesn’t speak, just stares at Barry in awe. ‘Forget I said anything, I’m sorry, I’ll just go –’ Barry scrambles for the door handle, but then a hand is on his arm, and Julian leans in to press a soft kiss to Barry’s cheek. ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘Yes. I’d love to.’ Barry snorts out a relieved laugh. ‘Okay. I’ll see you for coffee on... Wednesday, if that works for you, and we can talk about our date then?’ Julian nods. ‘Sounds great.’ They look at each other for a few more moments and then Barry laughs and says, ‘I’m going now.’
‘I’m not keeping you,’ Julian says, and it sounds like a blatant lie on so many levels.
Barry’s back at Joe’s house, writing up exam questions on his laptop with a large cup of coffee next to his feet on a small table. Iris and Wally corner him effectively by sitting down on the couch on either side of him and offering him some biscuits. ‘What’s up, bro?’ Wally says casually. Barry’s immediately suspicious. ‘Thinking up exam questions.’
‘Summer holidays just started,’ Iris points out.
‘Resits,’ Barry says, ‘If I get them done now, I can take a few weeks’ holiday myself. Or at least a week, what with all the new coursework I still have to prepare for next year.’
‘Hmm,’ Iris says, nibbling a biscuit. ‘See, we were wondering...’
‘Who you might spend that holiday with,’ Wally says. Barry throws them confused looks. ‘Um, we could probably go away together if you like?’ Iris laughs. ‘Isn’t that adorable? He thinks we want to go on a sibling holiday.’
‘Well, don’t you?’ Barry says.
‘You’re busted, brother,’ Wally states clearly.
‘You’ve been seen all over town associating with a handsome young man,’ Iris smirks. Barry rolls his eyes. He should’ve known this was about Julian. ‘Posh boy,’ Wally adds.
‘Wears suits.’ Iris loves men in suits.
‘I heard he’s a lawyer.’
‘Woah woah woah,’ Barry cuts both of them off. ‘How do you know all of this?’
‘Oh, Cecile knows him from the DA’s office,’ Joe says in passing. ‘Great,’ Barry mutters.
‘Small town, huh?’ Wally says with a smirk. ‘So, what’s going on?’
‘This is the guy you met in the library, right?’ Iris checks.
Barry sighs. He might as well get it over with. ‘Yes, it’s him. Julian. We’ve been seeing a lot of each other but, y’know, just as friends.’
‘You’re really not dating him?’ Iris says, sounding disappointed. Barry blushes and she pipes up again. ‘Not exactly... not yet. But we are going on a date. This weekend, probably.’
‘Ooo, how exciting! What are you going to wear?’
‘I don’t... I don’t know, I’m not thinking about that yet, Iris!’
‘You should be,’ she says seriously.
‘Can we please talk about something else now?’
‘Fine, fine,’ Iris says, ‘Have you seen Cisco lately?’
‘Uh, no, not really. I know he’s been working on a new project for S.T.A.R. labs. I suppose it’s keeping him busy.’
‘We should all get together sometime. The three of us and we’ll ask Jesse...’
‘Cisco can bring that jerk Hartley if he must,’ Wally says and his siblings laugh. Hartley’s very prickly towards them, but Cisco seems crazy about him nevertheless.
‘Yes, and you can bring your new boyfriend,’ Iris is smirking again.
‘Forget it,’ Barry says, ‘If I introduce him to you lot now he’s never going to kiss me.’
‘Well, that’s insulting,’ Wally says.
‘But I’m glad to hear you have your priorities straight,’ Iris adds with a smile.
That Wednesday, when they meet for coffee, Julian sits Barry down at a small table outside, and says he has an offer to make. Barry appears confused. ‘What kind of offer?’
‘Well, I know you’ve been looking for a new flat.’
‘God, don’t mention it. I saw a place yesterday – it would cost me a fortune in disinfectant to get that clean.’
‘Okay, so Felicity – our barista – you know she’s dating my best friend.’
‘Caitlin, the doctor. Yes.’
‘So those two have been together for approximately nine hundred years, the way I hear them talk...’ Barry laughs. ‘But they’ve finally decided to take the plunge and move in together. Caitlin called the other day to gush about this perfect cottage they found. And that means, Barry, that I know not one but two decent apartments soon to be vacated, and in need of a new tenant.’ Barry’s eyes widen in shock, and a grin breaks through on his face. ‘Are you serious?’
‘Completely. I’ll tell you something else – I asked both of them to take some pictures and write up the details of the place, size, price... all the relevant information. I have it here.’ Julian pulls a small folder from his satchel and hands it over to a beaming Barry. ‘Julian, this is amazing,’ he says, leafing through the pictures. ‘Thank you.’
Julian winks at him. ‘I take it you’re buying me dinner on Saturday.’
‘Dessert, too,’ Barry says, softly brushing his fingers against Julian’s. Julian smiles.
Julian’s nervous. Checks his suit for wrinkles twice, obsessively straightens his tie, brushes cat hair off every available surface, tidies up the flat to an almost clinical degree before deciding it looks too cold, and putting some knick-knacks back where they belong. It’s not the first time they’ve been to dinner together, but it is the first time Barry’s meeting Julian at his flat, and it’s certainly the first time they’re actually calling it a date. There’s been a strange tension in their texts lately and now Julian’s stomach is churning and when is he going to get here? Julian’s phone buzzes just as he reaches for it to check the time. Barry’s texted him.
Gonna be a bit later but I’m on my way. See you soon babe x
Barry doesn’t have a car and Julian’s hardly heard any buses drive by in the past hour, so it’s no wonder he’s having trouble getting here in this weather. The rain has been pouring down for hours and there’s a distinct rumbling in the distance. Julian sends off a quick reply to Barry, then grabs the book he’s reading and attempts to settle down on the couch. But there seems to be no calming his nerves tonight. At long last, there’s a knock at the door. The front door of the building must have been open, because Barry never rang the doorbell. Julian drops his book and rushes to the door. Barry’s in the hallway, his jacket, trousers and shoes wet through, his hair and face soaked, a single white rose clutched to his chest.
Julian smiles widely. ‘Hi! Come in.’ Barry darts forward to press a quick kiss to his cheek, making Julian blush, and offers him the rose. ‘I ran all the way here from the subway station, but at least the rose is mostly dry.’
‘It’s beautiful. Thank you.’ Julian steps back to let Barry in, and then they both laugh when Barry stands there dripping water all over the wooden floor. ‘Let me just find something to put the flower in,’ Julian says, darting into the kitchen and filling up a long drink glass. He puts the rose front and center on the dining table. ‘So I was thinking,’ Julian says just as lightning flashes outside, quickly followed by a thunderclap, ‘Obviously the weather’s... Well, I know we said we’d go out to dinner but maybe we can stay here? And I can cook up some pasta?’
Barry bites his lip for a moment, warmth flaring up in his eyes as he considers Julian’s offer. ‘That sounds perfect.’
And it is, in many ways, a perfect evening. Barry meets Merlin and adores him. They share drinks in the kitchen while Julian cooks the best plate of spaghetti bolognese Barry has ever tasted. ‘Holy shit, are you moonlighting as a chef?’ Julian laughs and regales stories of how his father taught him to cook and it was a slow process but once he got the basics down, he really began to love cooking. He whips up an ice cream dish for dessert and they take it to the red couch in the living room, almost subconsciously sitting down close together. Julian turns down the lights, flicks on the TV and they watch a few episodes of a fairly amusing sitcom. The thunderstorm is still raging outside, the room regularly lit up by lightning casting a strange glow over their faces. Barry’s arm has been around his shoulders for almost an entire episode, and Julian reaches for a blanket and pulls it over their laps, creating an even more homely atmosphere.
Julian looks at Barry, the sitcom forgotten, as the other man plays with a few strands of blond hair and gives him a crooked smile. ‘Have I ever told you that I really, really like you?’ Julian says softly, and Barry shakes his head, nudging ever closer to him, leaning in slowly.
Then Barry’s kissing him, his mouth so impossibly gentle Julian fears he might cry at this perfect feeling.
Time stands still as they kiss.
Barry’s hand comes up to cup the back of Julian’s head. Helpless to resist, Julian flicks his tongue against Barry’s lips, and Barry responds warmly. Eventually they need to pause for breath. They curl up together, Julian’s head on Barry’s chest. ‘Barry?’
‘Do you think we should go on another date?’
‘Maybe,’ Barry says with a grin, entangling his fingers with Julian’s on his chest.
‘How about tomorrow afternoon?’
‘Yes,’ Barry says, ‘But I do have to get some work done. Let me think... if I can drag myself out of bed at a halfway decent hour I should be able to meet up around four. Then we can hang out, as the kids say.’ Julian snorts. ‘Okay.’ He turns over to kiss Barry again, happily melting into his touch.
Later, when they’ve settled into each other’s arms after quite a lot of kissing, Barry says he’s thoroughly studied the details of Felicity and Caitlin’s apartments. ‘Good. So what do you think? Want to come see them?’
‘Of course I do. You knew I would.’ He smiles up at Julian, whose fingers are tracing patterns on Barry’s shoulder and arm. ‘They’re pretty similar in size and floorplan, I think,’ Julian says, and Barry nods. ‘The prices are similar too. Caitlin’s is closer to my work than my current place. On the other hand, Felicity’s –’
‘Is only two blocks away from here,’ Julian adds, his heartbeat picking up the pace.
‘Exactly. And I don’t want to sound presumptuous... but I hope we’ll be spending a lot of time together from now on.’
‘God, me too. And if it helps, Caitlin’s flat is on the third floor and there’s no lift. It’s quite a trek to get your groceries upstairs. You could fit half a supermarket in the lift at Felicity’s.’
‘Mm,’ Barry says, ‘I think it all depends on the feel the place gives me when I actually see it, you know? I’m going to view both and then decide.’
‘I can work with that,’ Julian says, kissing Barry’s temple, ‘Okay, I’ll talk to the girls about visiting. Now, what should we do tomorrow?’ They spend a few moments in quiet contemplation before Barry comes up with an idea. ‘Have you ever been out to Archer’s Wood?’ Julian pulls up a mental map of Central City, but he can’t place the name. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever even heard of it, to be honest.’
‘It’s a small forest about half an hour out of town. Joe used to take us there when we were kids – it’s beautiful, and quiet.’
‘Alright, let’s go. I’ll pick you up at four.’
‘Great. What time is it?’ Julian glances at his watch. ‘Just gone midnight.’
‘Ugh. I hate to say it, but...’
‘Noooo,’ Julian says, pouting convincingly. Barry laughs and reaches up to kiss him, and that’s another ten minutes gone. Reluctantly they untangle themselves from each other and Barry picks up his coat. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I thought we’d had fun before, but tonight... That was something else.’
Julian laughs. ‘It’s only the beginning, right?’ Barry nods seriously. ‘Absolutely.’
They say goodbye with a lingering kiss on the doormat in the hallway. Eventually, Barry forces himself to leave. ‘Nice catch,’ Julian’s nosy neighbour smirks in passing. Julian responds with a dreamy smile. ‘Isn’t he just?’
Barry wishes he had the guts to dance down the street to the bus stop. The rain has let up and the air smells damp and new. He’s got to wait a while for a night bus to arrive, which makes him think of Felicity’s apartment, a five minute walk away from Julian’s. It would be perfect. Living closer to work would be really good too though. He could sleep in more and go to work on foot. It’ll all depend on the way the apartments feel, then. By the time the bus arrives, Barry’s quite cold, the night chillier than he anticipated. His phone rings just as he steps into his apartment building.
Did you get home okay? X
Barry smiles. He could get used to Julian worrying about him. He replies as soon as he’s inside his own flat.
Just got here. Thanks for a great night x
The first of many, I hope. Now go to sleep so you’ll be ready on time tomorrow x
Bossy much? Goodnight x
Barry shoots his reply back with a grin. He putters around for a while getting ready for bed, and reluctantly sets his alarm for eight o’clock. Closing his eyes, he recalls the feeling of Julian’s arms around him, and the knowledge that the other man is thinking about him too sends him off to sleep swiftly.
He only hits the snooze button twice the next morning, which counts as a victory in Barry’s book. His kitchen is bathing in early morning sunlight so he opens a window to let some fresh air in. Lovely day for a trip to the woods, Barry thinks as he puts bread in the toaster and scours his cupboards for some marmalade. He mentally runs through his to-do list for today. Write out correct answers for juniors’ English resits. List target knowledge and skills for freshman geography. Get started on new geography course. The chances of him finishing all of this by four are very slim indeed but hey, a guy’s new boyfriend takes priority.
Collecting his art supplies is like meditation for Julian. It’s how he gets his creative process started – works every time. He changes into his painting clothes, puts up an empty canvas, organises his brushes by size and his paint by colour. Julian starts off by mixing some different blues and then layers red in slowly, creating an angry sea on his canvas.
Julian paints all day, not taking a break until Merlin wanders by on the table, playfully batting at Julian’s paintbrushes. ‘Tss, you know I don’t like it when you do that,’ Julian says, lifting the cat down to the floor. ‘Meow,’ Merlin responds plaintively, winding himself around Julian’s legs. With a fond sigh, Julian puts down his brush to go feed his cat. He makes himself a few sandwiches while he’s at it, and eats them on the couch, thinking about Barry.
Four o’clock is rapidly drawing nearer, so Julian gets in the shower and changes into jeans and a T-shirt with sturdy shoes and a warm jacket. Barry’s probably never seen him this casually attired. ‘Catch you later,’ he calls out to Merlin, who’s now curled up in his favourite chair, blinking lazily at Julian.
Barry’s leaning against the outer wall of his building, soaking up the sun. His smile widens when Julian pulls up in Rosario. He feels a little hesitant about how to greet Barry, but the other man has no such qualms, climbing into the car and leaning over to kiss him happily. ‘Hi,’ Julian says softly. ‘Why hello,’ Barry responds, pulling back, ‘Ready for a field trip?’
‘You bet,’ Julian says, pulling out into the busy traffic, ‘Show me the way, Mr Allen.’
Barry laughs, and starts giving directions.
During the drive, Julian catches Barry staring at him several times. A blush threatens to take over his face, so he gestures to Barry’s backpack and says, ‘What’s in your bag?’
‘Sandwiches, a couple of drinks, a pack of cookies –’
Julian grins. ‘You brought a picnic? That’s adorable.’
‘It’s not a picnic!’ Barry seems agitated. ‘I just thought – we might get hungry.’
‘We might,’ Julian agrees, ‘I’m glad you thought of food.’
‘It’s only a picnic if you bring a blanket.’ Barry insists on driving his point home.
‘Oh, but that’s no issue, I have an old blanket in the boot of the car.’
‘God damn it, Julian.’
The forest is certainly in a remote location. Barry makes Julian drive down a long lane that appears untouched by human hand, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s a paved road. There are no houses, no cars, no people. Only a handful of trees here and there. ‘I hate to ask,’ Julian says, ‘but are we lost?’
‘No. Just a little further.’ Barry peers down the road, concentrating to make sure he doesn’t miss the sign he’s looking for.
‘In case you’re planning to murder me in a remote forest,’ Julian says in a (perhaps misguided) attempt to relieve the tension, ‘I’d like to point out that I spent two years in the military.’ Barry laughs. ‘What haven’t you done?’
‘Never been to the moon,’ Julian replies immediately.
‘Did you want to?’
‘Of course. I wanted to be an astronaut, like you were going to be a superhero.’
‘And here we are,’ Barry says, ‘Lawyer and teacher.’
‘Funny old world, isn’t it?’ Julian says, just as an ancient wooden sign reading Ar h r’s Wo d => appears by the side of the road. ‘There!’ Barry says, ‘Turn right here. Damn, half the letters have faded since I was last here.’ The road seems to have faded too, reduced to loose gravel leading straight into the woods.
‘Barry, what godforsaken place have you brought us to?’
Barry laughs. ‘Stop worrying, Julian. Where’s your sense of adventure?’
It might make Julian nervous to be this far away from civilisation in a car that hasn’t always been a hundred percent reliable, but he can’t argue with the gorgeous nature all around him. Barry confidently leads him through the forest, looking for a place he remembers. ‘There’s a little stream around here somewhere with a clearing... it was so beautiful. This way, I think.’ He pulls on Julian’s hand and they break into a light run just because they can.
Then they find the clearing.
‘Wow,’ Julian whispers, grinding to a halt under the canopy of trees. Barry’s positively beaming, the sunlight striking his face just so, and they can hear the rush of water from the stream. ‘You like it?’ Barry asks, almost rhetorically. Julian laughs and nods, exploring the clearing.
‘Why is it called Archer’s Wood, d’you think?’ Julian asks, patting the trunk of an old tree. Barry knows this, apparently. ‘There’s a local legend about an ancient archer haunting these parts. Don’t worry, I’m sure she probably won’t bother us.’
‘Hmm,’ Julian says, backing Barry up against a tree, ‘Maybe we should make it clear we’re not looking for company. Just in case.’ Barry laughs, surprised, pulling Julian close. ‘Do you get off on ghost stories? Well, that’s good to know.’ Julian stiffens momentarily in his arms, then relaxes again. He gently pushes Barry’s shoulders against the rough bark, and then they’re kissing. Julian leads the kiss, keeping his hands on Barry’s shoulders and stretching out his thumbs to stroke them down his neck. Barry clings to Julian’s waist and happily accepts Julian’s tongue into his mouth.
They keep kissing for some time, getting used to each other’s touch. Julian takes a liking to Barry’s neck, slowly moving his mouth down his jaw to press a series of kisses there. Barry can barely suppress a gasp, and Julian laughs, breathless, and brings their mouths together again.
‘You going to use that against me now?’ Barry asks when they pause for breath and Julian’s fingers stay on his sensitive neck. ‘Absolutely,’ Julian replies with warmth in his eyes. Barry runs his hands down Julian’s sides until he touches upon a ticklish spot. ‘Aha,’ he grins. Julian swears under his breath even as he bursts out laughing. By way of a counterattack, he grabs hold of Barry’s wrists to keep him in check while they kiss. ‘Okay, I want that picnic now,’ Julian whispers against his mouth. ‘Yeah? Pity we don’t have that blanket.’
‘None of your snark now, Mr Allen,’ Julian says, shrugging out of his jacket and spreading it out on the sunniest spot in the clearing. Barry gives him a serious look. ‘I think the moss might stain your jacket if you leave it there.’
‘It’s an old coat. I don’t care,’ Julian says, sitting down and stretching out a hand to encourage Barry to join him. They have to sit really close to fit on the jacket without staining their other clothes, but that’s part of the fun. Barry takes out the food and they eat leaning against each other, exchanging smalltalk. Julian finds a packet of sweets in a side pocket of Barry’s backpack and decides to feed his boyfriend some, stroking his fingers over Barry’s mouth. Barry’s not immune to such blatant attempts at seduction, and they’re kissing again soon, moaning softly.
Barry and Julian stay in the clearing for another hour, pressed together closely, kissing more often than not, exploring this new and wonderful thing between them. In the early evening, they head back to Central City and get caught in the rush hour traffic.
‘Damn, there go the beneficial effects of our time spent out there,’ Julian grumbles, impatiently drumming his fingers on the wheel until Barry’s hand covers his own, stilling him. ‘It’s okay, love. We have time.’
The air in the car feels heavier when Julian glances at Barry, surprised and happy about the term of endearment. Barry gives him a shy smile, and the traffic jam doesn’t matter at all anymore.
Come Monday morning, Julian’s walking on a cloud.
His favourite coffee has never tasted so rich, toasted bread and butter never so lush. Whatever he throws on looks great, his tie cooperates perfectly and he barely needs to touch his hair. There’s no hint of a traffic jam on his way to work, he gets an actually interesting case on his desk first thing, and Barry occasionally texts him sweet nothings throughout the day. Spencer temporarily busts his bubble when she tells him the deadline on this new case is next week, but then he shrugs and draws up a work plan to get it done in plenty of time. He’s not about to let anything stop him today.
When Julian gets home, he feeds Merlin, puts some lasagna in the oven, and calls Caitlin. She answers on the second ring. He leads into the subject by telling her Barry’s interested in viewing both apartments, and then adds, ‘By the way, Barry and I are together now.’ Caitlin reacts with a surprised, undignified squeal, then pulls herself together and grills him on the details of their dates. ‘Well then, how about you and your boyfriend drop by on Wednesday night to view my place, and maybe have a drink?’
‘Okay. I’ll ask Barry if that works for him and let you know.’ Caitlin tells him a bit more about the cottage she and Felicity signed a lease on, and they keep chatting until Julian’s lasagna is ready. Right after dinner, he texts Barry.
Caitlin says grand tour of her place + drinks Wednesday night. OK for you? X
Yes. Oh god I’m going to meet your BFF I’m nervous already x
Don’t worry. She’ll like you x
‘Oh my god!’ Felicity squeals happily that Tuesday, when Julian and Barry stroll into her coffee shop holding hands. ‘Does Caitlin know about this?’ she demands, hugging Julian tight and then hugging Barry too, because why wouldn’t she?
‘Yes,’ Julian says, laughing, ‘So I’m sorry, you’re too late to break the news.’
‘Damn,’ Felicity pouts, ‘What’ll it be to celebrate? Coffee’s on me today, boys.’
‘Oh, well, in that case, I’ll have something with chocolate, hazelnut syrup and whipped cream,’ Julian says with a smirk. Felicity shakes her head at his decadent demand. ‘Should I chuck in some marshmallows too?’
‘While you’re at it. And Barry will have the same, won’t you, love?’
‘Sure. In fact, leave the coffee out of mine entirely.’
‘You two are going to be on a sugar rush all evening.’
‘Hey, you offered,’ Julian said.
Wednesday night, Julian rings the doorbell at seven o’clock sharp. ‘I’m not ready yet,’ Barry calls through the crackling intercom, ‘Come on up to the second floor.’ Julian takes the stairs one floor up and finds himself in a cramped hallway. One of the four doors is ajar, and Barry pulls it open as Julian approaches. ‘Hey, come in.’
‘I’m sorry about my... inappropriate attire,’ Barry says as Julian takes note of his bare feet and his dark red bathrobe, tied loosely at the waist and revealing some very enticing skin.
‘I think it’s absolutely scandalous,’ Julian says, drawing Barry into a hug, ‘to be receiving guests so scantily clad.’ He clearly doesn’t mind in the slightest, because he crowds Barry against the nearest wall and kisses him hard. ‘Mm, Jules,’ Barry mutters into his mouth. The nickname tempts Julian into smiling and sliding one hand underneath Barry’s robe to caress his shoulder. Barry moans and pulls him into the living room, crashing both of them down onto his couch. His bare legs tangle together with Julian’s as they kiss and touch. Eventually, Julian pulls back, out of breath, and Barry says, ‘What time did you tell Caitlin we’d be there?’ They both glance at the large clock on the wall and Julian says, ‘Uh, ten minutes ago.’ There’s some laughter and then Barry’s scrambling up and disappearing down the hall. ‘Just have to get dressed, I’ll be ready in a flash!’ Julian stays seated, using this time to text Caitlin and let her know they’ll be late.
Julian steps on the gas considerably, they have a bit of trouble parking the car, and they’re out of breath by the time they reach the top floor of Caitlin’s apartment building. The hallway is fine, Barry observes. Not too small, nice and clean. Julian knocks on the door and moments later, he disappears into the embrace of his best friend. Caitlin smiles up at Barry, and lets go of Julian to offer her hand to him. ‘Hi, I’m Caitlin.’
‘I’m Barry. Nice to meet you – I heard so much about you.’
‘Isn’t it funny how people always say that?’ Caitlin says with a wink, leading them to her living room. Caitlin likes clean lines, simple designs and the colour white, that much is clear.
‘Is Felicity not around?’ Julian asks.
‘No, she’s at archery club. Said she’d drop by after training, though.’
‘Archery?’ Barry says, surprised, ‘Wow.’ Julian and Caitlin laugh.
‘Okay Barry, let me show you around.’
Caitlin’s apartment is spacious and bright, with large skylights and two sizeable bedrooms. The bathroom and kitchen are rather dark though, as there are no windows in either. ‘I know the bathroom is pretty dingy,’ Caitlin says, ‘but at least it’s painted white now. The walls were dark blue when I first came here. It was awful.’
‘To be fair,’ Julian says, ‘Usually there won’t be three people squeezed in here.’
‘Yeah, that is true,’ Barry concedes, ‘But what about the kitchen? It’s long and narrow, I’m not sure if it’s practical for me.’ They head back there.
‘Do you cook much?’ Caitlin asks.
‘Well, not like Julian, obviously –’
‘Oh, you’ve had the pleasure,’ Caitlin says, smiling.
‘Hey, I know how to treat a guy,’ Julian interjects. Barry grabs hold of his hand and squeezes it softly, before continuing, ‘But yeah, I do cook most days.’
‘Me too,’ Caitlin says, ‘and I agree it’s a bit cramped, but you get used to it quickly. Felicity and I have often cooked here together, actually.’ They take a look at the small balcony and then Caitlin pours them a drink and serves up some crisps and peanuts.
As soon as they’re settled comfortably, Barry’s arm around Julian’s waist, they hear the front door unlock. Moments later, Felicity appears. ‘Hi everyone!’ She drops her handbag and a heavy, large bag on the floor next to the table and pads over to kiss Caitlin enthusiastically. She then turns to Julian and Barry and gives them each a kiss on their cheek. ‘Good to see you somewhere that isn’t my coffee shop, Barry.’ Barry laughs, then points to her bag. ‘Is that your bow?’
‘Yep. Come and see, if you like.’ Within a minute, Felicity is showing him the ins and outs of her black compound bow and Barry is engrossed in the demonstration. Caitlin smiles sweetly at Julian. ‘You’re dating a nerd,’ she says. ‘Yes.’ Julian’s eyes soften when Felicity shows Barry how to draw a bow, and Barry laughs and grunts with effort. ‘Fits right in, doesn’t he?’
The two couples lounge around in Caitlin’s flat while day turns to night, talking and laughing. Felicity convinces Barry to give a detailed account of their first date, but he refuses to talk about the kiss. ‘Oh, come on, Barry,’ Felicity pouts, ‘I’ll tell you about mine if you tell me about yours.’ Barry grins, because Julian’s vaguely mentioned Felicity and Caitlin’s epic first kiss before. ‘At the top of a Ferris wheel, wasn’t it?’ Caitlin laughs at the face Felicity pulls. ‘Damn. There goes my leverage. Fine, Barry, keep your secrets. I’ll wheedle it out of Julian eventually.’
‘No you won’t,’ Julian says.
‘Takes his secrets to the grave, this one,’ Caitlin says shrewdly. Julian smiles faintly.
Around ten, Barry’s phone rings out a cheerful tune. ‘Cisco? At this hour? Sorry guys, I’d better take this.’ Caitlin waves him in the direction of the hallway to answer the phone.
Cisco sounds panicked. ‘Barry, I’m in trouble, I don’t know what to – fuck –’
‘Cisco, what’s wrong?’ Barry’s instantly nervous, because Cisco doesn’t usually sound like this.
‘I locked myself out of the house, what an idiot, I know. Hartley always said I should hide a spare key in the garden – he’s gonna have a field day with this one – and I tried all the locksmiths in the goddamn city but no one’s answering the phone – shit!’
Relieved that it’s not something much worse, Barry says, ‘Doesn’t Hartley have a key?’
‘Yes, but he’s out of town. All the windows are shut, I tried. What am I gonna do, Barry?’
‘Okay, don’t worry about it. You can sleep at mine and get a locksmith in the morning.’
‘Oh man, you are a godsend.’
‘But I’m not at home right now, I can – I can try to be there in half an hour.’
‘You’re not at home? On a Wednesday night? This isn’t the Barry I know. Who are you with?’
‘You’ll see soon enough,’ Barry says with a smirk, and hangs up.
Stepping back into the living room, Barry says, ‘Hey, I’m sorry, but we have to go – I promised my friend Cisco to put him up for the night, he’s locked out of his house.’
‘Yeah, okay,’ Julian says, ‘We’ll go.’ They say goodbye to Caitlin and Felicity, making plans to view Felicity’s place next week, and head back to Julian’s car.
They get in, but Julian doesn’t start the car. Instead, he smiles and leans over to kiss Barry softly, pulling him close in as far as that’s possible with the handbrake knocking into their stomachs. ‘I had fun tonight,’ Barry whispers.
‘Me too,’ Julian says, ‘Absolutely.’ They kiss some more, until Julian pulls back, slightly out of breath, and says, ‘Okay, let’s go. It wouldn’t do to keep your friend waiting for too long.’ Barry smiles and strokes his hand down Julian’s cheek in an endeared gesture.
But Cisco’s not there yet when they get back to Barry’s place. He rings the doorbell not five minutes later and bursts in, letting loose a stream of words. ‘Thanks, Barry, I owe you one, man, I don’t even have my car keys with me, had to take the subway, bunch of creeps on there at this hour, and I probably don’t even have enough cash on me to sleep in that dirty motel on Seventh Street, so anyway, what have you been up to –’ They step into the living room, where Julian is reading the titles of Barry’s extensive book collection.
Both Cisco and Julian freeze when they’re faced with each other. ‘Mr Ramon,’ Julian says politely. ‘Albert,’ Cisco nods. Barry looks from one to the other. ‘Wait, you know each other?’
‘I did some legal work for S.T.A.R. labs last year,’ Julian replies stiffly.
‘Yeah, and a right cock-up you made of it,’ Cisco mutters.
‘Excuse me?’ Julian says slowly. Barry senses danger and tries to intervene. ‘Guys, come on, easy –’
‘Your boss was criminally negligent, Mr Ramon, and a man died because of it. There was no chance in hell of you winning that lawsuit. I did what I could.’ At this point, Barry realises this is about the accident with the particle accelerator exploding. Cisco’s done a lot of work to reinstate S.T.A.R. labs as a trustworthy institution since then. He opens his mouth to keep discussing, but Barry shuts him up with a look. ‘I think it’s best for everyone if we don’t go into this.’
‘Probably,’ Julian concedes. ‘Fine,’ Cisco says gruffly, ‘New friend, Barry?’
Barry coughs, uncomfortable with the unexpected animosity between these two. ‘Uh, boyfriend actually.’ Cisco snorts, apparently amused by this news. Julian’s temper flares up immediately. ‘What? I suppose a second-rate lawyer like me isn’t good enough for Barry?’
‘Actually, I was laughing cause I’d always pegged you as straight. But now that you mention it -’
‘Cut it out, both of you,’ Barry snaps. Julian’s never heard him use that tone of voice before, and it calms him down. ‘I think it’s best if I go now. Goodnight, Mr Ramon.’ They exchange a terse nod and Julian disappears into the hallway. Barry rushes after him. He vaguely hears Cisco close the door to give them some privacy.
‘Julian, wait, wait.’ He puts a warm hand on Julian’s arm. ‘What’s happening here? Are you – leaving?’ Barry’s voice cracks on the last word and Julian’s eyes widen when he catches Barry’s meaning. ‘What? No, no, of course not. I have to work tomorrow, I’m not – I’m not walking out on you, Barry.’ To prove his point, he puts his hands on Barry’s cheeks and kisses him deeply. ‘I don’t want to fight with your friend, that’s all. I promise I’ll be back.’ Barry catches Julian in a tight hug and kisses him goodnight.
Barry goes back to the sitting room and drops onto the couch next to Cisco without a word. The other man is clearly uncomfortable with what happened.
‘Shit, I’m sorry, Bar. I didn’t mean to spoil your evening.’ Barry sighs, says nothing. ‘I’m just angry because Dr Wells is in prison. It’s not Julian’s fault, I know that.’ He eyes Barry carefully. ‘Was he supposed to sleep over?’
Barry shakes his head. ‘No, er, we’re... new. Very new.’
‘Give me your phone,’ Cisco says, when he’s had enough of Barry’s sad expression, ‘and I’ll apologise to him.’
‘Really?’ Barry’s face clears up.
A week later, Barry’s first impression is that Felicity’s flat is as cluttered as Caitlin’s was clean. His second impression is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is the place. He likes everything about it: the large wardrobe in the hall, the combined living room and kitchen, the sleek, modern fireplace, the view of a small park from the balcony four floors up, and the wide hallway leading to the bedrooms and bathroom. Everyone can tell Barry’s smitten with the place. ‘When would you be moving in?’ Felicity asks. Barry tears his eyes off the trees outside and says, ‘I have to leave my flat by September first.’
‘I think that’ll work nicely,’ Caitlin says, ‘We get the key to the cottage on August first, so that gives us two weeks to move out and you two weeks to move in, right?’ Barry nods happily, and Julian pulls him against his side and presses a kiss to his cheek. Felicity’s rooting through several drawers of her desk, leaving even more chaos in her wake when she finally finds what she’s been looking for. ‘Here. My landlord’s number. You better start making arrangements.’
The summer goes by quickly. Barry keeps busy preparing for the move and writing his courses while Julian is at work. They spend almost every evening together, strolling by the river, stopping for dinner or drinks, going to the movies or the pool, and quite often they just stay at one of their apartments to talk, play board games, watch TV and kiss.
There’s a lot of kissing.
Barry finds it refreshing to be with a guy who doesn’t want to sleep with him straight away. It’s much more enjoyable to spend all these wonderful hours together exploring their relationship and it’ll only make the eventual sex more intense. They haven’t really spoken about it, but Julian, too, seems thrilled about their slow progress.
Barry, Iris and Wally drive to Coast City for a long weekend of sibling bonding. Admittedly, their bonding mainly involves eating, drinking and lazing around, but it’s very relaxing and Barry takes a ton of awkward selfies to send to Julian. Iris and Wally tease him about missing his boyfriend and list ever more outrageous reasons why Barry hasn’t introduced Julian to them yet. ‘Is he a known criminal? Has Dad arrested him?’ Iris asks with a twinkle in her eyes.
‘No, I expect he’s married to someone else. A woman!’ Wally exclaims like he’s never heard anything so scandalous in his life. Iris shakes her head. ‘It could be something much simpler. Maybe Julian is painfully shy. We know he’s not ugly, because Cecile told us he really does look like his profile picture...’
‘God!’ Barry says, exasperated, ‘This is why I haven’t introduced him, you two simply can’t behave when it comes to my relationships.’
‘Oh come on,’ Iris pouts, ‘We’re just concerned siblings.’
‘Concerned? You two love to torture me, that’s what I know.’ They all laugh. ‘I’ll bring him to the Christmas party,’ Barry says eventually, an event suitably far in the future so Julian might be resistant to their teasing by then. ‘I suppose we’ll take that if it’s the best we’re going to get,’ Wally sighs, faking reluctance.
For the first time in his life, Julian truly feels like he’s won the lottery. The weather is nice, his job has become more interesting lately, he’s spent quite some time drawing with Merlin napping on his lap, and he even signed up for an advanced horseback riding course on a whim. He wasn’t sure about the advanced part at first, but the instructor let him ride a horse so she could see his skills, and she said he wouldn’t have a problem. It might have been a while, but Julian still knows how to communicate with a horse, especially the kind-hearted mare he now rides every week. Barry was thrilled to hear about this and he occasionally accompanies Julian to the riding school.
Barry, it must be said, occupies much of his time and most of his thoughts. It feels unreal, the two of them together. Almost too good to be true. The honeymoon period, Caitlin calls it lovingly. Except that they’re missing out on one thing typically involved in honeymoons.
He’s aware, of course, that he can’t avoid this problem forever. At some point, Barry will want more than kissing and touches that rarely reach under their clothes, and Julian doesn’t know if he’ll be able to give more. Barry’s soft touches and whispered endearments are a world away from Aidan’s crass idea of seduction, but still the fear of being used and humiliated like that again clings to Julian’s heart.
July turns to August and Julian happily helps Barry pack up his stuff for the move. They’ll be able to fit everything in Julian’s car if he makes the trip a few times, and Cisco’s offered to borrow the S.T.A.R. labs van to move the furniture so Barry doesn’t need to rent a moving van. Cisco and Julian have been nothing but polite to each other when they’ve occasionally met.
For Julian’s birthday, Barry buys him a simple, beautiful watch. Julian wasn’t expecting a gift at all, and his whole face lights up when he’s handed a small gift-wrapped box. ‘Happy twenty-seventh,’ Barry says, ‘I noticed you never wear one.’
‘Barry,’ Julian breathes, awestruck, ‘It’s gorgeous, it’s... but it’s too much.’ Barry laughs. ‘Relax, Julian. I bought it at the mall, it’s not some ridiculously expensive designer watch.’ Relieved, Julian smiles. ‘Thank you. Mine broke and I never replaced it.’ He pulls the watch out of its box and allows Barry to put it on him with his gentle hands.
Caitlin and Felicity move into their charming cottage and have Barry and Julian over for a housewarming party that lasts until three in the morning, even if there’s only four of them. Fortunately, Julian had counted on the copious amounts of booze his friends would serve, and he’d insisted on coming by taxi. Presumably the taxi driver who has to put up with Barry and Julian giggling and making out in the backseat is less pleased with this turn of events.
Barry takes Julian to the beach several times. They make a day of it, catching the train to Coast City instead of driving, bringing snacks, lounging around on the beach until it gets too hot and then heading into the water for a swim. The first time they’re in the ocean together, Barry wraps his arms around Julian’s waist, puts his chin on the smaller man’s shoulder, and says, ‘Look at that. Nothing but water, all the way to Europe.’
Julian laughs. ‘Think we can see England from here?’
‘I’ll bring binoculars next time,’ Barry says seriously. Then, ‘Have you been back since you moved here?’
‘A few times, but it’s never a great success when I visit my parents. It’s like Emma kept our family together and now we no longer have anything to say to each other. Especially since they’re not exactly cool with this.’ Julian gestures to Barry’s tight hold on him.
‘Do you get lonely?’ Barry drops a kiss on his shoulder as he asks. Julian shrugs. ‘I’ve always been good by myself. I don’t really mind.’ He snorts briefly. ‘Plenty going on inside my own head, you know?’ He turns around to meet Barry’s mouth, the water lapping at their hips as they kiss.
Julian invites Barry to a concert by an indie rock band he really loves. Having never heard of Castle Rock Township MN before, Barry does a bit of research online and decides their music is fine, if not entirely to his taste. Seeing the band live does wonders for his opinion, though. ‘God they’re good,’ he whispers into Julian’s ear during a short interval. ‘Told you, didn’t I?’ Julian replies swiftly. They’re at a small concert venue in a suburb, and it makes sense. Barry can’t see Julian enjoying himself pressed inbetween thousands of people at a festival. The music is soft and wistful and pretty depressing. It claws at his heart and soul and he can see tears on Julian’s cheeks. Worried, he turns to his boyfriend, but Julian waves him off. ‘I just feel a lot sometimes, it’s okay.’ Julian hasn’t been to many concerts, so he’s not very familiar with the thrill of live music – he was unprepared for the way he would feel it all the way down to his toes. But he’s happy that he can feel it this way.
Julian’s thrilled about the total solar eclipse taking place near the end of the summer. He planned to take the day off months ago, pouted at Caitlin until she agreed to let him hang out in her garden instead of joining a mass gathering of people or trying to watch it from his balcony, and gushed to Barry until he shared his boyfriend’s enthusiasm. Now they’re comfortably settling into two lounge chairs in the lush garden of Caitlin and Felicity’s cottage. It’s late afternoon, they’ve got protective glasses, drinks and snacks, and most importantly of all: the sun’s out. ‘We’re not likely to see this ever again,’ Julian reiterates and Barry smiles at him, raising his glass of orange juice in a toast. ‘To us.’
‘Absolutely,’ Julian agrees, and they lean back to watch the sun disappear slowly, their fingers entangled in the grass between their chairs. The air grows darker and all the birds go eerily quiet when the eclipse nears its totality. There’s an almost magical moment when the sun is totally gone before a ring of light bursts out. Barry barely notices Julian harshly squeezing his hand. Both men are completely awed by the spectacle in the sky. Felicity joins them as soon as she gets home from work, flat on her back in the grass. Nobody says a word until the sun is halfway to reappearing. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ Barry whispers, and his two companions can only agree wholeheartedly.
Early that night, Julian calls his grandmother, positively itching to tell her about the eclipse. Rose is the person who taught him how to watch the stars, after all. She’s enthusiastic about his report, and asks what he’s been doing this summer. ‘Painting, working, I finally got back to riding a horse. And I’ve spent a lot of time with Barry.’
‘Of course,’ Rose says brightly, ‘Your friend Barry.’
And Julian laughs, and tells her everything.
Barry moves to Felicity’s old apartment on a clear Monday morning in late August. Cisco’s already brought most of the furniture over during the weekend, and Julian and Barry spent their Sunday evening picnicking in the middle of Barry’s now almost empty living room. There was definitely a certain romance to this, even if making out on the floor wrecked their backs. ‘God we’re getting old,’ Barry muttered, ‘I used to do all my best work sitting on the floor surrounded by books.’ Julian laughed, and suggested they move to the bedroom for comfort, then blushed and added, ‘I really mean for comfort, not for sex.’ Barry smiled and nodded, dropping down on his bed and pulling Julian on top of him.
The memory still makes Julian a little nervous. It really did sound like he was propositioning Barry, and he doesn’t mean to lead him on. Sooner or later, this situation will boil over, and he already fears that confrontation won’t end well. But for now, it’s a brand new day as he loads boxes full of Barry’s wordly possessions into Rosario and drives to Mermaid Lane, which is a gorgeous address that Julian, who lives on Fifty-Fourth Street, can only be jealous of. Barry’s still at his old place packing up the last things and taking strange, wistful pictures of an empty apartment, but he’s given Julian the keys. He gutsily parks right in front of the door, crosses his fingers so no police will pass by and fills the lift up with boxes. A woman with a noisy child pushes her way in at the last minute and glares at Julian for taking up so much space. ‘Sorry about that,’ Julian says brightly, ‘I’m helping my boyfriend move in.’ Bad call, apparently, as the woman’s expression turns downright angry. Brilliant – Barry hasn’t even moved in yet and Julian’s already met a homophobic neighbour. Fortunately she gets out on the second floor.
Well, if he’s carrying boxes in anyway, Julian might as well take them into the correct rooms while he’s got them. Barry’s neatly marked every box, so it’s easy enough to do. He hasn’t been to Felicity’s place often, so it’ll be easy to adapt to the idea of Barry living here instead, close to Julian. Within reach whenever they want – the sense of freedom makes his head spin. They’ve been together for two months now, an occasion they marked with a stupidly expensive dinner at a place Barry’s sister recommended for ‘special dates’. They’re not likely to go back – the bill almost brought tears to their eyes and the pathetic amount of food actually left them hungry at the end of the night.
No, the second part of that date was much better, Julian muses as he locks up the flat to go fetch Barry and the rest of his stuff. He recalls them making out on that infernal red couch of his (it always seems to set them off) for hours. Barry’s fingers gently creeping under his shirt, brushing his nipples, that delicious mouth moving over his neck as Julian arches into his touch and pleads for more. Julian probably shouldn’t be thinking about this while he drives, because it’s very distracting.
‘Ready to go?’ Barry’s on the balcony, admiring the old view for the last time, and he beckons Julian over, wanting to kiss him in here once more. Julian goes willingly and they melt together, out there in the fresh air not far above street level. It feels surprisingly exhibitionistic and free. Then Julian’s leading him inside, picking up the final two boxes, and Barry follows him. He turns off the light, and closes the door behind them.
It’s the first week of September and the weather is downright dreary. Barry pulls the hood of his sweater over his head and rushes through the rain to get to Julian’s place quickly. Bless his new flat being so close to his boyfriend’s. He already knows they’re going to take advantage of this every chance they get. He’s lucky tonight – the front door of Julian’s building is unlocked, so he doesn’t have to wait outside for Julian to buzz him in. Barry goes straight upstairs.
‘Hi,’ Julian says, ‘Come in.’ Barry leans in to peck him on the mouth and give him a hug. He feels tense in Barry’s arms. ‘Be warned, I had a shit day at work.’ Barry smiles. ‘That’s okay. I’m probably not gonna hate you for being in a mood.’ Julian grabs hold of Barry’s hand and leads him to his red couch. They settle down and Julian crawls into Barry’s arms. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Barry says softly, pressing a kiss to his temple. Julian shakes his head. ‘I’d rather just forget all about it. How was your day?’
‘Fairly ordinary. Sent two kids to the principal for fighting. He gave them detention that I have to supervise tomorrow. I might make them do a bunch of screenshots of my Powerpoints, you know how I hate doing that.’
‘That sounds like a plan,’ Julian agrees, ‘Oh, how did your class on healthy food go?’ Barry snorts. ‘Fine, up until the point when a student spotted the Mars bars in my bag. That put a bit of a dampener on the whole thing.’ Julian laughs heartily. ‘I told you before, you need to get a box to put your sweets in. Now you just sound like that teacher who says Do as I say, not as I do.’
‘That’s cause I am that teacher. God, those Mars bars were good, even after seeing an hour long documentary about the detrimental effects of sugar on our health.’
‘It’s all just twisted statistics, anyway, isn’t it?’
‘Absolutely,’ Barry says, both of them lying through their teeth. ‘This is making me hungry.’
‘I’ve got some chocolates stashed away,’ Julian says, getting up to fetch them from the kitchen. Chocolate makes everything better, so Julian talks about his bad day, snuggling up to Barry, who can tell he’s still tense. Then he gets an idea.
‘Remember that time you talked me to sleep? When we’d only just met?’ Julian laughs. ‘Yes. You were so weirded out.’
‘Yes, I was. But you helped me unwind. And now I want to help you unwind.’
Julian bites his lip and gives Barry a curious look. ‘How?’ Barry strokes a single finger down Julian’s spine, evoking a shudder from the other man. ‘Would you like a massage?’ He hesitates for only a moment before saying, ‘Yes. I’d love that.’
‘Okay, lie down on your stomach.’ Julian kicks off his slippers and settles comfortably on the sofa, his head on a pillow and his feet on the armrest. Barry tries to figure out multiple ways to do this but he can only think of one, so he says, ‘The easiest way is if I straddle you. Is that okay?’ Julian snorts out a laugh. ‘Only if you take your shoes off.’ Barry takes his socks off, too, just for good measure. He moves around a bit until he’s comfortably seated across Julian’s hips, and slides his hands over his shoulders. With slow, confident movements he works Julian’s muscles loose through the silky fabric of – well. This would work better skin-on-skin. That’s just... science. It’s not a lame excuse at all.
Barry bends over and hears a sharp intake of breath. ‘Can I take your shirt off?’ Barry breathes into his ear, and Julian nods, shivers when Barry’s hands slide under him to unbutton the shirt. His fingers brush Julian’s chest in all manner of delicious ways as he works his way down. It’s not easy to take a shirt off someone who’s lying down this way, but their laughter and twisting movements serve to break the heavy tension between them. Keep it together, Barry. You promised him a massage. They return to their previous positions. Barry hasn’t seen Julian’s naked back since they went to the pool, and this time he’s allowed to touch. That thought stirs heady anticipation in his gut even as he reaches out to trace Julian’s shoulderblades with his fingers. Barry pays careful attention to Julian’s reactions as he kneads the other man’s back. At first he just sighs happily, but as he becomes more relaxed, he lets out a few almost-moans and then when Barry strokes his spine, a whimper that will be Barry’s undoing. He loses his focus and leans forward, registering a soft gasp from Julian and then an actual moan when Barry kisses the top of his spine. He keeps at it, slowly tracing a path all the way down Julian’s back with his mouth, his nose, and his hands. Julian’s soft, pleased whimpers fuel the heat spreading through Barry’s body.
He moves back up, occasionally flicking his tongue against heated skin, Julian becoming ever more responsive. When Barry reaches his neck and peppers it with kisses, Julian groans and twists his head around, angling for a kiss. Barry gladly obliges, kneeling up to let Julian turn over so they can kiss comfortably. Julian slides his tongue into Barry’s mouth, his hands under Barry’s shirt, his bare feet over Barry’s. He then pulls back a fraction, keeping Barry’s shirt bunched in his fists, and breathes, ‘I want to see you, too.’ Quickly, Barry sits up and throws off the offending item of clothing. Julian’s strong arms pull him back down so their naked chests press together at last, and everything becomes a blur of heat, skin, hands and mouths. Barry won’t let himself touch anywhere below the belt, even though he can feel Julian is hard and wanting just like he is, and he’s not sure if taking it slow is really the best thing for them... But then Julian stops moving beneath him and lets out a broken whimper before saying urgently, ‘Stop, Barry, we have to stop.’
Barry stills instantly, taking some of his weight off Julian. ‘Are you okay?’ he says, breathing heavily, his voice thick with concern. Julian nods, his eyes closed as if he’s afraid of what Barry might see in them. ‘Yes. I’ll be fine. I’m sorry, I just got... overwhelmed. I need a bit of space to wrap my head around this.’
‘Do you want me to go?’ Barry says. Julian’s eyes fly open. ‘No. No, stay. Let’s just watch a movie or something.’
‘Okay,’ Barry says, getting up and putting his shirt back on. He hands Julian his own burgundy dress shirt and then reaches for the TV remote. At least Julian’s not mad at him, judging by the way he cuddles up close to Barry for the remainder of the evening. Barry brushes his fingers through Julian’s hair tentatively, trying to soothe, trying to tell him it’s alright. ‘Julian,’ he says after a while, ‘Your tattoo, what does it mean?’ He’s referring to the tiny infinity symbol on Julian’s left shoulder – his only tattoo, as far as Barry has seen. Julian gives him a sad smile. ‘Emma and I, we always said we’d love each other to infinity and beyond. So when she died... Well, it seemed appropriate.’ Barry nods, shifts in his seat so he can push the waistband of his trousers down a bit to reveal two names intricately entangled on his left hip. Julian leans forward to study the tattoo. ‘Henry and Nora. Your parents?’
‘Yes. Isn’t it funny that we both have memorial tattoos?’
‘It’s sad that we both need them,’ Julian says, and that’s the last they say about the subject that night.
Over the next two weeks, getting shirtless together quickly becomes a part of their increasingly heated relationship that neither of them would want to miss. There is suddenly so much more skin to explore that it seems overwhelming at first, but they have time, lots of it. Julian seems to crave Barry’s touch to an almost scary degree now. Barry can’t be sure how, but he must have finally earned Julian’s trust.
It’s Saturday afternoon, and Barry has, at long last, agreed to pose for Julian. It took some convincing, since Barry hates sitting still, but once Julian told him he could just correct tests and he’d draw him while he worked, Barry gave in. He’s nearly done with his correction work now, which hasn’t happened in a while (roughly since he started seeing Julian) and Julian’s still working on his drawing, his sketchpad on his lap and a large collection of pencils strewn all around him. ‘How does it look?’ Barry says curiously. ‘Nearly done,’ Julian replies distractedly, adding some more shading. He collects his pencils from all over the couch and puts them back in their pencilcase. ‘Here, you can look now.’ He passes the drawing over. It’s unmistakeably Barry, caught en profil with his red pen touching the corner of his mouth, a little frown marring his forehead, and a small mark on his neck. ‘You drew the –’ Startled, Barry brings his fingers up to his neck to touch the bruise Julian left there last night. ‘You drew the hickey?’ Julian coughs, averting his eyes, and sputters, ‘Yes, well, it’s a portrait, I drew you the way you look to me right now –’ Barry cuts him off with a kiss, wrapping Julian in his arms. ‘How very kinky of you,’ he says with a wide grin. Julian laughs, kisses him back and happily lets Barry push him down on the couch. As usual, the situation escalates quickly.
How many times have they made out on this couch or the one in Barry’s apartment? How many times have they started something Julian never let them finish? How many times have they been here, tangled up with hands and legs everywhere, undoing buttons and pulling at clothes? More importantly, how long will Barry still be prepared to put up with this without anything actually happening between them? Julian grows restless under Barry’s ministrations. He knows the telltale hitch in Barry’s throat, the darkened colour of his eyes, the way his hands squeeze at Julian’s hips. All these things only emphasise how turned on Barry is, and Julian’s not even quite sure why he does it, but he tangles his fingers in Barry’s hair and pushes him down to his chest. Barry doesn’t hesitate, he simply sets about marking Julian’s skin with lovebites. ‘I want you,’ Julian groans. Barry briefly pulls away from his onslaught on the other man’s collarbone. ‘Yeah?’ he says softly. Julian nods, nerves coiling in his gut. Barry leans in for a kiss, then pulls him upright. ‘Take me to your bedroom.’
Julian’s forcing the issue. He knows he is – he knows this venture is destined for disaster, but still he keeps hold of Barry’s hand, leading him down the hallway. Still he keeps hold of the hope that all his problems will solve themselves once they’re finally naked together. He falls back onto the bed easily, dragging Barry along to settle on top of him, and they kiss deeply. Barry is as gentle and caring as ever, slowly undressing Julian and exploring every inch of his skin. ‘So beautiful,’ he mutters into the trail of blond hairs on Julian’s stomach. ‘Been wanting to do this for so long, Jules, you have no idea.’ Julian chokes out a laugh. Panic rises in his veins. Oh shit no not now fuck what am I going to do. He’s never had this problem before, didn’t panic when Aidan was undressing me, didn’t even panic during sex, not until after... He’s breathing heavily, and he knows Barry will only translate this as excitement as he moves his head down to nip at the skin of Julian’s inner thighs, his hands tracing a path just underneath the waistband of his pants.
He needs to stop this. He has to say it whether he wants to or not. ‘Barry,’ he says, and it comes out as a small whimper. ‘I can’t – please.’ Barry pulls away with worried eyes. ‘Julian?’
‘I can’t,’ he begs, ‘Don’t make me.’ He knows Barry doesn’t understand, he can see his own panic reflected on Barry’s face and wipes at the tears escaping his eyes. ‘Julian, no, of course I won’t make you do anything you don’t want.’ He rolls off Julian, settles down next to him and tries to soothe his inexplicable panic. ‘What’s wrong?’ Barry asks gently. Julian doesn’t know what to say, so he keeps quiet. Barry’s stroking his arm now, up and down in a rhythmic motion, and suddenly, Julian finds his touch unbearable. He sharply jerks his body away from Barry’s. ‘Stop it,’ he snaps, and he can see Barry’s eyes go cold.
Ten minutes later, Julian’s listlessly picking up his clothes from all over the place. He tried, and he choked, and now he feels so goddamned alone. Barry’s gone, and you can’t just go around calling a guy you kicked out of your bed. Barry’s angry, and he won’t have a clue what went wrong, he only knows that Julian freaks out every time things get heated between them. And he looked so hurt when Julian begged Barry not to make him talk about it. ‘Don’t you trust me?’ he said, with tears in his eyes. Julian turned away to hide the fact he was crying, too, and the next thing he heard was the door to his flat falling shut. And only then had Julian whispered, ‘No, Barry, please stay.’ Too late, always too late.
Caitlin comes over and asks no questions. She can’t bear to see him panicking like this, shaking and crying and curled up on the couch. She asks him if he has any medication that will help him ‘calm his shit down’ and he tells her the name of his over-the-counter tranquillisers. She makes him swallow two, tells him to keep drinking water, and says he needs to eat. ‘Not hungry,’ he mutters, but Caitlin drags him into the kitchen and says, ‘I’m going to cook, so suck it up.’ It is admittedly quite calming to watch her open all his cabinets and pull out ingredients. ‘Pasta, that’s a good start. Bacon, excellent. Julian, if we don’t eat these mushrooms right now, they’ll probably grow an entire subculture in your fridge –’
‘I tried to have sex with Barry,’ Julian says out of the blue, cutting her off.
He keeps staring at the kitchen table while Caitlin puts down the mushrooms and turns to face him. ‘You tried?’ He nods. ‘I couldn’t, I... I freaked out. As you can see.’
‘But you’re crazy about Barry. And you’ve had sex before. What changed?’
‘Look, Cait, something happened with Aidan. I’m – I’ve been pretty fucked up since.’
Her eyes are gentle, full of affection. ‘I suspected that.’
‘I’ll slice the mushrooms if you whip up some tomato sauce,’ Julian tells her firmly, but Caitlin’s not worried. She knows he’s not done talking, just wants something to keep his hands occupied. And it’ll probably help if she turns her back to him, so she starts frying up the bacon with an onion and half a carrot she found in the fridge. ‘You probably knew this before I did, but I only dated Aidan because it was convenient. He was just there, and he wanted me, so why not? It seemed better than being alone. It wasn’t.’ He harshly chops a mushroom in half. Caitlin doesn’t mind. Messy spaghetti seems to be exactly what Julian needs right now. ‘It had been weeks, and I could tell he was getting impatient, I... I figured if I didn’t sleep with him soon, Aidan would walk away and never look back.’
‘Did he seem like that type?’ Caitlin asks, searching for a tin opener. ‘I guess?’ Julian sounds unsure. ‘He was very physical so... Always feeling me up when we kissed. He wasn’t a very good kisser. But he was nice enough and I couldn’t put it off forever.’ Julian drops the knife on the table. There’s a dish full of uneven mushroom slices in front of him and Caitlin takes it away, handing him a small block of cheese. ‘Here. Grate this up, it’ll work with the sauce.’ She adds the mushrooms to her fry-up and waits for Julian to continue.
‘I took him home and he got straight down to business. Like he thought us making out the weeks before counted as foreplay. I’ve never felt so... used. Humiliated. We were supposed to be in a budding relationship and it felt like he didn’t give a fuck about me.’ Caitlin pushes her sauce pan off the stove and envelops him in a tight hug. ‘I didn’t know. I’m so sorry, Julian.’
‘Not your fault,’ he whispers. ‘I kicked him out straight after.’
‘You should’ve kicked him out during,’ Caitlin says fiercely.
‘I was too fucking polite.’
‘See, this is where your British nature gets you in trouble.’ She’s happy to see that remark gets a tiny smile from Julian, so she goes back to the stove and keeps an eye on the pasta she set to boil earlier. ‘What’s it like with Barry?’ Caitlin asks as Julian pulls out plates and cutlery to set the table. ‘Completely different,’ Julian assures her, ‘He drives me crazy, he’s so slow and careful about... everything. We kissed and touched for ages and then I told him I wanted more and he turned me on so much but... I just... I kept thinking about what happened with Aidan, and I got scared, and lashed out at Barry. And then he got angry, of course, who could blame him? I don’t know what to do.’ Caitlin fills up two plates with pasta and sauce, puts them down on the table and says, ‘Yes, you do. You need to tell him.’
‘What? No. I can’t.’
‘Julian,’ Caitlin says, very seriously, ‘You’re in love with Barry. Yes?’
‘You want to build a long-term relationship with him.’
‘Then you need to tell him everything you just told me, so that Barry understands what’s going on, so you two can work it out together.’
‘He’ll leave me,’ Julian says, so quiet she can barely hear it. ‘If he does,’ Caitlin says, ‘he’s not worth your time. But I don’t believe that he will. Not for this. I’ve seen the way he looks at you, and it’s about much more than sex for him. So here’s what you’re going to do.’ Julian looks at her expectantly. ‘Eat this delicious food that I cooked you, obviously. And then you’re going to call Barry, and ask him to meet you tomorrow, and you’re going to talk it out. Oh and Julian? You can bet your ass that I’m going to call you tomorrow night to check on the situation.’ Julian smiles, swallows a forkful of Caitlin’s admittedly tasty pasta, and says, ‘Thanks, Caitlin.’
When Caitlin leaves, Julian glances at the clock, then fights with his more cowardly side for a while. The side that tells him to leave it until tomorrow or the day after. The side that believes everything will go back to normal if they don’t mention it anymore. But then Caitlin’s voice is in his head, and she won’t stand for procrastination, not this time. Julian calls Barry, takes a deep breath and says, ‘I think I’m ready to talk.’
Barry readily agrees to come over on Sunday morning and assures Julian he’s not angry anymore, just worried. As soon as Julian opens the door, Barry catches him in a tight hug right there on the doormat. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Julian whispers, ‘Barry, I –’
Barry kisses him. ‘Ssh, it’s okay. You don’t have to apologise. I shouldn’t have walked out, I’m sorry –’ Julian smiles at him even though he’s tearing up. ‘Let’s not just stand here, come in, come in.’
Barry’s determined not to push Julian. Whatever it is that happened yesterday, it’s obvious that his boyfriend isn’t keen to talk about it. He needs to take a step back and wait for Julian, coax it out of him gently. So they settle down on the couch and Julian picks up a book while Barry just sits and thinks for a while.
He feels like something’s niggling at the edge of his mind, a detail from their first meeting that he just can’t keep hold of. He pictures Julian sitting down across from him in the library, looking sad, wearing a comfy sweater, his small beard unable to hide a –
‘Hickey,’ Barry says out loud, startling Julian, who’s reading, curled up against Barry’s side. ‘What?’
‘You had a hickey the first time we met,’ Barry says, his eyes dead serious.
‘I – so what?’
‘You had a hickey,’ Barry says slowly, recalling more details, ‘and you looked like you’d had a rough night.’ Julian stiffens and pulls away slightly. ‘Yeah, I had sex the night before we met, how is that relevant?’
‘I don’t know, Julian. You tell me, because the look on your face certainly indicates that it is relevant.’ Julian sighs and says nothing.
‘I know something happened to you. You tense up every time I touch you, every time things get heated between us. I am in love with you, Julian. I want this to work. Please, will you talk to me?’
‘I can’t,’ Julian whispers, and then there are tears in his eyes again, and Barry’s holding him like the world’s ending. They stay right where they are, cradled in each other’s arms, until Merlin tries to jump onto Julian’s lap and they both snort out a laugh at his misguided attempt.
‘Poor Merlin,’ Barry says, ‘I’m always monopolising you, he must feel left out.’ He gives Julian some space to pull the cat into his lap and they both start petting him.
Keeping his eyes on Merlin, fingers stroking his fur over and over, Julian finally talks.
‘I was seeing this guy at the time, Aidan. He worked in advertising. I met him when I briefly signed up to a gym.’ At Barry’s surprised look, Julian adds, ‘Very briefly. We were doing okay – he was more into it than me. The night before we met, I took him home for the first time.’ Barry sucks in a sharp breath and squeezes Julian’s shoulder. ‘I didn’t really feel like sex, but it seemed like the right thing to do, I guess? I thought it would be alright once we got going.’
‘But it wasn’t alright?’
Julian scoffs, shaking his head. ‘No. I hated it. And Aidan – he didn’t notice. Or he didn’t care. He just kept going and then afterwards I broke up with him.’
‘Julian, I’m so sorry.’
‘Then the next day I met you and I’m fucking crazy about you, Barry. But I’m so afraid to end up in that situation again that I just...’
‘I understand,’ Barry says, ‘I understand now.’
Julian relates the further details of the experience with some difficulty, but it gets easier as they go along. It feels like this is the moment where a therapist might write breakthrough in their file. He almost feels... elated, now that he’s finally talking. Barry pulls him closer and as they sit together with a cat sprawled over both of their laps, Julian’s mood switches back to scared and nervous. ‘So yeah, that’s... that’s how it is. That’s why I can’t – yeah.’
‘Ssh, ssh, Julian. It’s okay. We’ll figure it out. It’s okay. I promise.’
‘There’s nothing to figure out. I’m broken. You’re better off without me.’
‘Oh no you don’t,’ Barry says fiercely. ‘You are not broken, and you’re not running away from this.’
‘I’m not trying to run! It’s just – when I feel like I’m being pressured into sex, even if that’s not your intention at all, even if you’re just...’ Julian flushes beet red before saying, ‘Excited. I get so mad, I can’t help it, and I’m afraid that I might... snap, and say or do something to hurt you. So it’s safer not to let it come to that, I guess. I don’t know.’
‘You’re strong,’ Barry tells him, ‘You don’t know how strong you are.’ Julian smiles vaguely at that, scratching Merlin’s chin and marvelling at the sound of his purr.
‘Where do we go from here, then?’ he says, terrified of the answer, ‘I get it if this is... too much. If you want to leave, I –’ Barry’s fingers grip his own tightly. ‘No, Julian. I don’t want to leave you, not at all. Listen.’ Julian looks up at him, meeting Barry’s eyes with a deep vulnerability in his own.
‘Being with you is the most important thing. I mean, yes, I want to sleep with you, cause I’m in love with you and you’re gorgeous. But from here on out, you decide what happens next, okay? Sex is not a dealbreaker for me. We can do whatever you’re comfortable with and leave the rest.’ Julian’s staring at him with wide eyes. ‘Are you saying you’d give up sex – for me?’
Barry gives a slight nod. ‘Looks that way, doesn’t it?’
‘But Barry, wouldn’t you rather be with someone else, I mean, you have needs, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to –’
‘Don’t worry about me, I have a vivid imagination,’ Barry says with a smile, then turns serious again, ‘And no, I wouldn’t want to be with anyone else, let’s be very clear about that.’
Then Julian’s arms are tight around him, and they’re kissing, more heartfelt than ever before. Neither of them notice Merlin jumping off their laps with an indignated growl, because Julian’s heart is racing and Barry’s fingers are keeping a tight grip on the back of his head and they’re drowning in one another.
It feels like hours have passed when they come up for breath, Julian’s hands firmly lodged underneath Barry’s best Sunday T-shirt and Barry’s fingers still working on the third button of Julian’s silk dress shirt. ‘Would you like to go out for lunch?’ Barry asks even as he sneaks a hand into the open shirt. Julian chokes out a little moan and pulls Barry into a messy kiss. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘but there’s no rush.’
Grinning, Barry glances at his watch and declares, ‘You’re right. If we wait a little longer, we can skip lunch and go straight for dessert. A platter of assorted cakes, for instance.’
‘But whatever might we do to pass the time?’ Julian says pensively. Laughing, Barry pushes Julian down on the couch and begins pressing kisses on every inch of bare skin he sees.
Barry and Julian eventually do make it out of the apartment, and declare it an ‘ice cream for lunch’ day. Settling on an outdoor sofa in the courtyard of a small tearoom, they order an overlarge sundae to share and feed each other whipped cream and caramel sauce. ‘Every inch the happy couple,’ Barry says to Julian, munching on a biscuit he found in the ice cream. Julian smiles. ‘Not quite what I expected,’ he admits, ‘I was afraid you’d never speak to me again.’ Barry leans in to kiss Julian’s temple fondly. ‘You’re going to have to try a lot harder to get rid of me, you know.’
They take a long leisurely stroll through the city, holding hands and pointing out favourite squares and stores. When they stop at an antiques store, Julian can’t take his eyes off a tiny silver statuette of a horse, and Barry ends up buying it for him. Julian protests, of course, but Barry pulls him close and says, ‘I know what this morning has cost you. Let me buy you a gift.’
Caitlin phones in the late afternoon as she promised. Julian and Barry are sitting on a stone wall by the riverbank, using fallen tree branches to draw patterns in the sand at their feet. Julian answers the call while Barry writes Boyfriend on the ground with an arrow that points to Julian. He laughs, which must come as a great relief to Caitlin. ‘Hi, Cait.’
‘Julian, hi, how are you?’
‘Bad timing, Caitlin!’ Barry shouts in the general direction of the phone.
‘Calm down, Barry. Yeah, I’m doing okay, we – we talked, and we’re good.’ Barry squeezes Julian close to him and there’s more laughter. ‘Really good, actually.’
‘I can hear that.’ Caitlin sounds reassured.
‘How are you? How is Felicity?’
‘We’re doing fine. She’s had to hire a temp worker to help her out in the coffee shop, and I’m at the hospital now inbetween shifts. It’s been pretty crazy in here lately and I’m desperate for a week off. Pity I’ll have to settle for two days – but I don’t mean to bore you with this.’
‘Caitlin,’ Julian says gravely, ‘After last night, I owe you – I’ll listen to unlimited ranting about work. Thank you. For being there. For getting me to talk.’
Caitlin doesn’t speak for a moment, then says, ‘I didn’t get you to do anything. That was all you.’
After ending the call, Julian looks over at Barry nervously. He hasn’t told him he talked to Caitlin first, and Barry has an expectant expression on his face. Julian picks up his tree branch and doodles little flowers in the sand. ‘When you left yesterday, I had a bit of a... breakdown.’
Barry looks away, feelings of guilt apparent on his face. ‘Julian,’ he starts, ‘I am so –’
‘Don’t. I was leading you on and I couldn’t deliver. You got angry, I couldn’t deal with it. So I called Caitlin and she came over to calm me down. She’s good at that – sometimes I panic out of nowhere, too.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ Barry says quietly.
‘Well. It isn’t something you just put out there when you’re trying to interest someone in dating you.’
‘No, I suppose not.’
‘It happens,’ Julian says, ‘It just happens. No rhyme or reason.’ He puts his head on Barry’s shoulder and they sit on the wall, watching the river quietly until they get cold.
During the walk back home, Barry says, ‘Hey, are you free on the twenty-ninth? It’s a Friday night.’
‘My weekends are all yours, you know that.’
Barry smiles. ‘Yes. Would you like to come to a family dinner at my Dad’s place?’
‘Oh damn,’ Julian says, looking nervous already. ‘You don’t have to,’ Barry says, squeezing his hand, ‘but I thought it might be nice? My family’s great, I promise. Fair warning though, they can get a bit noisy.’
Julian thinks about it for a minute, then decides, ‘Oh, what the hell. Okay. I’ll come.’ With a big grin, Barry wraps his arms around his boyfriend. ‘Brilliant. Do you mind if I go home now? I’ve still got to prepare my classes for tomorrow and I’d invite you in if I didn’t keep getting distracted by your hair.’
They both laugh. ‘Yes, of course. Coffee date on Tuesday?’
‘Yes. Absolutely.’ Barry kisses him quickly and disappears into his building, while Julian wanders a little further, thinking this day definitely ended so much better than it began.
For all Barry’s talk of working, he doesn’t do much of it the first hour he’s back at the flat. He digs through his deep freezer for a steak and then thinks of Julian non-stop while he cooks dinner. He isn’t sure what to make of the events of this weekend. Certainly, he meant every word he said to Julian, and he’s genuinely not all that bothered about the sex thing. Barry’s glad Julian was finally able to speak about his issues, and he’s confident that they’re going to be fine, together.
He’s also angry. Angry with this unknown, faceless man who dared to treat Julian like he didn’t matter. Aidan is probably blissfully unaware of the damage that he did – maybe he’s out there right now with someone else, hurting them too. These thoughts make Barry’s blood boil and his hands itch to hit something - someone. He can’t really place those feelings very well – they make him uncomfortable, because he is not by nature a violent man. But his affection for Julian brings this scary thing out in him, and what is he supposed to do with that?
Sighing, Barry sits down to dinner, and scrolls through dozens of sweet texts from Julian while he eats. This offers him enough distraction to be able to do cursory preparation work for tomorrow. He’ll have to improvise here and there but so be it. His mind isn’t on the job tonight. By nine thirty, he’s stretched out on the couch watching a repeat of Breaking Bad and casually texting Julian sweet nothings.
The week passes quickly and by the time Saturday rolls around, Barry’s decided to finally demonstrate to Julian that he, too, can cook. They shouldn’t be eating so much take-out, anyway. Maybe a three-course meal is over the top, though. Julian pulls up an eyebrow when he spots the amount of cooking pots in Barry’s kitchen, and says, ‘You should’ve told me to wear my suit.’ Barry laughs and gestures to his brightly coloured apron. ‘I wouldn’t be comfortable if you wore a suit. Anyway, I just want us to have a romantic meal. Okay?’ Julian steps into the kitchen and kisses Barry enthusiastically. ‘Okay.’
‘Oh god, I need to have a lie down,’ Julian says after Barry’s fed him a considerable amount of food. ‘Bedroom’s at the end of the hall,’ Barry smirks. To his utter surprise, Julian gets up and heads down the hallway. When he turns around at the door to Barry’s room, he’s still frozen with a dish towel clutched in his hand. ‘Well?’ Julian says, ‘Coming?’ Stunned, Barry blinks carefully a few times, drops the towel on the floor and follows Julian, flicking the lights off as he goes.
Julian is on Barry’s bed. That hasn’t happened since the last night at Barry’s old flat, and with only the modest nightlight turned on, Julian seems to glow softly as he fixes Barry with an unmistakeable stare. Barry gets down on the bed and easily rolls on top of Julian, who welcomes him with a soft, insistent kiss. Maybe it’s the food, but Barry’s feeling quite warm and fuzzy tonight, and Julian appears to share that sentiment. The entire room feels hazy as they kiss, and touch, and pull at each other’s clothes. ‘Yes,’ Julian hisses as Barry pushes his shirt out of the way and sucks a nipple into his mouth. He pushes a hand into Barry’s hair to keep him there for a minute, then lets go and flips them over so it’s Barry’s turn to gasp. Julian frees them both of their shirts and trails kisses down the sensitive skin of Barry’s sides, lovingly nipping here and there.
Barry’s getting completely out of it. That can’t be good. Julian’s teeth catch his hip a little harder than he intended, but it’s good, it’s great, it’s the right kind of pain, and before Julian can even think to apologise, Barry chokes out, ‘Fuck, too much, Jules, I –’, jumps up and leaves the room. He disappears into the bathroom, barely registering Julian’s shocked expression.
The door falls shut behind him and Barry sighs out a breath full of relief. He steps forward to the washbasin and runs cold water over his hands to splash his face. Leaning over the basin, he inspects himself in the mirror. Ruffled hair, his pupils blown wide, a red flush on his cheeks, a lovebite on his chest and finally, a small bite mark low on his left hip. He hadn’t even noticed Julian unzipping his jeans for better access. ‘Fuck, Julian, what have you done to me?’ he mutters quietly. Heart pounding, Barry closes his eyes against the sight of his debauched reflection and wills his hard-on to go down. Slowly, he regains control of his ragged breathing. He can’t stay in here for much longer – he knows Julian will already be wondering what’s going on. Drying his hands, Barry steels himself for the upcoming conversation, and returns to his bedroom.
Julian is sitting up against the headboard. Apparently, he thought it prudent to put his shirt back on, though he left it unbuttoned, offering tantalising views of his abdomen. Get a grip, Barry tells himself sternly.
‘Barry!’ Julian exclaims, hesitantly shifting closer when Barry sits down. ‘God, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have – the biting, did I hurt you badly?’
Barry stares at him in confusion. ‘Hurt? No, Julian, I’m not hurt, I, uh.’ He sighs, ignores the way his cheeks are burning and says, ‘I got overwhelmed with how turned on I was. I needed a moment to cool off.’
‘Oh,’ Julian says, puzzled, ‘You – why?’
Barry frowns. ‘Because I don’t want to risk getting carried away and pushing you further than you’re comfortable with.’ He can tell Julian is unsure how to respond to this and reaches out to squeeze his hand. Julian stares at him for a few long moments, then throws his arms around Barry’s neck, toppling them both over with the force of his hug. ‘You’re brilliant,’ Julian whispers into his ear, ‘Absolutely brilliant. Fuck. I’m going to make you so happy, Barry, I promise.’ Barry smiles widely and says, ‘You already do.’
‘Are you ready for this?’ Barry says a week later, his hand on the doorknob. ‘No, but let’s do it anyway,’ Julian says nervously. Smiling, Barry opens the door and leads Julian inside to meet his family. Everyone’s seated in the parlour sipping drinks and eating snacks. All eyes are on Julian as he stands in front of them awkwardly, Barry’s arm tight around his middle.
‘Okay everyone, this is Julian. That’s my Dad, Joe, my sister Iris, my brother Wally, and Wally’s best friend Jesse.’ Julian exchanges hellos and handshakes with everyone while Barry’s hugged by his family. ‘Take a seat, grab a drink,’ Joe says, gesturing to the couch and the arrangement of soda, beer and wine on the sideboard. ‘I’ll get you a beer,’ Barry says quickly. ‘Just the one, I’m driving,’ Julian tells him softly.
‘Joe, can you help me out with the chicken? Good to see you, Julian!’ Cecile calls from the kitchen.
‘Hi, Cecile. How are you?’
‘Can’t complain, except about this insane recipe Joe has me cooking up.’ Cecile’s clearly getting impatient, so Joe rushes over to the kitchen to help her out.
Barry sticks close to Julian all evening, getting him drinks, offering him the best snacks, talking softly. His family are very welcoming, and they keep up their efforts to involve Julian in the conversation, even if Julian mostly sits and observes. The Wests are clearly a close-knit family, laughing and talking and teasing each other. And the food’s good too, though eating only seems to make the group more boisterous. Julian begins to wonder what they’ll think if he goes home early when Barry catches his attention.
Julian’s looking ever more uncomfortable on his chair wedged inbetween Iris and Barry. His boyfriend nudges him. ‘Too much noise?’ Barry asks softly, ‘Want to step outside for a bit?’ Julian nods, takes his outstretched hand and follows him to the backyard. It’s incredibly dark outside, the garden completely cut off from any street lights. Barry leads Julian over to a lounge chair to sit down. Julian casts his eyes up to the beautiful sky full of stars. ‘Oh,’ he gasps. Barry chuckles and presses a kiss to his cheek. Julian manoeuvres the both of them until they’re lying down with a perfect view of the stars, and then starts pointing out constellations. Barry’s own knowledge never got past Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and now he’s here with Julian whispering Latin names into the darkness. ‘Cassiopeia... There’s Draco, usually too dim to spot... Cygnus and Bootes... Even Pegasus, look!’
‘Astrophysicist,’ Barry says, ‘I remember.’ Julian snorts quietly. ‘Might have been. One day.’
‘You still could be, you know,’ Barry says, trailing his fingers through Julian’s hair.
‘You could go back to college.’ Julian laughs. ‘Even if I had five years to spare, a small fortune lying around, and the ability to survive without a steady income, I’d never be able to go back. Bringing up the discipline to go through college once was already one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. You won’t have guessed this about me, but I’m really rather lazy when I’m not motivated.’ They both laugh, but Barry knows to take Julian’s concerns seriously. ‘Sometimes I regret not fighting harder back then. But I’m happy with my life as it stands. Teacher boyfriend and all,’ Julian says with a grin. He squeezes Barry’s hand and they don’t speak for a bit until Julian says, ‘Sorry I was so quiet at dinner. I’m not really a people person, especially in groups.’
‘That’s okay, I understand. I know you. And we’re a rowdy group when we all get together.’
The door to the kitchen opens, casting a ray of light into the garden. ‘Barry?’ Iris calls, ‘Are you two doing anything I shouldn’t see?’ Laughter drifts towards her. ‘Sorry to disappoint you, Iris, but we’re stargazing,’ Barry says. ‘Oh, thank god. Do you guys want some ice cream?’
‘Yeah, sure,’ Julian replies. The evening wraps up pretty soon once everyone’s finished off their dessert, and Julian is relieved to get outside in the fresh air, and then inhale the familiar pine scent in his car. ‘Are you okay?’ Barry says, looking at him intently. Julian nods, his eyes closed. ‘Yes. I hate when that happens. The, uh, crowds thing.’
‘You haven’t told me much about it.’ Julian knows it’s a statement and not an accusation, so he bites back a sharp retort and says, ‘Can’t really tell you much. When I’m around a lot of people, mostly in an unfamiliar environment, it... it feels like I can’t breathe. And I need to get out, but I often don’t because it would seem impolite. So that makes it worse.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Barry says softly. Julian shrugs. ‘It can’t always be avoided. I just need my downtime so I can relax. The feeling passes quickly once I’ve left. It’s much better already.’
‘Come back to mine for a bit? Do I count as downtime?’ Barry asks as Julian starts the car. A smile pulls at Julian’s lips. ‘Definitely.’
Julian was over at Barry’s place twice this week, and they’ve been playing an extended game of Monopoly. The board is exactly as they left it Wednesday night, with a post-it stuck in the middle reading Julian’s turn – Barry tries to cheat! Underneath Julian’s neat handwriting, there’s a messy scrawl. You have no evidence for that, Mr Albert. Julian laughs, and says, ‘Fancy continuing our game for a little while?’
‘Why not,’ Barry says, pulling out a chair and reacquainting himself with his possessions and the amount of money he owns in the game (not enough).
They play for half an hour until Barry’s on the winning hand, reattach the post-it, and Julian gets up to head home. It’s past midnight already. Barry seems to take a deep breath, steeling himself for something. Julian frowns and sends him a questioning look.
‘Sleep here?’ Barry says. Julian backs away instinctively, his eyes frightened, but Barry’s right there, taking his hands. ‘Ssh, Jules, no. Your pace, like I promised. I’d just really like to sleep next to you. But only if you want that too.’ Julian thinks it through, then steps forward into Barry’s welcoming embrace. ‘Okay,’ he whispers, ‘Okay.’
It feels strange to be getting ready for bed somewhere else, especially when it happens so unexpectedly. Barry offers him a spare toothbrush, the free use of whatever he needs from the bathroom and an old T-shirt to sleep in. Julian thinks about running home to check on Merlin for a minute, but he should be fine. Julian put plenty of food out before he left tonight. He’ll simply need to pay the cat some extra attention tomorrow. And deep down, Julian fears that if he leaves, he won’t come back to sleep here.
Julian locks himself in the bathroom for a bit, trying to calm down. He knows Barry won’t push anything – the past few weeks have made that abundantly clear. But still the nerves make his gut clench. He’s not even sure what he’s so afraid of - the newness, or the next level intimacy maybe. He probably won’t be able to toss and turn the way he’s used to before falling asleep, either. That would be annoying to his partner.
Barry can tell he’s nervous when they meet in the hallway. ‘I can sleep on the couch if that would make you feel more at ease,’ Barry offers, and Julian, well, he sort of melts at this sweet, selfless suggestion. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he says, taking Barry’s hand and pulling him into the bedroom.
The room is almost pitch-dark once they’re in bed with the lights off, both wearing T-shirts and their boxershorts. Barry is no more than a silhouette pulling Julian into his arms and kissing him goodnight. He gently nudges Julian to roll over until Barry’s spooning him loosely, an arm thrown over his side but a generous amount of space between them. Julian smiles into the dark at the courtesy Barry’s offering, and snuggles in a bit closer.
Julian falls asleep with Barry’s breath softly tickling the back of his neck.
Julian wakes up with a ray of sun spreading over the bed, a pillow pressed against his nose and a very warm body sprawled across his back. Oh dear god, he thinks, and immediately begins the process of wriggling out without waking Barry up. The other man groans softly but remains asleep. Julian reaches out a hand to the shelf behind the bed and his fingers close around a watch. It’s Barry’s, but no matter. Not even seven thirty. Barry’s heavy presence probably woke him up. Julian turns over to watch his boyfriend sleep, and closes his eyes to doze some more.
The next time Julian regains consciousness, Barry’s side of the bed is empty. It’s surprisingly unnerving to be alone in this room. He gets up with a groan to use the bathroom, and takes comfort in the sounds coming from the kitchen. Imagine Barry had just left. When he emerges from the bathroom he almost runs into Barry, who’s carrying a tray full of food. ‘Morning, gorgeous,’ Barry says with a huge grin, ‘Breakfast in bed?’ His enthusiasm is contagious. ‘Lead the way,’ Julian says, following Barry and snuggling up under the covers. ‘What time is it?’ Julian asks. ‘About nine. Do you want coffee? Tea?’
‘Tea, please,’ Julian smirks, ‘I’m English, after all.’
‘Got it. I’ll be right back, help yourself to toast and things.’ Julian begins spreading butter and marmalade on a slice of toast and grabs some cheese for his next slice. Barry returns with two mugs of Earl Grey and they enjoy a leisurely breakfast. ‘What do you want to do today?’ Barry asks, biting off a piece of chocolate. ‘First I have to go check on Merlin and spend some time with him. You’re welcome to come along, of course. After that... I don’t know.’
Barry muses about it for a bit. ‘You know, I’ve set up the second bedroom as an office but I need an extra bookcase. Fancy checking out a furniture store?’ Barry says, ‘I mean, it’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but...’ Julian smiles. ‘Don’t worry. Too much excitement gives me headaches anyway.’
Merlin is clearly angry with Julian for being left to his own devices overnight. He’s waiting behind the front door when they arrive, meowing indignantly, and simultaneously demands food, attention, and fresh air. Julian drops down to his knees and chats with his cat to calm him down, then opens the French windows so Merlin can wander in and out at his leisure and goes to refill the food bowl. ‘I’m warning you now, we better stick around for a while, because Merlin is going to be pissed off if we disappear again,’ Julian says. ‘Oh, no problem,’ Barry says, dropping onto the red sofa, kicking his shoes off and putting his feet up. ‘No need to laze around, you know, I’ve got a ton of dishes to do,’ Julian calls from the kitchen.
‘And I, your willing slave,’ Barry sighs as he gets up to help his boyfriend, ‘Do we at least get to make out after?’ Julian laughs, and chucks him a dish towel. Merlin entertains them by weaving a dangerous path inbetween the clean dishes to nuzzle both men. Barry pets the cat happily, balancing a stack of plates on his left hand as Julian shoots them amused looks. ‘I’m glad Merlin took to you. He can be a little standoffish around other people.’
‘He can tell I’m planning to stick around, can’t you, boy?’ Barry says, scratching Merlin’s chin. The cat turns his back to him and jumps off the counter, disappearing into the living room. Julian wipes the sink clean and laughs at Barry’s crestfallen expression and the way he asks, ‘Was it something I said?’
Grinning, Julian steps forward to pin Barry to the counter. There’s a clear challenge in the air between them, but Barry simply waits for Julian to make a move. The wooden counter heats up under Julian’s hands as they look at each other. At long last, Julian leans in and kisses Barry. ‘Mm,’ Barry sighs into his mouth before bringing up his hands to play with Julian’s blond curls. Wrapping his arms around Barry’s waist, he nudges his boyfriend to sit up on the worktop. Barry complies easily, heeding Julian’s warning about not bumping his head into the kitchen cabinets. Julian steps inbetween his legs and Barry has to bend his head down even further than usual to kiss Julian. ‘I think you’re supposed to be the one sitting here, cause you’re shorter,’ Barry tells him, but Julian just grins wickedly. ‘I think you’ll find I’m at the perfect height to do what I’m planning.’
Half an hour later, both men are studying the lovebites on Barry’s neck in the bathroom mirror. ‘I’m not used to shenanigans in the AM hours,’ Julian says, laughing at Barry’s amused smirk. ‘You know what I mean. Anyway, as for those marks, here, let me.’ Julian pulls a tube of light foundation out of a drawer and begins applying it evenly over the bruises. ‘Why have you got that?’ Barry says curiously, watching the marks fade if not disappear entirely. ‘Aidan,’ Julian says through gritted teeth, ‘liked to mark me.’ Barry’s expression darkens and Julian continues, ‘I’m a lawyer, I can’t walk around with hickeys any more than you can.’ Barry hugs him quietly for a minute, until Julian says, ‘So which furniture store did you want to visit?’
The store Barry directs them to is of some newfangled design with a lot of potted plants but very little actual furniture. There are hardly any customers. ‘Do they even have bookcases here?’ Barry hisses, looking uncomfortable, ‘Can you see any?’ Julian can’t – there’s some garden furniture, couches and chairs, but no wardrobes or cabinets or bookcases. ‘No. This is an odd store.’ They turn a corner and spot four or five beds, and a bulky salesman approaching them. ‘Good morning, good morning, lovely weather, isn’t it?’ he says brightly, ‘Are you interested in a new mattress?’
‘No,’ Barry tells him, ‘Actually we’re looking for –’ The salesman cuts him off and launches into a rehearsed sales pitch about how mattresses are made, and the way they should be adapted to each individual’s needs. He goes on and on and every time Julian and Barry try to extricate themselves from the conversation, the man simply follows them to the next mattress.
Fifteen minutes later, Julian’s almost bored to tears and he’s seriously considering pulling Barry down on one of the beds just to see how the salesman will react if they make out in front of him. Surely though, they should be able to escape in a less dramatic fashion. ‘Goodness me,’ Julian says, interrupting the salesman’s demonstration, ‘What time did we tell your Dad we’d be there?’ Fortunately, Barry catches on to the ploy immediately, and he casts a pointed look at his watch. ‘Oh god, we’re so late. We have to go, sorry.’ Not giving the salesman a chance to protest, Barry and Julian make their way out and head for the car park, not speaking at first because they both know they’ll laugh if they do, and the man may still be watching them leave.
‘So, next store?’ Julian finally says, his face carefully composed. He bursts out laughing when Barry replies, ‘I’m not doing another thing until I’ve had lunch. Fucking hell!’
‘I was about to push you down on one of his precious mattresses,’ Julian confesses, and Barry gives him a wide-eyed stare and says, ‘Why didn’t you? Would’ve made the experience a hell of a lot better.’
‘Oh, shall we go back in?’ Julian pretends to head to the store entrance, smiling when Barry’s hand catches his wrist in a tight grip. ‘Don’t you dare,’ Barry hisses playfully, planting a kiss on Julian’s mouth and guiding him back to the car, ‘Now let’s go eat a stack of sandwiches.’
After lunch, they find a much more normal furniture store and Barry buys a suitable bookcase. The flatpack is larger than they expected, so they struggle to fit the box into the boot of Julian’s car, and the rest of the afternoon passes with them attempting to assemble the bookcase. Neither of them are very experienced with flatpack furniture, and Barry’s remark that Cisco’s very handy with these things is met by sullen silence on Julian’s part. ‘Sorry,’ Barry says, ‘I didn’t mean anything insulting by that. He just helped me a lot when I first moved out.’
‘It’s alright,’ Julian says, and he probably means it.
Barry stays at Julian’s that night, and from then on, they take to sharing one of their beds during weekends. Barry doesn’t try to push anything, happily surrendering control to Julian. Julian is generous with his affections now that Barry’s established the trust between them.
One night Barry’s wrapped around him, safe and warm, but Julian can’t sleep. His thoughts keep circling back around to Aidan, mentally listing all the things he now regrets letting him do.
One minute they’re speeding down the highway like they’re in a road trip movie, Aidan happily pointing out landmarks and telling jokes. The next, his hand is on Julian’s thigh and then pressing between his legs. ‘Woah, er, do you think you should be doing that, you’re driving –’
‘I can do both,’ Aidan says with a smirk, stroking up and down his thigh.
It becomes a habit. Julian won’t let him do it when he himself is driving, but Aidan doesn’t seem to have any issue keeping his mind on the road and one hand on Julian’s crotch. He’s not always in the mood – sometimes it feels quite nice, but other times Julian can’t get over the humiliating feeling. After all, he’s practically getting a handjob out in the open, right there on the road in broad daylight where anyone could see. When Julian tells him not to, Aidan stops, but he just starts over again the next time they’re in the car.
Thinking about it makes something in his gut clench almost painfully. He searches for Barry’s hand, finds it on his stomach under the sheets, and squeezes his fingers. Barry’s arm tightens around him instinctively.
‘The guys at work made up this hilarious e-mail, let me show you,’ Aidan says, pulling out his phone while driving fast, too fast, and scrolling through his mails while barely keeping an eye on the road. Julian yanks the phone out of his hands. ‘Are you crazy? Are you trying to kill us?’ Aidan rolls his eyes. ‘God, you can be uptight.’ Julian stares out of the window, angry, nervous.
A couch full of cushions and blankets that tumble to the floor. A massage that feels like Aidan’s punching his back with intent to harm. Julian’s reflection in an ornate mirror, sighing at the sight of a hickey on his collarbone. Aidan apologising half-heartedly for marking him, then encouraging Julian to do the same. Grumbling ‘Why?’ when Julian doesn’t – can’t.
Their first kiss is in Aidan’s car, parked near a train station in a suburb of the city. Aidan initiates it with a simple, ‘Come here, you,’ and Julian wants to kiss him, until he does, and then he’s completely overwhelmed and feels trapped with nowhere to go. Aidan’s grip on his shoulders is vice-like, his tongue devoid of any subtlety or skill as it presses into Julian’s mouth harshly. He can’t breathe.
Sighing, Julian rolls onto his back to find a better sleeping position. The move brings his nose right up close to Barry’s, and he can share the other man’s air now. He shouldn’t be thinking about these things. He’s okay now. Barry’s brilliant, so good for him.
They head to a desolate, withered park on a cold bank holiday and Aidan brings up the elephant in the room as they walk around, holding hands dutifully rather than enthusiastically. ‘So, listen, we’ve been going out for a month now. And the thing is that I – I really want to sleep with you.’
Julian swallows harshly. ‘I don’t think –’
‘Oh, come on, a guy has needs.’ He draws Julian in close, tries to kiss him, but Julian pulls away, inexplicably angry. ‘Is that why you brought me here?’ He gestures at the trees, the deserted sports field, the empty footpath. ‘No, not here,’ Aidan says, then adds, apparently immune to Julian’s mood, ‘Unless you insist.’
‘No!’ Julian snaps. Aidan chuckles. ‘I agree, outdoors sex should be kept for a later stage of our relationship.’ He doesn’t get it, doesn’t get it at all. Can’t understand how pressuring Julian is making him feel. It’s almost like the trees are closing in on him, cutting off his air.
Aidan leans over and hisses into his ear, ‘I’m going to fuck you,’ and the ground beneath Julian’s feet seems to disappear. It sounds like a deadline, a dealbreaker, a threat.
Angrily, Julian wipes at the tears welling up in his eyes. He feels so alone right now, even in Barry’s arms. If only he could sleep off the memories as easily as he sleeps off a minor headache. If only he knew why he feels such shame about his relationship with Aidan.
Barry’s pleasantly tucked away in a corner of the staff room, correcting tests. He’s behind a row of cabinets – usually no one comes here. He’s in the mood for some peace and quiet, but unfortunately he’s soon disturbed by two voices. ‘The seniors were hell in PE today,’ a man complains to his companion as they each settle into an armchair just on the other side of the cabinets. ‘The juniors weren’t much better,’ the second man replies, ‘Kept bitching that they’ll never use maths again after graduation.’ Rob and Marco. Not Barry’s favourite co-workers by a long shot. They’ve rarely met a positive thought they couldn’t turn negative, and they’re often rude behind other teachers’ backs. In fact, they’re at it again right now.
‘What do you make of the new guy? The one who replaced Lisa for history?’ Marco asks.
‘The gay boy?’ Rob sneers.
‘Really? What makes you think that?’
‘The sheer fact he’s called Giovanni. Plus, if he makes eyes at me one more time, he’s just asking to get punched.’ Barry’s hand curls into a fist around his red pen, and he violently scratches out an incorrect answer. The two men start exchanging cruel tactics to keep Giovanni away from them. I should say something. I should get up and walk away. I should stay and keep quiet.
‘Maybe Allen will take him off your hands,’ Marco says with an audible smirk. It was a matter of time until they brought him up – he’s the only other out teacher at this school.
‘Nah, last I heard, Allen’s screwing some fancy lawyer.’ Who even blabbed about that?
‘A lawyer? Shit, Marco, imagine finding out your lawyer’s a fag,’ Rob’s disgusted voice threatens to sicken Barry, and he just called Julian a –
‘Yeah, the problem with gays is that they don’t tell you until it’s too late,’ Marco agrees.
‘We’re kind of like bigots that way,’ Barry says calmly, emerging from his hidden spot with an armful of geography tests. It’s worth the trouble to see their faces.
‘Barry, hey, didn’t see you there, I – we –’ Rob sputters.
‘Don’t bother.’ His voice is cold, and he walks straight out of the door.
Barry grits his teeth and keeps his face composed until he’s alone in the car park, then leans his forehead against the school wall and smashes his fist against the brick. ‘Fuck!’ he snarls into the empty air. That’s going to sting for weeks. Furiously, Barry stomps through the halls to find a first aid kit in the mercifully empty front office. He cleans the blood off his wounds and teaches his final two classes hoping no one will notice he’s hurt himself.
It’s too much to hope for that Julian won’t notice either. It’s Friday night and he shows up at Barry’s door with an overnight bag and all the ingredients for his exotic take on roast chicken. ‘Hi love,’ Julian says happily, kissing Barry and taking the food through to the kitchen. Barry can tell the exact second when Julian notices the scrapes on his right fist, because his face falls. ‘What happened to your hand?’ he says, reaching for Barry’s hand to examine the wound gently. ‘I, uh. I guess we’d better sit down for this.’ Julian follows him to the couch. ‘Well?’ he prompts, when Barry seems reluctant to talk. ‘I got mad at two teachers who were talking shit about the new guy because he’s gay.’ The rest of the story isn’t quite so easy to tell and Barry’s particularly tight-lipped about the exact nature of the slur Rob used. But Julian doesn’t seem mad as he pulls Barry into a hug, just resigned, like he’s used to this. It makes sense when Barry thinks about it. Gay lawyers aren’t exactly thick on the ground either, he supposes.
Barry leans his head back against the couch, closing his eyes and sighing. A warm mouth brushes over his. ‘My brave man,’ Julian murmurs. Barry scoffs, ‘I punched a wall, not a man.’
‘Exactly. You refused to stoop down to their level.’
‘But doesn’t it bother you that –’
Julian shrugs, ‘I’ve been called worse by people who meant a lot more to me than two strangers you work with. Now, do you want to help me slice vegetables for the chicken?’
Julian notices that Barry remains tense throughout dinner, and eventually he offers him a massage. ‘It helped when you did it for me, so.’ Barry smiles gently when he thinks about that night, some six weeks ago, before Julian had even told him about his issues. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘Let’s go to my room.’ Julian grabs Barry’s Bluetooth speaker so he can play some music to get the mood right. Barry’s of a similar mindset, pulling the curtains shut, lighting a couple of candles and turning off the overhead light. The atmosphere is undeniably romantic, and Julian desperately wants to kiss Barry, but he fears that if he does so they may never get around to that massage. So he simply directs Barry to take his shirt off and lie down on the bed.
Barry hesitates, still sitting upright and briefly meeting Julian’s eyes, before pulling a small bottle out of his bedside table. ‘This isn’t me trying to push anything,’ he clarifies, ‘Iris and Wally love to mock me and they bought me this for my last birthday. Before we met. I think they meant to encourage me to... er, meet people. I haven’t used it, I just –’
‘Barry,’ Julian says fondly, ‘You don’t need to defend yourself for having a bottle of lube.’
‘It’s the kind that doubles as massage oil, I thought it might be... fun.’ Julian hums softly and removes the seal, clearly agreeing. ‘Should definitely make it easier to touch you.’
And indeed it does; the smooth slide of Julian’s hands over Barry’s back seems to hypnotise them both. The flickering candlelight makes it hard to see anything quite as clearly as Julian’s used to. He closes his eyes, focusing on finding the tensions under Barry’s skin. But then he thinks of what he could see if he just looked, so he goes back to watching his fingers dance on Barry’s shoulders. ‘Mm, you’ve got magic in your hands,’ Barry says softly. Julian smiles, spreading more oil on his fingers and stroking down Barry’s sides. ‘This is going to get out of hand again, isn’t it?’
‘You say that like you expect me to mind.’ Barry’s practically purring by now, stretching out beneath Julian like a large cat.
‘Turn over.’ Julian wants to see his face, their original purpose forgotten. He takes hold of Barry’s wrists and pins them to the bed. ‘Oh fuck yes,’ Barry sighs in spite of himself. ‘You like being held down?’ Julian asks, his eyes full of wonder. ‘Huh. Apparently.’ Julian bends over to nuzzle Barry’s neck. His thumb strokes over the quickening pulse in Barry’s wrist. ‘I’m not hurting your knuckles, am I? Pressing on them.’
‘No, that’s fine.’ Then Julian’s kissing him, his neck, his ear, and finally his soft, beautiful mouth. He withdraws his right hand to trace patterns over Barry’s chest, absentmindedly noticing that Barry keeps his arm right where Julian put it. Barry’s eyes are dark, a flush spreading on his cheeks as they kiss. ‘Why are you still wearing that shirt?’ he mutters into Julian’s mouth. In response, Julian captures Barry’s free wrist again and smirks. ‘Pity you’re not in any position to take it off.’ Barry groans and struggles against Julian’s grip. ‘Is this okay?’ Julian asks, concerned. Barry nods, breathing rapidly, his eyes falling shut. ‘Tell me if it’s not,’ Julian insists. ‘I will,’ Barry says, sounding like he’ll agree to anything as long as Julian doesn’t stop. Barry shivers, the drag of Julian’s tongue over his collarbone coming as a surprise. ‘Won’t the lube stain your shirt if you keep it on?’
Julian laughs, seeing straight through Barry’s ploy to get him to undress. ‘You think too much, Barry. Anyway, most of it’s on your back, staining the sheets.’
‘Damn,’ Barry mumbles, his breathing evening out. Julian looks at him, soft and pliant and almost sleepy, and thinks I could do anything I want to you right now. Kiss you or bite you, stroke you or scratch you, heal you or hurt you. He balks at the thought, recoiling instinctively from this dangerous urge. I could tease you like this forever and you wouldn’t even complain. I bet you’d just lie there and take it. ‘No,’ Julian groans, jerking his hands away from Barry’s wrists and jumping up. It takes Barry’s brain a second to catch on, and by that time, Julian has already left and locked himself in the bathroom.
Choking down a sob, Julian sags down onto the bathroom floor, his back against the door. Don’t let this be happening, he thinks through the beginning of a spectacular headache. I don’t want to be like this. Don’t let me become what I hate. Don’t let me hurt him. There are tears on his cheeks, and Julian jerks open Barry’s cabinets to find some tissues. He can’t quite breathe right, wipes at his eyes impatiently and paces the small bathroom like a caged animal. He’s only vaguely aware of Barry knocking on the door and calling for him, barely notices his own nails digging angry red lines into the skin of his arms.
He needs air. There’s no air in here.
But Barry’s right in front of the door. Feeling like he can’t leave, his head splitting with pain, Julian cries. There’s no place for his frustrations to go. Julian tears at his hair, caught in his own mind, a vicious circle of thoughts running from Aidan’s hands on him to his desire to hurt Barry. The headache is threatening to pull him under. Am I going to faint? If I do – Barry – Panicked, Julian reaches out a hand and unlocks the door. Barry pulls it open instantly, takes in Julian’s state and catches him in his arms before Julian can collapse.
He’s not aware of much while Barry gently leads him to the living room couch, hands him a glass of water and reaches for his hand. Barry talks to him, tries to get his breathing to even out, slides a thumb over Julian’s wrist to feel his racing heartbeat. ‘Sssh, Jules, it’s okay. I love you, you know that?’ They haven’t said it before, and the words shock Julian enough to make him fully aware of his surroundings again. He nods slowly. ‘In my bag,’ Julian says once he’s finally calm enough to think rationally, ‘the side pocket. There are prescription painkillers for my head.’ Barry nods, presses a kiss to his temple and leaves to fetch Julian’s pills.
Barry’s eyes never leave the self-inflicted scratches on Julian’s arms while Julian swallows a painkiller, deceptively calm and controlled. ‘What happened?’ Barry says softly. Julian sighs. ‘I don’t know, I – I felt so overwhelmed all of a sudden and I got – trapped in my own head and I couldn’t – I wanted to hurt you, I couldn’t let myself –’
‘You hurt yourself instead,’ Barry points out, then says, ‘Did you want to hurt me out of anger? To stop me? Was I pushing you beyond what you’re comfortable doing, or –’
‘This isn’t your fault, Barry, don’t say that. It was me, you didn’t do anything, I felt like I was no better than Aidan, caring more about myself than about you. Fuck.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Barry admits reluctantly. He can see Julian closing himself off again. ‘No, I mean – please tell me why you think you’re anything like that crass –’
Julian snorts out a bitter laugh. ‘He completely dismissed my feelings and needs too.’
‘Is that what you think you’re doing? Dismissing my needs?’ Barry reaches out to squeeze Julian’s hand. ‘Obviously. I’m putting my messy issues above your perfectly normal need for sex.’
‘If you want to put it like that, yes, but we agreed, remember? I’m fine with waiting.’ Barry wraps his arms around Julian and they lean back against the couch, snuggling up close. Julian closes his eyes and whispers, ‘Sorry you have to put up with so much shit from me.’
‘It’s worth it,’ Barry says softly, pressing his lips to Julian’s forehead.
On Tuesday, Julian skips his lunch break in favour of working on a case. His deadline is tonight and he’s nowhere near done figuring out the intricacies of this week’s classic family dispute over an inheritance. Still, it’s more interesting than bickering neighbours, so Julian can’t complain. With a sigh, he wipes a stray blond curl out of his face and takes a quick bite of his sandwich. Naturally, his mobile rings exactly while he’s chewing. Barry or Caitlin don’t usually call during work hours. Julian forces the food down his throat quickly when he sees Rose Albert on his phone screen. ‘Grandma, hi.’
‘Morning, love. Or afternoon for you, I suppose. Are you on break?’
‘More or less,’ Julian says, ‘I’m on a deadline.’
‘I’m sure you are, dear. Got five minutes to spare for a chat anyway?’
‘Yes,’ Julian says, getting up and deciding to take a stroll down the hall for a change of environment, ‘It’ll clear my head. How are you?’
‘Oh, you know, fine,’ Rose says vaguely, ‘Just some age-related aches and pains. Nothing to worry about though. I want to know about you.’
‘I’m really good. I get to work on more interesting cases now and I want to get this one done as soon as possible, because Barry’s taking me out to dinner tonight.’
‘Oh, nice. A special occasion?’
‘Yes. It’s our four month anniversary.’ Rose whistles between her teeth, a shrill sound that makes Julian pull the phone away from his ear for a moment. ‘Bloody hell, Julian, have you ever stuck with anyone that long?’ Julian laughs. ‘Well...’
‘Your teenage escapades don’t count,’ Rose says, sounding amused. Julian concedes, ‘Then, no. Barry’s special.’
‘Then I hope you two get your happily ever after, or whatever romantic ideal the kids today are pursuing.’ Julian laughs. ‘Thank you. Listen, I should go. Don’t want to work late today.’
‘Of course. Have fun, Julian. Take care.’
‘Bye, Grandma. Love you.’
As it turns out, Julian makes his deadline in the nick of time and rushes home to change into his nicest casual suit. He knows Barry loves to see him in royal blue. Julian texted earlier to ask about dress code.
Is it a suit and tie kind of restaurant?
Isn’t everything a suit and tie occasion for you?
Cute, Barry. Like you don’t love me in a tie.
True that. But yes. I found a suit at the back of my wardrobe. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Barry shows up on his doorstep ten minutes late, citing a phonecall from ‘my idiotic siblings’ as an excuse. ‘Wanted to congratulate me,’ Barry rants, quickly kissing Julian and handing him four red roses, ‘and make some lewd assumptions of what we’d be getting up to later tonight.’ Julian laughs, and kisses Barry to thank him for the flowers. ‘Iris doesn’t seem like the type to make lewd assumptions,’ he states with a twinkle in his eyes. ‘Oh, you’d be surprised. She’s pure evil, my sister, and absolutely lethal in combination with Wally.’
‘Can I see your suit?’ Julian asks, gesturing to Barry’s jacket. His boyfriend grins. ‘Nope. Not until we get there.’
‘Then let’s go,’ Julian says, scrambling around in the kitchen for a vase to put his roses in and checking that Merlin is fast asleep on the couch. ‘Impatient much?’ Barry gripes when he’s dragged outside by Julian’s warm hand. ‘Yes. Do get in the car, please.’
Barry takes them to a rooftop restaurant in a skyscraper. ‘Oh god, I just realised,’ he says when they get in the lift and press the button for the top floor, ‘Please tell me you’re not afraid of heights.’
‘I’m not,’ Julian says, ‘but won’t it be cold outside? It’s October, after all.’
‘They’ve got a really good heating system. I’ve been here before.’
‘With an old boyfriend?’ Julian smirks as they step out of the lift and head for the double doors leading to the restaurant. Barry blushes slightly. ‘Oh my god, really?’
‘It was years ago,’ Barry protests, ‘and just a fling.’ Julian takes his hand. ‘You don’t have to defend yourself, love. We can’t take back the past – and we probably shouldn’t want to. It made us who we are.’ Julian’s eyes are soft and serious, and Barry squeezes his hand, muttering a remark about early-evening philosophy that makes Julian smile even as they’re being seated. Barry unzips his jacket slowly, deliberately prolonging the look of anticipation on Julian’s face. ‘You’re such a tease,’ Julian says. The waiter pulls a face when he hands them the menu.
Barry’s suit is nice. Perhaps a little tight on him, but – nice. It’s some type of forest green, the blazer accentuating his shoulders and waist, and the slacks have been ironed to perfection. ‘That doesn’t look like it spent the last couple of years at the back of your wardrobe,’ Julian says, admiring the cut, the fabric, Barry’s crisp white shirt, the matching green tie that would look great around his wrists – wait, no. ‘I had it dry-cleaned for this occasion,’ Barry admits, pulling Julian’s attention back to the here and now, away from an indulgent fantasy he was about to get lost in. ‘I’ll be thrilled to see what you wear for our first anniversary.’
‘It’ll be made to measure, if I can afford it,’ Barry quips. And it’s there in his eyes – the unspoken agreement they’ll still be together then.
‘I know it’s breaking our routine,’ Barry says after a wonderful dinner, when they’re taking a stroll to the riverside, ‘but can I stay over tonight?’ A smile tugs at the corners of Julian’s mouth. ‘Did you really think I was going to let you leave? On our anniversary?’
‘I know you like your routines. And we won’t be able to snuggle up in the morning.’
‘I’m sure we can compensate for it tonight,’ Julian says, ‘It’s only ten o’clock.’
So they go back to Julian’s place, and Barry watches as Julian lies back on the couch and Merlin tramples all over him, purring and meowing and eventually settling in to sleep in the crook of Julian’s arm. Barry approaches the cat carefully, and says, ‘Hey, Merlin. Any chance I can cuddle with him, too?’ Merlin eyes him warily while Julian shakes with suppressed laughter. Nudging his cat softly, Julian gets up and leads the way to his bedroom.
He seems to greatly enjoy watching Barry strip off his fancy suit piece by piece, making an offhand comment about the tie matching his skin perfectly. ‘Why the tie, specifically?’ Barry says curiously, twirling it around his fingers to draw Julian’s attention even more, ‘Surely it’s the same colour as the rest of the suit.’ To his surprise, Julian blushes and takes his own clothes off quickly, wrapping himself in his dressing gown against the cold. Intrigued, Barry drops the tie onto a pillow, undresses down to his underwear, and crawls into bed. He picks up the tie again, idly sliding it over the skin of his arms and taking note of Julian’s reactions – a slight hitch in his breath, his cheeks reddening, a flash of heat in his eyes. Venturing a guess as to what’s got Julian interested, Barry wraps the silky fabric around his wrist. The colour does contrast nicely with his skin. ‘Do you perhaps have an idea of what we could do with this tie?’ Barry says softly, reaching out to pull Julian in his arms. ‘I want to,’ Julian whispers before kissing him, ‘I want – shit, I shouldn’t...’
‘What do you want, Jules?’ The tie has slipped off his wrist while they kissed, so Barry takes it and gently presses it into Julian’s hand. ‘I want to tie your hands together,’ he admits quietly. ‘So do it,’ Barry says simply.
‘Barry,’ Julian breathes out, shocked by this bold suggestion. Barry shrugs. ‘Why not? I want you to. I trust you. And if you’re worried about – going too far, or ignoring my needs, don’t be. I’ll tell you if something’s wrong.’ He pauses for a moment, rubbing the tie between his fingers and stroking Julian’s hand at the same time. ‘I’m also pretty sure I could rip this apart if need be.’ Julian laughs nervously. ‘This is crazy,’ he says. ‘Yes,’ Barry replies, stretching out on the bed with his hands above his head in a clear invitation. ‘Just breathe, okay. And tell me if it feels wrong for you,’ Barry implores him. ‘Okay,’ Julian says, warmth sparking in his eyes, ‘Okay.’
Julian moves swiftly, kneeling over Barry, his dressing gown falling open to reveal enticing bits of his chest and light blue boxers. While the view occupies Barry’s attention, Julian pins him down, wraps the green tie around Barry’s wrists and ties them together neatly. Barry gives him a peculiar look as he tests his bonds. It’s a serious knot, and to get out of it would require brute force. ‘Where the hell did you learn –’
‘I was in the military, remember?’ Julian smirks, then his face shifts to worried. ‘Not too tight?’
‘Stop worrying, it’s fine,’ Barry says. ‘Right then,’ Julian says firmly, ‘Grab hold of the headboard.’ The corners of Barry’s mouth twitch, like he might laugh, but he reaches out and wraps his fingers around the vertical bars he’s never really paid attention to before now, except to complain that it hurts to sit up against the back of the bed. ‘Okay,’ Julian says, making to get up off the bed, ‘I want you to keep your hands there until I say you can move them.’
‘Fuck it’s hot when you –’ Barry doesn’t finish his sentence, because Julian is traipsing over to the bookcase in the corner and what the fuck is his deal right now? His confusion only mounts when Julian sits down next to him on the bed, not quite touching Barry, and shows him the cover of his book. ‘Finally bought a copy of Hay Fever,’ Julian says casually, as if Barry isn’t right there, in nothing but boxers and with his hands tied up specifically for Julian’s pleasure. ‘Are you seriously going to read right now?’
‘Mmm,’ Julian says, ‘Thought I’d read my favourite scene to you.’ This is a ploy, that much is clear, but Barry can’t for the life of him imagine what purpose this game might serve.
Until Julian begins to read.
‘His heart still pounding from the chase, Hollis followed the shadow of Gabriel’s long legs up the ladder in this quiet, out-of-the-way barn. Emerging on a small hayloft, Hollis saw his supposed enemy already sat on a haystack, his legs casually dangling down.’
‘Oh,’ Barry breathes, and Julian laughs, glad his partner has caught on.
‘Gabriel looked as glamourous as ever, his black hair slicked back and his eyes sparkling with triumph at their daring escape. He watched as Hollis pulled a dark brown cap off and revealed his hair. “I always figured redheads would make terrible spies,” Gabriel said conversationally. “Oh, you’d be surprised how well I can hide in a crowd,” Hollis replied testily, pulling a sandwich out of his bag.’
‘Can’t you skip to the good bit?’ Barry whines, eyeing Julian’s strong legs.
‘No,’ Julian says, ‘These two arguing is the good bit.’
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Oh, I see, Barry. You want to get to the sex, don’t you?’ Julian stretches out a hand to trail over Barry’s chest, lingering around his nipples. ‘You want to hear all about Hollis dropping down to his knees to suck Gabriel off.’ Barry moans softly. ‘Yeah, that sounds nice.’
‘Or should I skip a few pages further still, and get straight to the really good bit? You know, the part where Gabriel bends Hollis over a haystack and fucks him into oblivion.’
‘Fuck, what was in your drink at that restaurant?’ Julian laughs and bends over to kiss Barry. ‘I figure it can’t hurt to get creative, since we can’t really be together the... usual way. For now.’
‘I like the sound of for now,’ Barry admits, straining to reach Julian’s mouth again when the other man pulls away. Julian gives in for a moment, kissing him deeply, then returning his attention to his spy novel. He skips a few pages, summarising them instead. ‘So, basically they eat, and bicker for a bit about who’s the best at hand-to-hand combat and who’s the fastest runner. Then Hollis gets Gabriel to admit he got hold of the important document they’re both after.’
‘Gabriel didn’t deny having the document in his possession, so Hollis pushed on. “Can I see it?” Gabriel snorted derisively. “No.”
“Come on. I’ll take a picture of it and get out of your hair. We don’t need the same intel from it anyway, so we might as well share.” Gabriel leaned forward, his knee nudging against Hollis’. “What’s in it for me, Hollis?” Hollis swallowed nervously. “I could – I’m sure I could make it worth your while.” There was a smirk playing around Gabriel’s lips when he slid a hand over the other man’s leg. “If you do, you can take as many pictures of it as you like.” Hollis cupped the back of Gabriel’s neck and kissed him. Both of them sighed. It really had been too long since they’d had the chance to meet.’
‘They’re such romantics,’ Barry says, sounding pleased. Julian’s mouth quirks in a small smile and he reaches out a hand to stroke Barry’s shoulder. His partner shudders. Julian hopes it’s excitement, but feels it’s better to check. ‘Are you cold?’
‘Uh, will you stop if I am?’ Barry says hesitantly.
‘Barry,’ Julian says sternly.
‘It’s fine. I’d be warmer if you got closer, though.’
Julian’s eyes light up. ‘Oh, well played, Mr Allen.’ He gets off the bed to turn the heating up and when he returns, Julian straddles him, a warm hand splaying over Barry’s stomach as Julian keeps reading from that damned book. His dressing gown falls over Barry’s legs and it is, indeed, warmer this way.
‘Of course their relationship had been doomed from the start, the two rivalling spies reduced to snatching brief moments of freedom when assignments brought them together. But it was worth all the lonely hours, Hollis mused, just to see Gabriel’s smirk lighting up his handsome features as Hollis trailed his fingers over every inch of dark skin he could reach. “We contrast beautifully as ever,” Gabriel said, admiring Hollis’ pale skin where it pressed against his own. No one but Hollis could bring out this tenderness in Gabriel.’
‘Awww,’ Barry says, making Julian laugh and bend over to kiss him. ‘You okay?’ Julian says, gesturing to Barry’s hands. ‘You don’t have to hold on to the headboard if it’s uncomfortable.’
‘I’m – okay, yeah, that’s better,’ Barry sighs when he lets go, flexing his fingers to improve circulation. ‘Should I untie you?’
‘No. I like it.’ Barry shoots him a pleading look. ‘Just a little longer? You can untie me when they get to the good bits.’ Julian nods, slowly kissing Barry’s neck and chest until he’s rewarded with a soft whimper.
‘Hmm. But that’s the part I really want you tied up for.’ All of a sudden, Julian sits up straight again, not touching Barry anywhere except for the heady proximity of their erections.
‘You are an evil bastard,’ Barry hisses.
‘Yeah, I thought it was a good idea, too,’ Julian smirks.
‘Gabriel pulled Hollis onto his own haystack. Hollis went willingly, crawling into Gabriel’s lap. “Are you sure we’re safe here?” Hollis whispered. “I checked. We weren’t followed. And there are no bugs.” Gabriel’s eyes were soft and warm. “I needed to make sure I could be alone with you.” Hollis laughed sweetly, leaning in to kiss Gabriel. “I missed you. All these months on the road by myself, I hated it,” Hollis said softly. “I know. Me too.” There was no more need for talking then, as Gabriel and Hollis kissed, on and on. “Gabe, take my shirt off,” said Hollis, a command his partner was only too glad to obey. Hollis stretched out a hand blindly, still kissing Gabriel, until his fingers found the warm fabric of a winter coat. He wasn’t sure whose it was, but he chucked it on the ground before the haystack, let go of Gabriel, and dropped to his knees.’
Julian puts the book down for a moment, leaning over to untie Barry’s hands and rub his wrists gently. ‘Are you good?’
‘Yes,’ Barry says, bucking his hips up against Julian’s to emphasise his point, and winding his arms around his boyfriend’s neck, pulling him down into a kiss. ‘Yes,’ he says again, ‘I’m good.’
‘Don’t touch me while I continue reading,’ Julian says sternly. Obediently, Barry grabs a pillow and holds on to that so he won’t be tempted to reach for Julian.
‘Gabriel was good at pretending to stay cool and distant in these situations. It was probably part of what made him such a good spy. Still, it took him a lot of willpower to stay calm when Hollis efficiently undid Gabriel’s trousers and informed him, “I’m going to suck your dick.” Gabriel could not quite contain an embarrassing little whine escaping him.’
‘Fuck, your accent,’ Barry grinds out. Julian laughs. ‘You hear me talk all the time.’
‘Not dirty talk,’ Barry says, ‘It’s completely different.’ It really is. Julian is driving him crazy with need. Barry has read this book, and he knows it gets fairly explicit. For some reason, that reminds him of his first conversation with Julian, and how he put Hay Fever on the reading list he was making. ‘I’m suddenly getting second thoughts about my students reading this,’ Barry muses. ‘Have you had any complaints?’ Julian asks, and when Barry shakes his head, he continues, ‘It’s the only sex scene in the book. And anyway, you and I both know your students have seen and read a lot worse than this.’
‘Okay yeah, I’ll grant you that.’
‘Where was I? Oh yeah...’
‘Not much later, Hollis was making good on his statement, kneeling on the wooden floor of the hayloft. Gabriel’s fingers clenched in Hollis’ red curls, and Hollis moaned around his cock. “Yes,” Gabriel hissed, “Yes, like that. Oh god.” He wouldn’t last long, not like this, not when it had been months since he’d touched Hollis or enjoyed his gorgeous, talented mouth. But Gabriel didn’t want to come like this, so he gently pushed Hollis away. As ever, the other man seemed to read his mind. “Want to fuck me?” Hollis suggested, already unbuckling his belt. “God, yes. Uh, do you have –”
“Mm, in my pockets somewhere.” Hollis started feeling around in the coat he had been kneeling on and after a moment, triumphantly pulled out a small packet of lube and a condom. Gabriel gave him a knowing smirk, and Hollis simply said that good spies always come prepared.’
‘Julian, I –’ Barry can’t quite say it, but he needs to come soon. Julian seems to know the feeling – his eyes are feverish, raking over Barry’s barely-clothed body, and he finally shrugs off his dressing gown. ‘Just a little more,’ he promises huskily, ‘Until they – then we – I don’t know. Use the bathroom.’ He bites his lip, clearly nervous about this suggestion. It isn’t exactly a titillating thing to say, let’s wank ourselves off separately. But Barry gets it, won’t let him worry about it, his eyes begging for a kiss, willingly given.
‘Gabriel never bothered to take off all his clothes that night. He vaguely thought it was unfair on Hollis, who was stark naked and bent over a prickly haystack, but his partner didn’t protest. In fact, Hollis did quite the opposite, because as ever, he was vocal in his appreciation of Gabriel’s skills. “Fuck yes, Gabe, just do it, fuck me harder, you know I can take it.” Gabriel’s coarse woollen shirt pressed against his back as the haystack did to his front, and it felt wonderful, twin sensations of exquisite pain even as Gabriel brought him so much pleasure. “You feel so good,” Gabriel moaned, “Don’t ever want to miss this feeling again. Nearly there, oh shit, Hollis.” Gabriel came with a shout, and Hollis followed soon after, barely touched. Collapsing together, they shared sweet nothings that were only ever spoken in whispers between them, in moments just like this.’
Julian closes the book, chucks it to the side and kisses Barry deeply. Barry moans into his mouth, wanting more, more of Julian, more of everything. ‘Shit, Jules, I can’t,’ he spits out, and Julian lets him go. Barry rushes to the bathroom and it’s a heady sensation to bring himself off here, knowing Julian is doing the same right on the other side of the wall. He can almost definitely hear Barry grinding out his name when he comes.
They curl up in bed together, after. ‘That was... I don’t know what to say,’ Barry sighs. Julian laughs. ‘Maybe I should start narrating audiobooks to earn some extra cash.’
‘And share your gorgeous voice with anyone but me? Forget it.’ Still laughing, Barry turns off the light and goes to sleep in Julian’s arms.
It’s Friday night, and Julian and Barry are getting ready for a visit from Caitlin and Felicity. They’re dancing around each other in Julian’s bathroom, the carpet warm under their feet, and Julian’s reaching for his razor when Barry catches him in his arms. He keeps one hand on Julian’s shoulder, the other around his waist, and nuzzles his boyfriend’s neck. Keeping his eyes on their reflection, Barry watches Julian’s expression change as he mouths along the skin of his shoulder. ‘Mmm,’ Julian hums, setting about applying shaving cream to his stubble. Barry keeps his hands on Julian’s bare skin while he shaves, laughing when Julian tells him to comb his hair properly for once. ‘Did I clean the living room?’ Julian says suddenly, coinciding with the feel of Barry’s tongue on the back of his neck. ‘Twice,’ Barry groans, ‘Anyway, I didn’t think we were putting on a five star dinner. You said it was Chinese take-out with Caitlin and Felicity.’
‘Okay, yes,’ Julian says while squeezing toothpaste onto his brush, ‘but I don’t want my friends to think I live in a pigsty now that I’m going steady.’ Barry laughs at his old-fashioned expression, finally letting Julian go and picking up his shirt. ‘Did you give me a hickey back there?’ Julian sounds strict. ‘Uh. Maybe? Don’t worry, your collar will hide it.’
‘I don’t believe this,’ Julian says with a mouth full of toothpaste, ‘This evening is going to be disastrous.’
‘You’re not usually so nervous about playing the host. At least not to me.’
‘Well, this is different.’ Julian rinses out his mouth. ‘It feels like we, as a couple, are receiving our friends. There’s something very official about it.’
‘I haven’t moved in just yet, you know,’ Barry says, winking at him in the mirror. It earns him a tight smile, at least.
Julian’s nerves dissipate soon after Caitlin and Felicity arrive carrying plastic bags full of Chinese food and two bottles of white wine. ‘I’ve never been here before,’ Felicity says brightly, looking around Julian’s living room. ‘Nice couch,’ she adds, pointing to the red sofa. Barry’s just settling down in it. Caitlin drags her girlfriend to the much subtler cream-coloured couch. Julian’s rummaging around in the kitchen, bringing out plates and glasses. Barry observes him with a small smile lingering on his lips. ‘Still completely smitten, I see,’ Caitlin says, smiling at the looks Julian and Barry are exchanging. ‘Nonsense,’ Julian says, his face reddening.
Soon, everyone’s tucking in and Caitlin regales the group with tall tales from her work at the hospital. ‘The cool thing about this relationship,’ Felicity says, ‘is that when people ask what my girlfriend does for a living, I get to tell them that she saves lives.’ Caitlin chuckles. ‘You save lives metaphorically by selling people coffee.’
‘True that,’ Barry chimes in.
‘But I don’t get flowers on my birthday from a man whose life I saved when I was still in training. That sort of thing only happens to Cait.’
‘Really?’ Barry says, interested. Caitlin looks slightly embarrassed. ‘Yeah, I did a couple of years in ER when I was a resident. Saved some people and lost many others. But this one man, George, he got a heart attack right there in the hospital while visiting his wife. I was his doctor, he made it through. And every year he sends flowers, regular as clockwork.’
‘That’s really sweet,’ Barry says.
‘I think George is pretty sweet on you, actually,’ Felicity tells her girlfriend. ‘Oh, stop it,’ Caitlin says with a blush.
‘But does it make up for all the times people chew you out when you can’t help them?’
Julian looks surprised at Barry’s question and turns to Caitlin. ‘Do patients really do that?’
‘Oh yes they do. Some of them are downright horrible to their doctors,’ Caitlin confirms. Barry shrugs. ‘Parents bitch at us all the time because their kids think they’re being treated unfairly. Figured there wouldn’t be a lot of difference.’
‘Is it tempting sometimes to give students grades based on how you like them?’ Felicity asks, curious. ‘Sure,’ Barry says, launching into a lengthy explanation, ‘I’d love to knock someone’s grades if they shout abuse at me in class. And if a kid’s really nice, I want to grade them better. But these days we have to justify every grade we give in so much detail they’ve made that almost impossible. I can’t justify a bad grade if they’ve scored well on all the individual components like spelling, language, contents and so on. Still, I’m not complaining about the system, it’s easier to be fair this way.’
‘But it’s so much work,’ Julian pitches in, ‘I’ve seen him do it. Takes hours.’ Barry smiles and squeezes Julian’s hand. ‘Working from home is part of the job. I don’t mind it.’ Then he laughs, ‘Though it was easier when I didn’t have a boyfriend I wanted to spend all my time with.’
‘Oh, you wouldn’t have it any other way,’ Julian says with a smirk. ‘You two are adorable,’ Caitlin says, reaching for the wine to top up everyone’s glasses.
An hour later, Felicity’s still fascinated by the red couch. ‘I bet that’s seen some action,’ she says, now on her third glass of wine. Barry sputters and Julian blushes bright red. ‘Oh, it has,’ Felicity sounds positively gleeful. ‘No. We’re not talking about this,’ Barry says firmly. Julian shoots him a grateful look and strokes his hand. ‘Fine,’ Felicity pouts, ‘Ugh. I’d better switch to water.’
‘Did you drive here?’ Julian asks, concerned, while Barry fetches a bottle of water.
‘No no, we took a cab, don’t worry,’ Caitlin says.
It’s well after midnight when Caitlin and Felicity leave, barely tipsy at all anymore, with promises to meet again soon. Barry helps Julian clean up and they fall into bed together, exhausted, and planning to sleep until noon tomorrow.
By Halloween, autumn has set in properly. The trees in Central City are losing their leaves quickly, darkness sets in before dinner time, and it’s mighty cold out already. Barry’s a little bored and lazy tonight. He doesn’t feel like working and nothing seems to capture his attention for long. Fortunately he can always kill some time texting Julian, which is just one of the many advantages of their relationship.
Ugh, my sweater’s itchy. Probably shouldn’t have bought this one in the first place.
Maybe you should take it off. Unless you’re cold.
No, good point, I can do without it. Oh, that’s much better.
What else are you wearing?
Barry blinks slowly and does a double take. Did Julian just... It sounds like a cliché, a line one would use to start... Well, something Julian can’t possibly intend to finish. Moments later, he gets another text.
I’m wearing that blue dress shirt. The one you like.
The, uh, tight one?
Yes. And my black skinny jeans.
Oh god. There’s really no doubt what Julian’s trying to do here, and it makes Barry’s stomach flutter. How is he supposed to react?
I’m wearing old jeans and a T-shirt that... come to think of it, it’s yours. Green geometric patterns.
Oh, I’m sure you just *forgot* that it’s mine. Were you thinking about me?
It smells of you. You left it here last weekend.
Miss me already?
You know I do. But this shirt is very comfy.
Take it off.
You serious right now?
I’m always serious. Go on. I’ll take off mine too, if it makes you feel better.
Barry shrugs off Julian’s shirt and goes to turn up the heating.
God. Okay, fine, I took it off. Do you know what you’re doing here?
Figuring it out as I go along. Fortunately I’ve got a lot of free texts on my mobile subscription.
Mobile subscription? Oh yes, talk dirty to me.
Whatever, Barry. I’m on my red couch. There’s a whiff of your aftershave in the pillows, did you know?
Damn, I love the red couch. It’s so... red.
We suck at this, don’t we?
Yeah. We do. But you may be on the right track with ‘sucking’.
Barry imagines Julian bursting out laughing when he reads that, but he’s unprepared for the response he gets.
Think of me sucking you off a lot, do you?
Not the reply I was expecting from you.
And. Yes. I have thought about it.
Me too. I think about your pretty mouth. And how it would feel.
Shit. That’s hot. I want to
I know. And we will, eventually.
I’ll be so good for you, when you’re ready.
Yeah? What are you going to do?
I’m gonna undress you so, so slowly. Take off your jacket and undo your posh tie, loosen the buttons on your dress shirt one by one.
So far so good.
Then I’ll kiss you, all over your face, chest and back. Make you desperate for more.
I hope you’ll be shirtless too by then.
Of course. I’ll unbuckle your belt while you do mine.
Barry does as he’s said, pushing his jeans down far enough so he can easily reach his cock, when they get to that.
What colour boxers are you wearing right now?
Uh, a sort of dark teal.
Right, so I’m going to drag your teal boxers down and then...
Barry reaches into his own underwear to relieve the tension by stroking himself a few times.
Julian somehow manages to make a text message sound breathless, it’s amazing.
Then I’ll take you into my mouth and suck you off so slowly that you’ll be begging for mercy, begging me to do it faster.
Oh god. Yes, Barry, more, I need – feels so good...
Are you touching yourself?
Yes. Obviously. And I’ll push my hand in your hair, make you go down on me faster.
Shit, yes, I’ll like that. You controlling the pace. Taking what you need.
Barry’s clumsily typing with his left hand, rapidly wanking with his right, losing himself in the fantasy. His head falls down on the back of the sofa, his breath escaping in little pants.
Don’t make me come yet. I want to fuck you before the night is over.
Barry’s glad Julian can’t hear his embarrassing whimper upon reading that message.
Yes, yes, I want you to. I’ll be so ready for you.
Mm, I know you will be. My good boy. I’ll stretch you so nicely.
Fuck, Jules, I’m gonna come.
Doesn’t matter. I’ll fuck you right through it. I’m close too.
Barry’s breath is loud, so loud, in his empty apartment as he comes with a low groan.
Shit, that was so good. Did you...?
Yes. Felt brilliant.
Thank you. For doing this.
It was mutually beneficial. Believe me.
Will this make it awkward when we meet tomorrow?
Only for the first ten minutes, I expect.
It’s a Saturday in early November and Barry’s at Julian’s place leafing through a new geography book he may switch to using next year. Julian’s getting a head start on dinner. Lasagna, judging by the ingredients Barry saw him collect earlier. The geography course is so boring that Barry’s actually dozing off when a sharp buzzing jerks him back to full consciousness. And it isn’t even his phone.
‘Your phone’s ringing,’ Barry says, lazily spread out on the couch. ‘Who is it?’ Julian calls from the kitchen. Barry glances at the phone, then frowns. He’s not familiar with the name, but he can take an educated guess who it is. ‘Uh. Richard Albert Desmond.’ Julian appears next to him faster than should be humanly possible. ‘What?’ He hesitates for only a second before answering the phone. ‘Hello? Dad?’
‘Julian.’ Richard’s gruff voice comes down the line clearly, ‘I know we parted on bad terms the last time we spoke.’
‘My mother – Grandma Rose – passed away yesterday.’ Julian clutches the phone to his ear, turning pale. Worried, Barry reaches out to take his hand as Julian sinks down on the couch. ‘Grandma’s... gone?’ His voice cracks and damn, he’s speaking to his father for the first time in a year and now he’s going to cry. But it’s okay, because Barry’s here, and Richard sounds choked up too. ‘She had a heart attack,’ his father explains, ‘but she’d been unwell for a while.’
‘I phoned her sometimes,’ Julian protests, ‘She never said.’
‘She didn’t want to worry you. Listen, Julian, I don’t know if you can, I don’t know if you want to. But if you should choose to attend the funeral, please know that you would be very welcome.’ Julian closes his eyes and feels Barry’s finger gently wiping at his tears. He swallows harshly and says, ‘When is it?’
Barry holds him, lets him cry for hours and laughs sadly at the anecdotes Julian tells about his Grandma Rose. Then he tells Julian, quite firmly, that he needs to go to the funeral. ‘You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t. Go.’ Julian looks unsure still. ‘If I had any other job, I’d get time off and come with,’ Barry says, and Julian can tell he means it.
‘But you can’t do that. You have to teach. Anyway, my parents are – they’re not exactly jumping for joy at the thought of being introduced to my boyfriend. I’ll have to go it alone.’
‘I can help you with the arrangements, though. Organise your plane and all that.’
‘Will you get the time off work?’
‘I’ll call Spencer later to ask. It’s quiet at the moment, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem.’
Julian’s quiet for a bit, then says, ‘I remember telling Grandma that I’d met you. And that we definitely weren’t dating, no way.’ Barry laughs at that, and then so does Julian. ‘I did tell her though, later. She knew that – that I’m in good hands.’ Barry’s arms tighten around him.
Julian’s flight leaves on Monday afternoon. He’ll stay in a hotel in the centre of Richmond for three days, then fly back on Friday. ‘I can easily take a bus from there to the very edge of London,’ Julian tells Barry, pointing it out on Google Maps, ‘To the family estate.’
‘Your family has an estate?’ Julian rolls his eyes. ‘More like a large garden, but that’s what they call it. I mean, yeah, we’ve got a few pastures for the horses. Other than that, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.’ He pauses, then says, ‘I don’t miss it one bit.’
There is no question of them sleeping apart on Sunday night. Julian finishes packing his bags save for a few items from the bathroom he’ll have to remember to pick up tomorrow. Barry’s playing around on a flight radar website, figuring out how to follow Julian’s route. ‘You know I’m going to be worried stupid the whole time you’re gone, right?’ Barry says casually.
‘Nonsense,’ Julian says, ‘You’re going to actually get your work done, catch up on sleep, see your family and friends. You won’t even notice I’m not here.’
‘Yeah, I see that happening. Come on, let’s get to bed so I can cuddle you as long as possible.’
‘Such a romantic,’ Julian says, letting Barry lead him to the bedroom.
They don’t even bother with undressing for bed, opting instead to slip under the covers fully dressed for the moment. It’s a weird thing to do, but Julian forgets all about it when Barry kisses him passionately. Julian responds eagerly and Barry sighs when he finds himself pressed into the mattress. That sigh does it for Julian, and he figures now is as good a time as any to start this conversation.
‘Barry. If I’m wrong, by all means tell me, but...’ Barry gives him a confused look. ‘You, uh, do you like it when I take the lead?’ Julian gestures to both of them and the bed to clarify his point. ‘I mean, it seems like it isn’t just about making me comfortable anymore.’
Barry breathes in sharply. ‘It’s... yeah, I like it when you’re, um. Dominant.’ Julian feels relieved now that it’s out in the open, but no less nervous. ‘Have you ever done any... dom/sub stuff?’
‘A little,’ Barry admits, ‘Bit of power play, not much, and I like some mild pain. Scratching, biting. You’ve noticed my reaction to that.’
‘I haven’t done any of this, and it’s probably not a discussion we should have right now, but I might like to experiment with it, if you want? Being in control is... maybe not entirely good for me, but it feels safe.’ Barry’s eyes are full of wonder. ‘I – yes. I’d like that very much.’
‘I have read up on this online, I don’t want you to think I’m going in blind.’
Barry surges forward and kisses him. ‘I know how thorough you are, love.’
‘I have just one more question then,’ Julian says with a smirk, ‘What’s your safeword?’
Right off the bat, two things are clear. Julian has all the makings of a balanced, excellent top. And this is going to be sweet torture on Barry, because they’re still not actually having sex. Julian is clearly intent on doing his level best to drive Barry crazy with need before the night is over. So he encourages Barry to strip most of his clothes off, kisses random paths down his arms and chest, squeezes a nipple gently and then, when Barry moans, does it again, harder. Julian enjoys having the reins now, loves watching his boyfriend turn into a pliant mess underneath him. Definitely not a one-time thing, he thinks through the haze as he undresses down to his underwear and tries to decide what to do with Barry next. Julian’s new idea puts a smirk on his face. He leans over to kiss Barry deeply, then trails his fingers down to the waistband of his dark blue boxers, teasing, forever teasing.
‘Turn over for me, darling,’ Julian whispers, giving Barry the room to do so. There’s no hesitation from the other man, and it sends a thrill of power through Julian. Kneeling over Barry, he peppers kisses down the exposed back in front of him and then when Barry least expects it, Julian bites down on his shoulder lightly. ‘Oh!’ Barry groans, coaxing a smile from Julian as he settles his entire body over his boyfriend’s, mouth pressed to his neck and hands pinning Barry’s to the mattress. Slowly, Julian begins moving over him, his erection rubbing over the fabric covering Barry’s lovely ass. It isn’t quite everything, but it’s enough for now, it’s an amount of pleasure Julian can handle without becoming overwhelmed. Seems to be doing the trick for his boyfriend, too. Barry moans and writhes beneath him, twisting his head around for a messy kiss, seeking friction by rutting against the mattress. Julian can easily reach his neck to mark him up with lovebites, and all the while, he keeps up the relentless movement of his hips.
‘Jules, oh,’ Barry begs, ‘If you don’t – you have to stop if you don’t want me to come, I – fuck –’
‘I do want you to come,’ Julian whispers close to his ear. He releases his grip on Barry’s right hand. ‘Touch yourself for me. Through your boxers.’ Barry shudders and pushes his hand into the tight space between himself and the mattress to obey Julian’s command. ‘Please, please, Julian, I need to come – can I?’ A heady feeling rushes through Julian when he realises Barry is actually asking his permission to come. ‘Shit,’ Julian grinds out, ‘Yes, yes, you can.’
Julian’s name is the only word on Barry’s lips when he comes, almost sobbing into the pillow.
Julian lets go and rolls off him, settling down on a pillow and looking at Barry with a smile as the other man turns over and gazes at the ceiling while he catches his breath.
‘Are you okay?’ Julian asks. He’s barely been rough at all, but still.
‘Are you kidding?’ Barry counters, ‘Never better.’ His eyes drop to the bulge in Julian’s own boxers. ‘Do you want me to take care of you?’ he asks sincerely, uncertain about this change in the rules. But Julian shakes his head. ‘I’d rather not, I... I’m not quite ready yet.’ Barry nods. ‘I understand.’ He smiles brightly at Julian, blissed out. ‘Thank you,’ Barry whispers, kissing him softly. Julian moans at Barry’s touch, then pulls away. ‘Sorry,’ Barry says, shifting away from Julian and wincing at the sticky feeling when he moves. ‘Bathroom. I might be a while,’ Barry says with a wink, getting up. His intent is clear. ‘Do save some hot water for me,’ Julian calls out to Barry’s retreating back. Once he hears the bathroom door fall shut, Julian lies back and reaches into his underwear, pulling the waistband down for better access. It should be weird to jerk off with Barry only one door down taking a shower (is he singing? Sounds like he is), but he’s too turned on to be bothered. Thinking about the way Barry looked and sounded pinned beneath him, it hardly takes any time at all. He cleans himself up with some tissues, carries them to the dustbin in the kitchen and on the way back knocks on the bathroom door. ‘You can come out if you want,’ he says. Barry sounds pleased. ‘I’ll be there in a minute. Left you plenty of water.’ Julian drifts back to his bedroom to wait.
When Julian gets back from a delightful shower, Barry’s sitting up in bed wearing woolly pyjamas, his nose buried in a book. It’s such a domestic picture that Julian’s heart clenches in his chest. Keeping his dressing gown on for the moment, Julian joins his boyfriend beneath the sheets. Barry puts his book away with a smile and reaches out to draw Julian into his arms. Neither of them speaks at first, happy to just sit together in silence. It would seem that now’s the right time to breach a subject that makes Julian nervous. He coughs lightly and Barry looks at him expectantly. ‘I, uh. I went to the doctor this week to get tested.’
Barry frowns at him. ‘Are you sick?’
‘Not that kind of test.’ Barry seems confused. ‘What other kind of test is there –’ Julian gives him a pointed look. ‘Oh! Right. So what did she say?’
‘Well – I mean, I was pretty sure I was clean, but I didn’t want to risk anything.’
‘And?’ Barry appears nervous too now, impatient. ‘Oh, yeah. I’m clean.’ Barry smiles and leans in for a kiss. ‘I went to my doctor three weeks ago,’ he confesses, ‘I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make you feel pressured. But, yeah. I’m clean too. That’s good, clearly.’ Julian nods. ‘I don’t know what’s next for us. I mean, this obviously changes things.’ Barry kisses him again. ‘I’m really glad you trust me with this now.’ Julian takes his hand and looks at Barry’s fingers when he says, ‘I’m not saying we shouldn’t use protection. But I just don’t want us to have to worry about touching each other.’
Barry gives him a soft, fond smile and says, ‘I agree. Shall we sleep?’
‘Might as well,’ Julian says, shrugging off his dressing gown, turning onto his side and spooning Barry.
At six thirty the next morning, the alarm clock goes off too soon for Barry’s tastes. Another work day – and Julian’s leaving today. Technically, Julian could turn over and sleep for another hour, but he stretches lazily, pulls Barry in close and whispers, ‘I don’t want to go,’ into the darkness. Barry stills in his arms, his back pressed to Julian’s bare chest. Up until now, his boyfriend hasn’t given any indication of this sentiment. ‘I mean, I know I have to. But...’
‘Nobody’s forcing you to get on that plane,’ Barry says, his voice low and sleepy, ‘But I think you’ll always regret it if you don’t go.’ Julian stays silent for a few minutes, and Barry’s almost drifted back into a slumber when he hears him say, ‘You’re right.’ Julian’s lips brush the back of Barry’s neck. Barry hums softly and reaches for the light switch. ‘I have to get ready for work.’
‘I’ll fix us some breakfast while you pack your bag. Your book reports were under the sink in the bathroom when I last saw them, heaven only knows why,’ Julian says, forcing himself out of bed. ‘The girl who wrote about Hay Fever is definitely bisexual,’ Barry replies, completely beside the point, ‘She practically admits it in her conclusion. And I was correcting them after I took a shower.’
‘I’m surprised your paperwork never ends up soaking wet, the way you drag it around everywhere.’
‘It’s been known to happen,’ Barry says with a shrug, ‘My students think it’s funny.’ Barry pauses before halting Julian in his tracks. ‘Julian.’
Julian’s about to leave the room while Barry’s still in bed, always slow to move in the mornings. He turns around to face his boyfriend, who says, ‘About last night.’ Julian smiles widely and gestures for Barry to continue. ‘That was... as amazing as it was unexpected.’ Julian laughs, blushes, and disappears around the corner. ‘I had fun too!’ he calls out. Grinning, Barry drags himself out of their warm bed (and when did it become their bed instead of Julian’s?) and sets about collecting his clothes and paperwork.
All too soon, it’s time for Barry to leave for work. Julian runs him through his cat-sitting duties again. ‘Do you have the keys? Don’t forget to feed Merlin at least twice a day, please.’ He expects a snarky response from Barry or reassurances that he won’t let Julian’s cat starve, but that doesn’t happen.
‘Barry,’ Julian says, surprised when his boyfriend catches him in a tight hug and refuses to let go. ‘Be safe, yeah?’ Barry says, sounding choked up. ‘Of course,’ Julian tells him softly, ‘I’ll see you in a week.’ They kiss warmly for an endless moment. ‘Now go, or you’ll be late for work.’
‘I love you,’ Barry says, grabbing hold of his bag and his keys. ‘Me too.’ Julian watches Barry leave, staring at the front door for a minute before tearing his eyes away. He packs up the rest of his clothes, makes sure his flat is clean, and settles down on the couch to cuddle with Merlin for a while. He can’t make up for his absence in advance, but hopefully Barry’s visits will help.
Julian likes being alone, but he dislikes travelling alone. The long hours spent waiting at the airport drag on endlessly. It’s not much better once he’s on the plane. He’s got a book, his sketchpad, music player and the onboard entertainment system, but there are still hours left to fill once Julian feels he’s exhausted all his possibilities. Thinking about Rose and the upcoming week sours his mood even further, so eventually he settles for an uneasy sleep.
By the time Julian’s hauled his luggage up and down the stairs in three different Tube stations, his suitcases seem to weigh a ton. ‘Should’ve taken a taxi,’ he grumbles to himself when he finally emerges in busy Richmond during the morning rush. Fortunately, it’s not far to his hotel now. On the way there Julian takes note of a few restaurants for dinner over the next few days. The sun is still rising over the city. He stops by the supermarket to grab something for breakfast, once his stomach feels up to it. Maybe he shouldn’t have eaten so much on the flight. The staff at Julian’s hotel graciously allows him to leave his luggage there until this afternoon when he can check in. He’s meeting his parents around lunchtime, which leaves him with a couple of hours to fill. He texts Barry to let him know that he’s landed, but it’s the middle of the night in Central City, so he’s not expecting a response until later.
Julian takes a stroll along the road to Kew, glad for the chance to stretch his legs after the long hours cooped up on the plane. He’s always liked Kew more than Richmond, where he grew up. It’s got a greener, more quietly suburban feel than busy Richmond, though of course the latter’s gigantic park makes up for a lot of the differences. Julian walks, clearing his head, all the way to Kew Bridge. He finds a bench and enjoys his sandwich with a view of the river and several small islands, thickly covered in trees. Checking his watch, Julian decides to catch a bus back and look around the shops for a bit before heading to his childhood home.
Taking a deep breath, Julian rings the doorbell of his family’s beautiful townhouse on top of a small hill. The Thames winds through the green landscape far below. It’s been too long since he saw this and the view stuns him anew. Right behind an overgrown plant, Julian can still make out a sign that’s been on their house since his childhood:
James and Rose
Richard and Marjorie
Emma and Julian
It’s hardly surprising his parents have let the plant grow freely. Half the people on the sign are dead and Julian hasn’t lived here in years. His father opens the door and offers Julian a solid handshake, inviting him in. ‘Good to see you, son. Your mother’s in the living room, come on through.’ His father looks older, Julian notes with a tinge of sadness as he follows him into the house. ‘Hello, Mum,’ Julian says when they enter the parlour, and the next moment, his mother’s hugging him uncharacteristically tight. Her shoulders are shaking and Julian frowns. ‘Are you crying?’
‘Well of course I am,’ Marjorie sniffs, ‘You’re my only son and I haven’t seen you in a year.’ Drawing back a little, Marjorie drags her fingers through Julian’s loose curls and says, ‘You need a haircut.’ Julian laughs. This is familiar territory, because they have this discussion every time they meet. ‘It’s not that long. Anyway, I like my hair like this.’ And so does Barry, but it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie for the moment. ‘Coffee, Julian?’ Richard asks warmly, and Julian happily accepts.
‘You’ll be staying for lunch, I hope?’ his mother asks, admiring the cut of his dress shirt. ‘Of course,’ Julian concedes. They make smalltalk at first, over coffee and shortbread, catching up with each other’s lives. Richard is planning to retire next year, leaving his law firm to his younger partner. No one mentions that the plan once was for Julian to take over the firm. Marjorie still does administrative work for one of the local golf clubs, interacting with the rich and influential on the daily. Just the way she likes it, Julian thinks with some degree of bitterness.
‘So what happened with Grandma?’ Julian says eventually, once they’re tucking in to bread rolls and soup. His father shifts uncomfortably in his chair and it’s Marjorie who answers. ‘Rose saw quite a lot of doctors over the past year. She wasn’t well, but no one knew what was wrong with her. Old age, they said. And when she got the heart attack, we called the ambulance straight away, but there was nothing they could do.’ They all remain quiet for several minutes. It’s the first time in years that Julian feels they are still a family, huddled around the table, united in their grief.
No one notices that the soup goes cold.
It’s mid-afternoon when Julian leaves his parents’ house. He checks into his small but functional hotel room and collapses on the bed. His first priority is to phone Barry, who picks up on the first ring. ‘Hi, it’s me.’
‘Hey, Jules. Did you arrive okay?’
‘Yes, just got checked in now. Wait, aren’t you working? What time is it?’
‘Er, around ten. I’m not teaching until ten thirty today. How are you feeling?’
‘I’m desperate for a nap, to be honest. The time difference always plays havoc with my sleep schedule. I saw my parents this afternoon, and now I’m ready to crash. But I wanted to talk to you first.’ Julian imagines Barry’s bright smile on the other end of the line.
‘How was the meeting with your parents?’
‘Um, okay. A bit awkward at first. Then sad, when we talked about Grandma.’
‘Of course,’ Barry says softly.
‘I just – I just want the funeral to be over, so I can begin to move on. It feels weird, being here when Grandma isn’t – when she won’t ever be –’
‘I know, Jules. I know. I wish I could be there with you.’
‘I think you are,’ Julian says gently, eyeing a framed picture of Barry that he brought with him, wrapped in plastic and cloth for protection. They wish each other a good day soon after, promising to text later. Julian draws the curtains in his room and curls up on his side. Imagining Barry’s warm presence next to his, Julian sinks into a deep sleep.
It’s dark when Julian wakes up again and stumbles into the shower in hopes of properly regaining consciousness. It works, up to a point. He decides to change into his pyjamas and blindly reaches into his bag of toiletries to find his toothbrush. It’s not where he usually stashes it, so he turns to rifle through the bag looking for it. ‘Oh shit,’ Julian mutters under his breath. No toothbrush. No toothpaste. And in a flash, he remembers cleaning his teeth the previous afternoon and putting his things right back in the drawer under the washbasin. Swearing some more, Julian puts his clothes back on and glances through the window of his hotel room. It’s late, but the Sainsbury’s across the street is still open. Bless London work hours, Julian thinks as he rushes down the stairs, out the door and into the supermarket. After purchasing the necessary items and a wholly unnecessary box of fine chocolates as a souvenir for Barry, Julian impulsively stops at a small restaurant for a takeaway pizza. He hasn’t had a hot meal since the airplane, after all. He sneaks it up the stairs in his hotel and then he’s finally able to relax in his room.
He turns the TV on for the weather forecast (clear skies but very cold), bites into his spicy pizza and texts Barry. After a bit of trial and error, Julian manages to log in on the hotel’s free WiFi and they spend a pleasant hour messaging back and forth. Julian’s wide awake now and it’s only dinnertime in Central City. The temptation to keep talking into the night is strong, but Julian needs to wake up early for the funeral tomorrow. Barry wishes him strength and promises to call when he can.
It’s freezing cold on the cemetery, and Julian finds it surprisingly peaceful here. He stays behind for a bit after his extended family leaves to have lunch at his parents’ house. Julian kneels on a tapestry of fallen leaves and whispers, ‘I wish you would have let me say goodbye,’ to his grandmother’s freshly marked grave. He’s crying openly as he puts a rose on her tomb and one on Emma’s, right next to it.
The muscles in his back tense when Julian gets up, his legs tingling, and walks away.
Julian wakes up early on Thursday morning. His parents invited him to come by for breakfast, but it’s far too early to leave – not even seven o’clock. Unable to go back to sleep, Julian gets up and ruffles through his suitcase to find something to wear. Unexpectedly, right at the bottom, he encounters his riding breeches. He remembers packing them just in case he... An idea taking shape in his mind, Julian dons the trousers and packs a pair of jeans and a clean shirt in a bag along with a bottle of water. The supermarket near the station is just opening up, and Julian stops to buy some carrots and a ham sandwich. The morning rush has yet to start, so Julian climbs to the upper deck and eats his sandwich while the bus takes him to his parents’ estate.
It’s a good thing Julian always kept his key, so he doesn’t have to wake anyone up when he sneaks through the house and into the garden. His feet take him where he needs to go. The stables still smell the same as they always did. Julian even finds his old riding boots and cap tucked away in a corner next to Emma’s. It’s odd, like both of their riding gear is here as a memorial. He pulls on the boots and steps deeper into the stables. There are three horses present. Julian doesn’t see Sydney for the moment, but Adelaide’s right there in front of him. He steps into her box carefully, approaching on her left side. ‘Hey girl. Did you miss me?’ The horse neighs softly, pushing her nose against his hand. It’s been too long since he saw Adelaide, and Julian’s helplessly pleased to find her alive and well. He presses his nose into her dark grey mane to inhale her scent, watches her eat carrots from his hand. ‘What do you say you and I go for a ride?’ Julian whispers into his horse’s ear. He saddles her quickly, puts on his cap and leads Adelaide outside. The streets are relatively quiet according to London standards, and Julian knows a back road to the park. The sun’s rising behind a few strands of mist. It’s going to be a beautiful, cold winter day, and Julian’s glad for his thick coat.
The park hasn’t been open long when Julian arrives. He takes a moment to orient himself on the map, then heads for a trail he remembers riding many times. They’re alone here, amongst the trees and the rust-coloured leaves covering the ground, and it feels wonderful. Adelaide still remembers his touch. She reacts to every twitch of Julian’s hands and legs as if she can read his mind. Julian encourages her to adopt a light trot. Looking off to the north, Julian knows the cemetery is behind the trees there somewhere. He was there yesterday, of course. Burying his grandmother right next to his sister. His two favourite family members, gone. Rose often took Julian and Emma here when they were kids, to walk or cycle or climb the hills and admire the view from the top.
Wandering through the park at dawn, reunited with his favourite horse, it’s easy to become lost in his memories.
Unlike their parents, Rose had never promised them later. No, ‘later, when you’ve grown up, you’ll be the heirs to our estate,’ or ‘you’ll be lawyers just like us,’ or ‘you can’t understand this, not until later, when you’re older’. Phrases that indicated they had no choice in the matter. Rose had watched her grandchildren play happily, Emma always with her hands in a pond or a stream, searching for life as her brother stared up at the sky looking for the rest of the universe. They dragged scientific books out into the furthest reaches of the gardens to investigate and name the insects and animals they found there. When they were even younger, Rose invented stories starring their favourite plush toys and dolls, and sentenced herself to years of telling the same stories over and over again.
Rose taught both of them to drive, first Emma and Julian a few years later. Julian remembers how envious he was of people who got to learn in small towns instead of London’s crazy busy traffic. In hindsight, Rose must have feared for her life on several occasions. Then when Julian first moved to the USA, it felt like he had to learn all over again, driving an automatic on the other side of the road.
Emma likes to help Grandma Rose pick out groceries, but Julian is content to sit on the floor in the book department and read a comic book Rose’ll buy for him later. Nobody bothers him here, and the bright colours of the supermarket are pleasantly out of sight. Someone asks him if he’s lost, sometimes, when they see the little boy reading, but he just shakes his head and they leave.
Julian was never lost, back then.
His grandpa James teaches Julian to draw, seated at the living room table and surrounded by pencils and a book with detailed drawings of birds that they try to replicate. He inherited his grandfather’s talent, and that surprises people more than it should. His mother is especially annoyed by all the time Julian spends reading and drawing instead of playing football with other boys his age. She seems to think his introverted nature is an insult to his heritage, and would probably prefer Julian to be a proud, outspoken child with a certain future as a lawyer.
His mother got what she wanted, eventually, though Julian knows she did not mean for him to be so outspoken to his parents that they lost touch altogether.
Until long after James dies, Rose keeps taking her grandchildren to a bright corner tearoom called Isaura. It’s their place, just the three of them now. They always raise a glass to James’ memory, and Rose buys them ice cream and listens to Emma and Julian, both teenagers by now, trying to keep up with themselves. It’s over a steaming cup of coffee in that tearoom that Julian first confesses to his sister and his grandmother that he has a crush on a boy from his class. He’s fourteen and it’s been on his mind for some time. Emma’s seventeen and not really bothered, but Rose’s eyes grow sad. She might not mind but she knows that Richard and Marjorie certainly will, and that Julian’s future won’t be easy.
Julian walked by that very same tearoom yesterday on his way to the hotel. Or rather, he walked by what’s left of it. There are large weeds and wild flowers growing out of the pavement in front of the door. A peek through the windows taught him the building’s been empty for a long time. The worst part about that is that Julian isn’t even surprised. London is ever-changing, and it seems like nothing from his youth remains.
Julian gets back to the stables and sets about cleaning and brushing Adelaide, muttering gentle words of praise and thanks, offering her oats and another carrot. He’s about to change into his casual clothes when a deep voice behind him says, ‘Hello, Julian.’ Startled, Julian turns around and smiles. ‘Hello, Geoffrey.’ The stable hand has changed considerably since they last saw each other. It must be about three years ago – if Julian thought of Geoffrey at all, he assumed he no longer worked for his parents. They must have just missed each other on Julian’s brief visits.
‘She missed you,’ Geoffrey says. He’s grown out his dark brown curls and has definitely become more muscular. ‘I missed her too,’ Julian says, stroking Adelaide’s nose. Looking around the stables, once again he notices the absence of one horse. ‘What happened to Sydney?’ Julian asks, almost afraid of the answer. Geoffrey gives him a sad look. ‘Same thing that happened to Emma. An accident. There was nothing we could do.’ Julian nods. ‘How have you been?’ he says, and it’s as if their entire history is right there, laid out between them.
Geoffrey had come to work in the stables the year he turned nineteen. Julian was seventeen and keenly aware of his attraction to boys by now, but he’d never actually touched one. All that changed when he and Geoffrey became inseparable and where his parents only saw a friendship based on a mutual love for horses, his sister and his grandmother saw straight through them. Both Rose and Emma, Julian recalls with a sharp pang of pain in his chest, covered for them on multiple occasions. Geoffrey was Julian’s first everything, from kissing in the park to awkward, fumbling sex in this very stable. Their relationship went on unnoticed for nearly a year, until the fateful, horrible day when Julian’s mother walked into his room when Julian thought she wasn’t at home, and found her son half-naked and wrapped up in the stable boy’s muscular arms.
Julian’s father must have spoken on Geoffrey’s behalf, he thinks now, because Marjorie looked more than ready to fire Geoffrey – or possibly call the police. The horrific rows that followed in the Albert household went on for weeks. The cracks that day made in their family’s foundation have never fully healed. His parents kept such close tabs on Julian that it became impossible to spend time alone with Geoffrey, and eventually, they stopped trying.
They’ve made their peace with each other long ago, and they’re both easily able to handle meeting again. Julian barely feels any lingering awkwardness between them, even though Geoffrey’s been studying him thoughtfully. ‘I’m doing fine. Do you want a drink?’ Geoffrey says, heading for a dark corner to put the kettle on. ‘I’m seeing someone,’ Julian blurts out, foolishly, because offering tea in a stable at eight thirty in the morning is hardly asking someone out on a date. Geoffrey laughs, not bothered by the tone of Julian’s voice. ‘And I’m married,’ he says, holding up his left hand so Julian can see the ring. ‘I’m not trying to get in your pants, Julian.’
‘Shit. Of course not,’ Julian says, his face burning red, ‘Uh, tea sounds great.’
‘Do you ride? In America?’ Geoffrey says, handing him a mug of hot, sweet tea. ‘Yes. I joined a school, and I try to go once a week. It’s never quite the same as my own horse, though.’ Geoffrey nods. ‘Sylvia is mine,’ he says, stepping over to pet an elegant brown mare, ‘I’d hate to be without her. Where did you go? This morning?’
‘Richmond Park,’ Julian says, his face steady and composed. Geoffrey laughs. ‘I should have guessed. We had good times there.’
‘Yeah. We did. Before everything got complicated,’ Julian trails off with a sigh.
‘Regrets?’ Geoffrey prompts him gently. ‘Some. Emma.’
‘That wasn’t anyone’s fault.’
‘I know, but... And yeah, definitely would have preferred my parents to find out about us any other way.’
‘Ugh, you and me both. For ages, I wouldn’t even kiss anyone unless it was behind a locked door.’ They both laugh, and Julian finishes his tea. ‘I should go. I’m meeting my parents for breakfast and I still have to change.’
‘Okay, I’ll leave you to it. It was good seeing you, Julian.’
The situation at breakfast escalates within minutes of Julian’s arrival. He’s not sure how it even starts – apparently, his mother saw him speaking with Geoffrey and feels it necessary to make a snide remark. ‘Thinking of rekindling the flame with your Arab boy, are you?’ Julian frowns. ‘No. Geoffrey’s married and I’m –’ He trails off, suddenly sharply aware that he hasn’t actually mentioned Barry to his parents. His father disappeared into the kitchen to fetch coffee and toast and he’s not likely to return soon if he overhears their raised voices. ‘You’re what?’ Marjorie says coldly. Julian steels himself for her reaction and states, ‘In a relationship.’
‘Well. You never mentioned that. Did you meet someone at the funeral?’ She sounds deceptively friendly and curious now, but Julian knows he’s awoken the worst of her. He can feel his own anger rising in his gut already. ‘No. His name is Barry and we’ve been together since June. And I don’t want to tell you about him any more than you want to hear about him.’
‘Do you hear that, Richard?’ Marjorie says to her husband as he puts coffee and tea on the table. ‘Our son doesn’t think we should know about his boyfriend.’
Julian can feel his blood boiling now. ‘Excuse me? You called what I want – what I have – the height of indecency for someone of my standing.’ Julian spits out the last word. ‘So don’t expect me to come running to you for relationship advice.’
‘You think it’s been easy on us? You ran off to America to get away from us, best I can tell, leaving us to explain to our extended family why you left. And that you won’t be taking over the law firm. And that you’re gay.’
‘Yes, because that’s just the worst crime I could commit –’ Julian wants to snarl at his mother, kick and scream and get all his feelings out there. But he doesn’t, because deep down he still wants to play nice and earn her approval again. His father tries to get them both to take a step back and cool off, and for once Julian isn’t the first person to turn around and apologise. Nevertheless, breakfast is a tense affair and there don’t seem to be many regrets in the room when Julian says goodbye to his parents for the foreseeable future.
That afternoon, Julian takes the Underground and heads to the centre of town to pick up another little souvenir for Barry. He finds the perfect gift, then wanders into the British Museum to while away some time. It never ceases to amaze him how many objects from all over the world are collected here in this building, and Julian knows exactly which exhibitions don’t attract many people. There’s one advantage of growing up in London – I know all the quiet spots.
It’s Julian’s last night in London and he’s slowly re-packing his suitcase with the window open so he can hear the city’s unique soundscape – cars going through the night, buses stopping and going, sirens and people shouting. It’s never quiet here, not like it is in his peaceful neighbourhood in Central City. He’s not sure if he could still stand to live here permanently, among the never-ending throng of people. London isn’t home anymore, and it’s become impossible to deny that.
When he finishes packing, Julian closes the window, then logs in on the hotel’s internet to call Barry. He stretches out on the bed with his phone clasped to his ear. ‘Hello, Barry,’ he says. ‘Hi, Jules.’ He can hear a smile in Barry’s voice, glad to hear from him. ‘How was your day?’
‘Shouted at my mother for a bit. It made me feel better.’ Julian knows he sounds bitter – knows he should have tried harder, probably. ‘Anyway, it’s over now. I’m coming home tomorrow.’
‘Yes,’ Barry says, ‘I know. I look forward to it.’
‘Oh?’ Julian’s voice shifts to playful, ‘Is that so?’
‘Yeah. I’ve been thinking about you all week. I wish I could be there with you right now.’ It seems that Barry has already caught on to Julian’s mood. Good.
‘I wonder what you might do if you were,’ Julian says slowly, and Barry knows he’s being provoked, yet he replies, ‘Not sure. I’ve never been to London.’ Julian laughs at the obvious tease, but he’s not planning to rise to the bait. ‘Well, you can google the highlights of the city later. What were you doing when I called?’
‘Cleaning. This place is a mess, let me tell you. I lack incentive to tidy up when you’re not coming over all the time.’
‘I hope you haven’t messed up my apartment while feeding Merlin.’
‘Certainly not, your place is crisp and clean. I probably deserve a reward.’
‘Yeah?’ Julian says, biting his lip, ‘Then why don’t you go to your bedroom?’
Barry sucks in his breath sharply. Then says, ‘Okay,’ and now Julian can hear footsteps, and he’s instantly nervous. ‘I’m in my room. What should I... do?’
Julian scrambles for the side pocket of his backpack, where he keeps his MP3-player. ‘Wait a sec, let me find my earbuds, that’ll be more comfortable. It’ll be nice to have both hands free.’ There’s a stunned silence on the other end. ‘Are we really doing this?’ Barry says softly. ‘I – yes, if you – I mean, it can’t be that much more embarrassing than texting, right?’
‘I beg to differ, but... yeah, we’ll try. I’ve got headphones somewhere too, hang on.’
‘I ran into my first boyfriend today,’ Julian says to break the silence while Barry searches. ‘Wow, there’s a buzzkill,’ Barry says, fortunately still sounding like he’s smiling.
‘Ah, there they are. Okay, good. Where should I –’
‘On the bed,’ Julian says, letting a commanding edge creep into his voice. He imagines Barry getting onto his bed, turning the lights low, settling his phone on his chest much like Julian has done. ‘This feels weird already,’ Barry says, and Julian agrees, but doesn’t say it out loud. Instead, he offers Barry the first move. ‘Tell me a fantasy,’ Julian says slowly.
‘Wh – what?’
‘What do you think about when you wank, Barry?’
‘That’s – embarrassing,’ Barry protests. Julian laughs, ‘I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.’
‘I, uh, I... Okay, in one of my favourites, you’re a college professor.’
‘Oh? What do I teach?’
‘It isn’t really specified, Julian, it’s just a fantasy.’
‘Okay, but the details are the most interesting part.’
Barry sighs on the other end of the line. ‘You teach... English literature. That’s sufficiently posh.’
‘I can work with that,’ Julian says, undoing a few of his shirt buttons, ‘Do continue.’
‘Right, so I’m your student, and I always show up late to class, never hand my assignments in on time, and I spend a lot of time staring at you instead of paying attention.’
‘You sound like a terrible student,’ Julian’s fully planning to play along as soon as he figures out where exactly Barry’s taking this story. ‘The worst,’ Barry agrees, ‘and you’ve completely had it with me, so one day you call me into your office after class. It was a late class, and the building’s as good as empty. That’ll be important later on.’ Julian smirks, willing to venture a guess that nobody should hear Barry scream – in the best possible way.
‘I’m very disappointed in you, Mr Allen,’ Julian says in a stern voice, ‘You disrupt the class with your frequent late arrivals. You hand in shoddy work way past the deadline. Yet you don’t strike me as unintelligent. Is the problem simply a lack of motivation?’ He returns to work on his shirt, enjoying Barry’s surprised gasp – apparently, he hadn’t expected Julian to cooperate.
‘It’s... The problem is that your presence is very distracting. Sir.’ Julian ignores the arousal fluttering in his gut at those words. Pity his raised eyebrow doesn’t translate to the spoken word when Julian replies, ‘That’s unfortunate, isn’t it, since I teach the class.’
‘How bad is the situation? My grades?’
‘Well, for what it’s worth, your essay on Nineteen Eighty-Four made some excellent points about how we’re creating the society for ourselves that Orwell foresaw in his masterpiece.’
‘Ignorance is strength,’ Barry replies, and Julian’s almost tempted to turn this into a real literary discussion, but of course that’s not the point here at all. ‘But your other work didn’t meet the same standards by far.’
‘I really like Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ Barry says honestly. Julian knows that to be true. He’s regularly seen Barry read the book. ‘Yes, but the point of my class is to learn to appreciate all kinds of literature, even if you don’t like it at first sight. Back to the matter at hand, then. Why are you distracted by me?’ Julian shuffles around on the bed a bit and finally shrugs his shirt off.
‘Because you’re the hottest man I’ve ever seen,’ Barry blurts out and damn, the man could’ve been an actor, the way he pulls off this mix of innocence and seduction. ‘I see,’ Julian says sharply, ‘You think that flirting will improve your grades.’
‘Not just flirting... sir.’
‘You’re propositioning me.’ Julian imagines he might pinch the bridge of his nose at this point in the conversation. He strokes a hand over his chest and one down to his waistband. ‘I am your professor, Barry. Not some random guy you picked up in the campus bar. Fucking you could cost me my job.’ Barry gulps audibly before stating, ‘I’m a consenting adult – and I’d make it worth your while.’ Julian can almost see Barry’s smirk, cocky and tempting. And he knows what Barry wants – what he’s been angling for all along in this game. ‘I’m afraid it’s not as easy as that. I feel you don’t understand how serious your situation is. Unless your grades improve drastically, you are set to fail my class.’
‘I do understand, sir.’
‘No, you don’t. But no worries. I will... teach you a lesson.’ Julian flinches at how clichéd he sounds, but Barry seems to appreciate his efforts, judging by the small moan escaping his lips.
Julian grins, and tells Barry to pull down his pants and underwear. It’s a bit sudden, certainly, but he can hear promising sounds of Barry undoing his belt and pulling down his zipper. They’re both ready to proceed beyond this strange foreplay. Julian reaches for his own jeans and takes them off. He feels very exposed like this, almost naked and alone on his hotel bed, city sounds still filtering in through the closed window. But Barry’s sighs on the other end of the line sound pleased. ‘What do you want me to do?’ Barry asks, his voice soft and alluring. ‘Bend over my desk,’ Julian says simply. He’s unsure if Barry will appreciate his line of thought, but he’s betting on his boyfriend’s kinkier side winning out. ‘Yes,’ Barry says, a quiet groan alerting Julian to what he’s doing, ‘Yes, please, Jul – Mr Albert.’
‘I didn’t say you could touch yourself.’
‘But –’ Barry sounds appropriately dismayed. Julian wonders if he’s actually stopped wanking or if it’s all an act. ‘The situation is worse than I thought, Barry. I’m about to discipline you and you get turned on. That won’t do at all.’
‘D-discipline?’ Barry’s voice shoots up and he sounds genuinely surprised.
‘Well, what did you expect?’ Julian lets a menacing tone creep into his voice. ‘That I would simply bend you over and fuck you, and that would solve our problem?’
‘Uh, yes,’ Barry says with disarming honesty.
‘Well, no.’ Julian may sound strict, but his hand is drifting, pushing down his boxers to wrap around his cock. He lets out a moan at the contact and he can almost see Barry’s smile when he slips out of character for a moment.
‘Are you hard for me, professor?’
‘Uhh. Getting there.’ Julian gathers himself together to continue with their game. ‘Bend over. I’m going to give you a spanking you’ll never forget.’ Barry sucks in a sharp breath, but he doesn’t protest. They’re both quiet for a few moments, getting lost in the fantasy. It shouldn’t be such a turn-on to imagine spanking Barry in a darkened office, but Julian isn’t thinking about moral implications right now. He’s focusing on the soft, sweet sounds Barry makes as he imagines the same things Julian does. The silence is starting to feel strange, and Julian isn’t quite sure what to say now. He settles for, ‘I hope you’re beginning to understand your behaviour needs to improve.’ Barry groans. ‘Yes, sir. I’ve learned my lesson, I’ll be good, I –’
‘Just a few more,’ Julian says cruelly. In his mind he can hear the slaps of his hand on Barry’s skin. ‘Yes, please,’ Barry mutters, sounding distracted, not quite there.
‘Alright, that’ll do,’ Julian says, ‘I think you’ve deserved to have some fun now. Take that shirt off, Barry.’ He rather suspects Barry was already naked, because he makes a show of creating rustling sounds over the phone. No matter. It’s about thoughts and ideas much more than it is about actions right now. He thinks about Barry’s chest, pale and hairless and with freckles scattered all over it like stars, and smiles. Back to his teacher persona, then. ‘Considering your intentions when you came here, I presume you have supplies with you?’
‘Huh? Oh, yes, of course, in my pocket, my jeans are... over there somewhere.’
‘Hmm, only one condom left in the box. Have you been sleeping around a lot?’
‘Not since I met you,’ Barry says sincerely. Julian laughs, delighted. ‘Good answer.’
‘Kiss me,’ Barry says, sounding desperate. ‘Wish I could, darling,’ Julian replies sweetly.
‘I know,’ Barry says. ‘Tomorrow,’ Julian promises. ‘Okay.’
‘Now, where were we? Oh yeah. Lie down on my desk. On your back. I want to see you.’ Julian pauses for a moment, then says, ‘If I’m going to risk my career over an affair with a student, I want it to be memorable.’
‘It already is,’ Barry says, his voice husky and deep, ‘No-one’s ever spanked me before.’
‘Pity, cause you clearly need it from time to time.’ They both laugh, and Julian strokes himself faster, trying to match the rhythm of Barry’s moans. An idea strikes him. ‘Do you have lube there?’
‘Uh, yes,’ Barry says.
‘Then why don’t you prepare yourself for me?’
‘Oh. Fuck, yes, that’s brilliant.’
Julian can hear Barry scrambling for the lube, and it’s shocking how intimate he can feel with someone who’s on another continent at the moment. ‘Talk me through what you’re doing,’ Julian says. Barry laughs nervously. ‘Just one finger at the moment. It’s been... a long time.’
‘How does it feel?’
Barry almost purrs down the line. ‘Amazing. I forgot how it – oh yes. Going to add another.’
‘You do that,’ Julian says dreamily, imagining the proceedings in detail.
‘You’re touching yourself, right?’
Julian snorts. ‘Is the sky blue, Barry?’
‘Pretty grey here at the moment, to be honest.’
‘Do you seriously want to talk about the weather right now?’
Barry only moans in reply, and both men are reduced to single-word phrases and breathless sounds as they bring themselves closer to orgasm. Barry regains his breath long enough to start an impressive speech about how badly he needs Julian to fuck him, but his boyfriend cuts him off. ‘Remember the night before I left?’ Julian says. There’s an audible hitch in Barry’s breathing. ‘Yeah. You weren’t such a tease when you were begging me to let you come.’ Barry chokes out a moan, and Julian is pretty sure what just happened there. ‘Oh. Well played.’
Julian laughs, and follows suit, an embarrassing whimper escaping him.
‘God I needed that,’ Barry says after a few moments of comfortable silence.
‘Yeah. Me too. Wow.’
‘By the way,’ Barry says, ‘We only did my fantasy. You said you’d tell me yours.’
‘Mm. When I’m back home, so I can touch you while we talk. What do you think?’
‘Huh. Yeah, that sounds good.’
‘Okay. Goodnight, Barry.’
‘Can’t wait to see you. Goodnight, Julian.’
The room feels too quiet once Barry’s voice is no longer filling his ears. Julian shudders as he scrambles for some tissues – helpfully provided by the hotel – to clean himself up. He’s coming down from his high and feeling rather cold all of a sudden. A hot shower seems in order, and a good night’s sleep.
Julian feels restless on the flight back home. Nothing can capture his attention for long – not his book, or a low-grade comedy movie, an inspiring sports documentary, not even his sketchpad. He tries to draw Barry from memory, but he can’t get the hair right, or the look in his eyes. There’s a young mother in the next seat, casting curious glances at his sketch even as her wayward son whines about being hungry. There’s a certain amount of pain in the boy’s voice and it hits Julian like a slap in the face, clear as glass and shockingly complex. How old is the kid? Five? Julian feels like he might cry at his despair. ‘Excuse me,’ he says, jumping up sharply and squeezing past the mother to head for the bathroom. Getting away from them helps, the despair fading. The boy has calmed down when Julian gets back, and he’s munching on a sandwich. Julian considers trying for some sleep, but there’s really no point. He hates sleeping in cars or on planes. He’ll wake up disoriented and nauseous. Better to tough it out and then sleep for ages in his own bed, preferably with Barry next to him.
It’s late in the evening when Julian gets home and his inner clock is telling him it’s about three in the morning, but nothing’s going to stop Julian from texting Barry with Merlin purring in his arms.
I’m home. Please come over? X
Barry knocks on the door five minutes later and wraps himself around Julian without a word. ‘Barry,’ Julian says huskily, leaning up for a kiss. Barry responds hungrily and they stumble into the apartment, Barry leading the way to the living room without letting go. ‘Watch it,’ Julian says, ‘I dumped my luggage here somewhere –’ Barry stops himself just in time so they don’t trip over the suitcases. He puts his backpack down next to them. Merlin winds himself around their legs. ‘I missed you,’ Barry says, dragging Julian down to the red couch for another thorough kiss. ‘Mm, me too.’
‘And yesterday afternoon – shit, Jules, that was brilliant.’
‘Oh yeah, I forgot it wasn’t evening here.’
‘It certainly made a good follow-up to my work day.’ Barry pauses. ‘I never thought you’d be comfortable talking like that.’
Julian blushes. ‘I’m quite embarrassed about it now,’ he says honestly.
‘Yeah, it’s different in the heat of the moment.’ Barry coughs briefly, then changes the subject.
‘How was your journey back?’ Barry leans back and pulls Julian along to lie in his arms. ‘Uneventful. I spent a lot of time waiting in line for customs. Fine otherwise, but I’m completely exhausted. I want to sleep for a week.’
‘Sounds good,’ Barry says, ‘You go ahead. I’ll feed Merlin and join you in a bit. Want me to unpack your cases so your clothes don’t get too wrinkled?’
‘You really don’t have to, I can do it tomorrow.’ Julian yawns and Barry chuckles. ‘Your dress shirts will never live through the night if they stay in there.’
‘Okay, fine, but only the big suitcase. Absolutely no snooping in the carry-on bag.’ Julian makes sure to sound stern enough so Barry will know he’s serious. ‘Why? Did you bring me a souvenir?’ Barry says with a smile. Julian grins. ‘Guess you’ll have to wait and see.’ Untangling himself from Barry, Julian gets up and heads to the bedroom. ‘Don’t be too long,’ he says softly, pausing in the doorway. Barry smiles. ‘I won’t be.’
Julian undresses in the bathroom, cleans his teeth and walks to his bedroom in his boxers. He’s exhausted when he pulls on his pyjamas and crawls under the covers, but he can’t sleep just yet. Not until Barry quietly sneaks through the dark half an hour later and joins him. ‘Love you,’ Barry mutters softly, pressing a kiss in Julian’s hair and pulling him close. Julian doesn’t reply, but he hasn’t slept this well since before he left.
It was only eleven when they went to sleep, so Barry wakes up early the next morning. He leaves Julian peacefully asleep and helps himself to coffee, toast and cornflakes. Wondering what to do for a moment, he puts Julian’s shirts in the washing machine, feeds Merlin and lets him out, then heads out himself. With any luck Julian isn’t going to wake up before he gets back. Barry buys croissants and assorted Danish pastries for whenever Julian wakes up – he figures it’ll be a suitable meal for any time of the day. He picks up the Central City Picture News to pass the time and see what his sister’s up to and heads back to Julian’s place. Settling back into the bed, Barry attempts to read the newspaper quietly. He doesn’t want to stray far from his boyfriend at the moment. Fortunately Julian is still deeply asleep and unbothered by the rustling of the pages or the light filtering in through the curtains.
Barry glances at the clock when Julian stirs beside him. Almost eleven. Julian stretches and smiles at him, gets up and heads for the bathroom. ‘Okay if I sleep some more?’ he says when he gets back. ‘Of course,’ Barry says, ‘I’ll be here when you wake up.’ Putting away the paper, Barry fetches his laptop from the living room to do some work while Julian naps. He’s pretty sure his boyfriend will approve of his test on the solar system. Looking at Julian’s sleeping face, Barry wonders whether he’s okay. He must be emotionally exhausted after the week he’s had, burying his grandmother, being in close quarters with parents he doesn’t get along with. Barry resolves to take extra good care of him this weekend.
Julian wakes up properly around one, and finds Barry in the kitchen, setting plates for lunch. ‘You hungry?’ Barry says, reaching out a hand to smooth Julian’s sleep-mussed hair. ‘After seeing this spread, definitely. But wait a moment.’ Julian darts into the living room and rummages around in the infamous carry-on bag Barry wasn’t allowed to touch. He comes back and hands Barry a small package, wrapped in silky paper and with a Bond Street address printed on the label. ‘This is for you,’ Julian says and Barry smiles as he accepts it. The wrapping feels expensive, and Barry opens it carefully. The package falls open to reveal a bright green silk tie with a playful paisley pattern. Barry bursts out laughing. ‘Seriously?’ Julian shrugs. ‘I saw it in the shop window. It seemed quite obvious that you should wear it.’
‘Around my neck or my wrists?’ Barry says, thinking of a fond memory.
‘Whichever you like. I’m not fussy.’
‘No, I bet you’re not.’ Stroking the soft fabric carefully, he says, ‘I love it. Thank you,’ and surges forward to kiss Julian. It only lasts a few moments before Julian pulls away and says, ‘Lunch first,’ and Barry wants to ask what’s after lunch, but maybe that’s best left as a surprise.
An hour later, they’re in Julian’s bed, tangled up half-naked with Barry on top of Julian, who grabs at Barry’s ass in order to pull him closer. Barry groans when the move brings their erections in close contact. ‘Shit, Jules, you probably shouldn’t do that – I want you too much, I can’t help it –’
‘Barry, it’s okay, we can... I want to sleep with you.’ Barry’s completely stunned into silence for a moment, his mouth hovering over Julian’s.
‘Are you sure? We don’t have to. You know it’s not a dealbreaker for me.’
‘Yes, but I want to,’ Julian repeats with more certainty. ‘Don’t you?’
Barry grins. ‘Fuck yes,’ he says, right before kissing Julian, again and again, the heat burning between them. He pulls away to say, ‘Talk to me, if something’s not right. I mean it, Julian.’
‘I know,’ Julian says, ‘I’m okay, really. I’ll tell you if I’m not.’
Julian slings a leg around Barry’s hips and uses his momentum to flip their positions. Barry gazes up at him, his eyes full of wonder as Julian’s hands get to work on his belt. They’ve undressed each other before, but everything feels different now that Barry knows they won’t stop where they usually do. The room is bright in the afternoon sun, in spite of the curtains, and he can’t look away from Julian’s face. His boyfriend doesn’t look at what he’s doing either, meeting Barry’s gaze head-on as he strips him naked. Julian’s tentative touches will drive him mad, he feels sure of it. ‘Can I?’ Barry says, fingers trailing a path down to Julian’s trousers. ‘Yes. Please.’ So Barry undresses Julian, and gently explores his cock with his hand before rolling them over again and covering Julian’s entire body with his own. They both groan at the overwhelming skin-on-skin contact.
‘What do you want?’ Barry breathes into his ear. Julian gulps at the question. ‘You,’ he says, ‘Your – your mouth, I want you to –’ He gestures vaguely, and Barry finds his sudden shyness oh so endearing. ‘Okay,’ he says.
‘Really?’ Julian seems surprised. Barry smiles at him, slowly crawling down the bed.
‘You just lie back,’ Barry says, ‘and enjoy.’ He settles down between Julian’s legs. ‘Do you want me to use a condom?’
‘Er,’ Julian says, ‘Not... I mean, if you want to, then yes. But not necessarily, not for my sake. Is this a terrible way to answer that question?’ Barry laughs. ‘So on the whole, let’s say it’s a no.’
Barry’s skilled with his mouth. Julian knew that, but this is an entirely new way of experiencing it. He kisses, licks and sucks Julian’s cock, using his hands to press his hips down into the mattress, and he takes Julian’s every little sound as encouragement. Julian can’t figure out where to leave his hands at first, eventually settling for fisting one in the sheets, the other nervously stroking through Barry’s hair. ‘Yes,’ he hisses, his back arching, pushing deeper into Barry’s mouth. The other man accepts this without question, and Julian knows he’s close.
‘Barry, Barry, shit, I’m gonna come, you need to pull off, I –’
But Barry has no intentions to pull off, meets his eyes and only sucks him in deeper in response. Moments later, Julian comes with a sharp cry, and Barry’s shockingly eager to swallow it all down. ‘Fuck,’ Julian whimpers when Barry’s tongue gently cleans him off. Only then does the heat of his mouth finally disappear, and Barry’s smiling at him. ‘You good?’
‘Mmm, c’mere,’ Julian says, pulling Barry into his arms and kissing him deeply. Incidentally, Barry’s never had a partner who didn’t balk at kissing after a blowjob. What’s more, Julian seems to like it, moaning into his mouth and wrapping his fingers around Barry’s cock. Julian’s confident now, soft and pliant and yet totally sure of himself as he twists his hand just so and makes Barry gasp out his name. ‘Not gonna last,’ Barry chokes out, his breath hot in Julian’s ear, and the other man laughs. ‘Neither did I, if you’ll recall.’
‘Obviously, I’m – oh – trying to make – fuck, Julian – an impression.’
Julian can’t stop laughing now. ‘I’m impressed alright, no need to torture yourself.’ He speeds up his strokes and leans forward to suck a bruise into Barry’s neck. When he feels Barry’s hips jerk uncontrollably beneath him, he whispers, ‘Come for me, Barry,’ and Barry does so almost immediately. Their eyes meet over Barry’s little half-smile and Julian’s wide grin, and when Barry whispers ‘I love you,’ Julian has no issues saying it back.
‘Barry?’ Julian says once they’ve dozed for a little while.
‘Please don’t hate me, but –’
Barry’s eyes fly open immediately. ‘Oh god,’ he rambles, ‘Oh god, was I terrible? I’m sorry, it’s just been a really long time – and – and everyone likes different things, I... Obviously we don’t have to do it again if you don’t want to –’ Julian cuts him off with a kiss. ‘Stop it,’ he says, ‘It’s nothing like that. You were not terrible. Very far from it, in fact.’ Barry shoots him a shy smile. ‘But I do feel... I need some time alone right now. To process everything. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.’ Barry looks surprised. ‘Oh. I – that’s not what I expected.’
Julian’s starting to feel guilty already, but he suppresses it for the moment, aware that he needs to take care of himself right now. ‘I know it sounds like I’m kicking you out but I promise it’s not like that. If I don’t get some space now I might panic again, or I’ll get a bad headache.’ Julian strokes a hand over Barry’s face. ‘Just for the afternoon? Please? We can have dinner together.’ Barry nods. ‘Okay. I get it. It’s a lot to take in, right?’ Julian smiles. ‘Too much. But I’ll be fine if I just rest for a while.’
‘I’ll go buy some food for tonight. And then I’ll go see Joe, it’s his day off. I’ll be back around seven, okay?’ Barry gets up and collects his clothes. ‘Sounds good,’ Julian says softly, watching Barry get dressed, ‘Are you mad at me?’
‘No,’ says Barry, padding over to the bed and kissing Julian, ‘I guess I just wish I understood you better.’ Julian smiles at him. ‘I think you do just fine.’
Barry leaves, and Merlin joins Julian on the bed, demanding attention. Julian happily plays with him, muttering things like, ‘Did you miss me?’ and ‘Did Barry take good care of you?’ until the cat falls asleep on Barry’s pillow. Smiling, Julian gets out of bed and heads for the shower. His muscles are a bit sore from all the tension, not to mention what happened with Barry earlier. The hot water does him good, and it allows him not to think for a while. Just what he needs. Julian throws on some clothes and leaves the apartment to take a brisk walk through the park at the back of his place. The quiet, green atmosphere helps him clear his head. Six months ago he believed he’d never want to have sex again; today, he proved himself wrong. In hindsight, it feels inevitable that Barry would be the one to change his mind. Being apart for a week, no matter how cliché it is, made their hearts grow fonder. They’ve never spoken of a future together, not as such, but Julian really hopes they have one now, and he grins, strolling past a small pond and heading back home.
No matter what Julian said, Barry still feels like he’s just been kicked out of bed by his boyfriend, and it threatens to taint his memory of their first time. He feels sweaty and dirty, so he stops at his flat for a quick shower and leaves for the store straight afterwards, unable to sit still. Barry knows that Julian always has a head full of worries and that he needs time to deal with them, but he has often seemed so relaxed after they made out that Barry hoped the same would apply after sex. Apparently, he got it wrong.
Barry normally takes the bus to Joe’s house, but the twenty minute walk seems like a good idea to get his bearings. Plus, he’d rather look flushed from walking than have his foster father guess that he had sex an hour ago. Barry soon wishes he’d thought to drop the groceries off at his place though, as the bags begin to weigh heavily. Joe is very pleased to see him, and happy to lend out his fridge so Barry can stock his food there. ‘I brought cake,’ Barry says, digging it out of a bag, and Joe laughs. ‘In that case, I’m glad you dropped by.’ He fetches two plates from the kitchen and makes coffee for them. ‘So, how are you, son?’
‘I’m good. Work’s good. The apartment is lovely.’
Barry laughs nervously. ‘Er, nothing I can’t handle.’
Joe frowns. ‘That doesn’t sound good. Did he get back from England okay?’
‘No, it’s fine, really. He got home yesterday. I’ve been with him since but he...’ Barry gestures vaguely. ‘Said he wanted some space for the afternoon.’
‘And you’re worried about what he really means?’
‘Yes,’ Barry concedes quietly.
‘I think he just doesn’t want you two to get too close for comfort, you know? Better to have some room to each do your own thing, so you can really enjoy the time you’re together.’
‘But we’ve spent a whole week apart. Right now, I just want to drown in him...’ Barry trails off, blushing, and Joe coughs discreetly. ‘From what you’ve told me, Julian hasn’t had the best week. Give him some time, I’m sure you two will be just fine.’
‘I hope so,’ Barry says softly, recalling the feeling of Julian’s naked body pressed tight to his, their shallow breaths mingling. He wants to experience that feeling over and over again, to get as close as Julian wants him to be. Except that Julian doesn’t want him close at all right now, and what is he supposed to make of that? Rationally, Barry understands all of it, Julian needing space to wrap his head around everything, him getting overwhelmed by his emotions. But, well, Barry likes to cuddle after sex. If it were up to him, they would still be curled up together in bed right now. He feels... rejected. He hates rejection, always has.
Joe pours some more coffee and they continue their conversation, comparing work rivalries and exchanging gossip. It passes the afternoon and soon enough, it’s six thirty and Barry heads out to catch a bus back to Julian’s place. Admittedly, his boyfriend does look better than earlier. He seems to have perked up considerably, pulling Barry into a sweet kiss. ‘Hi,’ Julian says with a smile, ‘Come in.’ Julian leads the way to the living room and eyes Barry’s grocery bags. ‘What are we having?’ he says curiously.
‘Homemade pizza,’ Barry says, taking his bags through to the kitchen.
Julian’s eyes light up. ‘Oh, how interesting.’
‘Don’t get over-excited, the pizza crust is still store-bought.’
‘I’m sure it’ll taste great.’
‘How are you feeling?’ Barry says softly.
‘Okay. Yeah. I’m okay.’
‘I was kind of hoping you’d be a lot more than just okay.’ Julian sighs and looks away.
‘Do you regret it?’ Barry says in a small voice.
‘What? No.’ Julian steps in close and draws Barry into a hug. ‘Honestly, Barry, no regrets. Sometimes I just need space to... get my head straight. Please don’t let this change how you feel about us or what we did.’ Barry nods, his eyes still sad, and reaches into a bag. ‘Will you slice the ham?’
‘Of course,’ Julian says, taking it from him and changing the subject as they set about preparing pizzas.
A few hours later, they’re watching the tail end of a movie they’ve seen before, and Barry gently brushes a blond curl out of Julian’s face. Julian turns to him and smiles wistfully. ‘Do you want me to go home?’ Barry says softly, fully prepared to accept whatever answer he gets.
‘No. It’s Saturday. I want you to sleep over.’
‘Oh, thank heavens for that,’ Barry says, and kisses Julian’s laughing mouth. ‘Let’s go to bed,’ Julian says, ‘so you can tell me everything you’ve been up to this week.’
‘Alright, I can do that, but only if we get to cuddle while we talk.’ Julian’s eyes go wide when he realises something. ‘Shit, I should have known. You like to cuddle, after, and I kicked you out.’
‘Julian, you could not have known that, it was our first time.’
‘Yes, but you always wanted to cuddle after making out, too. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking about that, I just needed... Well, you know.’
Barry shrugs. ‘Doesn’t matter. You can make it up to me now.’
They’ve turned the lights low and Barry’s spooning Julian in bed. Julian snuggles in close and asks, ‘Did you go swimming while I was away?’
‘Yes, on Wednesday morning before work.’ Barry brushes Julian’s hair aside and presses kisses on the back of his neck, one hand sliding under Julian’s pyjama shirt to stroke over his chest. ‘I take it you’re an early bird when I’m not keeping you up late?’ Barry smiles against his skin. ‘I have my moments. I was awake way too early and the alternative was to fill my time with household chores or tedious correction work.’
‘Swimming does sound much better,’ Julian agrees, undoing his shirt buttons to allow Barry better access. ‘I don’t want to... not right now,’ Julian says softly.
‘Mm, I’m not asking you to,’ Barry says, his hands moving over Julian’s skin soothingly, ‘I just want to be close to you.’
‘We can do that,’ Julian says, turning around so he can watch Barry, ‘So what else happened this week?’
‘I went for dinner with my siblings plus Jesse, Cisco and Hartley.’
Julian nods, trails one finger down to Barry’s stomach, and says, ‘Hartley is Cisco’s boyfriend, right? You haven’t mentioned him much.’ Barry pulls a face. ‘Hartley is an acquired taste.’
Julian laughs. ‘You mean he’s a jerk.’
‘Exactly. He’s only tolerable in small doses. We went to that new pizza place not far from Joe’s house.’
‘Very. I’ll take you there next weekend if you like.’ It’s been a while since they went out to dinner and they’re both fond of Italian, so Barry knows his suggestion will be well received.
‘Sounds great. Did you have fun at dinner?’
‘Yeah, it was a good night. Everyone was on their best behaviour – I mean, we were loud and joked a lot, but no one said anything mean.’
‘Victory all around,’ Julian says with a grin, leaning in to kiss Barry goodnight before turning over in his arms again to settle down for the night. Barry turns off the lights and drops one last kiss on Julian’s shoulder, muttering ‘Goodnight,’ and closing his eyes.
‘I’ve been thinking about getting a new tattoo,’ Julian says on Sunday afternoon when they’re sitting on their favourite wall by the riverbank, enjoying the bright sunshine in spite of the brisk cold. ‘Really?’ Barry sounds surprised, then considers this for a minute. ‘For your Grandma?’ he says eventually, and Julian nods. ‘I was messing around in my sketchbook on the plane and I got an idea. I’ve still got to work it out, but I like where it’s going.’
‘You’re going to design your own tattoo?’
‘Sure, why not?’
‘Damn,’ Barry sighs, ‘Wish I was that talented.’
Julian laughs. ‘You’re talented at swimming, remember.’ He turns to Barry with a naughty grin and mutters under his breath, ‘And in bed.’ Barry snorts out a shocked laugh. ‘Fucking hell, Jules. What’s gotten into you?’ Julian shrugs. ‘I’m just really happy to be back.’
‘I’m glad you’re back, too. It was weird, being without you.’ Barry’s arm is around Julian, and he squeezes his boyfriend’s shoulder gently. Julian smiles, and leans in for a kiss. ‘Hey, do you think your Dad would appreciate a surprise visit?’ Barry stares at him, bewildered. ‘Now?’
‘Yeah, if you like? I just feel... I’ve only met your family a few times and I’d like to know them better. Now that we... I mean, we’re in this for the long haul, right?’
Barry smiles, the look in his eyes soft and warm. ‘Of course we are. We were in it for the long haul before we had sex, too. I thought you knew.’
‘I wasn’t sure,’ Julian admits. He leans into Barry’s side and looks out over the river. ‘Okay, let’s go see Joe,’ Barry says, leading the way back to Julian’s car.
Joe’s in the process of making an elaborate fruit salad with Cecile when Barry and Julian arrive. It’s a very domestic sight and Julian can’t quite imagine his parents working together like this. ‘You two are back early!’ Joe calls out when he hears the key turn in the front door. Smiling, Barry leads the way to the kitchen. ‘Not who you’re expecting,’ he says. Joe and Cecile greet them both warmly. ‘Oh, hey Barry. Julian, good to see you! I thought it was Wally and Iris, they’ve gone to see a movie.’
‘Would you like some tea?’ Cecile asks, already setting mugs on the table for them. While Barry helps her with the tea, Joe softly says, ‘Hey, I was sorry to hear about your grandmother. I hope you’re doing okay.’
Julian nods. ‘Thank you. It’s been a rough week but it’s better now that I’m back home.’
Soon, the four of them are gathered around the table talking and cutting fruit. Half an hour later they’re joined by Barry’s siblings, Iris complaining loudly about the ‘hilariously unrealistic’ action movie Wally insisted on seeing. The kitchen is too small for all of them so the group moves into the living room in order to enjoy their freshly made fruit salad. As usual, Iris and Wally gang up on their brother, but Julian’s happy to support Barry in snarking back at them. They may make an odd family – Joe with his two biological children and his adopted son and his new girlfriend who isn’t related to any of them – but they’re definitely a close-knit one.
‘Heard any good songs lately?’ Barry asks right after dinner that night. To his deep regret, he’ll have to sleep at home tonight instead of here with Julian, but they’ve got some time left. ‘I’m so glad you asked,’ Julian says, grabbing his phone and a speaker. Barry loves classic rock and Julian’s into soft, pained alternative rock. They like to exchange music suggestions so as to find out whether their tastes can meet in the middle. It’s also a great excuse to curl up on the sofa together. By nine o’clock, they’ve settled on a quiet playlist and Julian has fallen asleep draped over Barry’s chest. Smiling, Barry turns his attention to the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. About an hour later, Julian opens his eyes and blearily looks up at his boyfriend. ‘Hey, Jules,’ Barry says softly, ‘You going to be okay to work tomorrow?’
‘Mmm,’ Julian says vaguely, stroking one hand over Barry’s chest, ‘Think I’ll get to bed now.’
‘I should go home,’ Barry says, with no intention to move an inch.
‘No,’ Julian suddenly sounds sharp and demanding, ‘One more night. You can sleep at home tomorrow.’
Barry chuckles and shrugs. ‘Alright then.’
Come Monday morning, Barry has to drag himself away from Julian’s warm embrace. There’s not much time for talking while they run around getting ready for work, and then Barry’s out the door with a quick peck to Julian’s lips and the promise to meet for coffee tomorrow after work. It feels like an eternity apart. While Barry’s on the bus to school, he allows himself to imagine the two of them living together. It’s a foolish notion at the moment, of course. They’ve yet to hit the six-month mark in their relationship. He’s not usually the type of guy to bring a moving van to the second date, so to speak. In fact, Barry has never lived with a boyfriend. He supposes he and Philip might have done if their three-year relationship hadn’t ended explosively when Barry found out his partner had been cheating on him for months. As it is, Barry knows better than to suggest moving in together to Julian. He’s well aware by now that Julian needs his personal space and time to himself. It could never end well if Barry tried to put the pressure on him. Nevertheless, sleeping over at each other’s apartments feels much more natural to him now than sleeping alone. He’ll have to ponder the subject some more later, Barry thinks, getting off the bus and greeting Giovanni at the staff entrance.
‘Did your boyfriend get back okay?’ the young history teacher asks. Barry may have spent a little too much time last week complaining that Julian was overseas. Still, Giovanni’s a nice guy and easy to talk to. ‘Yeah, no problem. I got to spend the weekend with him as usual.’ Barry smiles brightly at the memories from this particular weekend. He forces his attention back on Giovanni before his recollections can make him blush. ‘Are you seeing anyone, then?’
‘Occasionally,’ Giovanni says with a grin, ‘I like to play around. No strings.’ Barry laughs. ‘I’ve never been into that, to be honest.’ They head into the staff room together, where Rob greets them with a wolf-whistle and Marco sneers, ‘You two finally hook up, then?’
‘Fuck off, Marco,’ Barry says, breezing past him, unaffected, determined not to let anyone ruin his day.
Meanwhile, Julian’s day is effectively ruined the second he spots the mess on his desk. His work has been piling up for a week, even though Spencer promised she’d keep his backlog to a minimum and take over some work herself. She breezes in for a brief moment and says, ‘You doing okay? Can you catch up on the Weckmann case by lunchtime? We’re meeting with the parents and I need your input.’ The Weckmann folder is relatively thin and Julian worked on it before he left, so he nods his agreement at Spencer and sets to work. But it’s hard going. Julian’s brain can’t seem to kick into gear today. His head hurts, his eyes sting and his nose is suddenly runny. ‘You got a cold in England?’ his colleague Timothy asks quietly, putting a cup of tea with honey on Julian’s desk. He shakes his head. ‘Just... really tired. Thanks for the tea.’ The case is relatively straightforward – a student suing her college over supposedly incorrect grades – but Julian can’t focus on it. He’ll have to wing it this afternoon and hope that Spencer doesn’t notice. After lunch, he manages to shake a bit of his sluggish feeling, but he’s fairly sure it’s not going to get much better until tomorrow.
That evening, Julian treats himself to an extensive bath and a leisurely wank to the memory of Barry sucking him off. He needs that to happen again soon, and it surprises him, the way he desires the weight of Barry’s body pinning him down. He allows himself to imagine Barry walking in on him right now. He could. He has a key. He could come in, just like that, and find Julian stroking himself in the bath. ‘Missing me?’ Barry says, laughing softly. ‘Yeah,’ Julian says huskily, ‘Why are you here?’ Barry shrugs. ‘I’m bored without you. Boy, it’s hot in here.’ Barry strips off quickly, not an ounce of self-consciousness left, and kneels down next to the bathtub. He reaches out to wipe Julian’s wet hair out of his face. Julian smiles and closes his eyes when Barry cups the back of his head and pulls him in for a kiss. A hand furtively reaches into the soapy water and gently curls around his cock. ‘Oh,’ Julian mutters, somehow surprised by this turn of events. ‘Okay?’ Barry says, not wanting to push Julian. ‘Yes. Yes, please.’ They kiss again, slow and dirty, while Barry strokes him. ‘Get in here,’ Julian whispers and Barry grins, climbs into the bathtub. ‘How is this gonna work?’ Julian wonders idly even as Barry pushes his legs apart and kneels between them. ‘I’m sure we can figure it out.’ Julian loosely wraps his arms around Barry’s neck and watches as his boyfriend works out the logistics. Then they’re rutting together under water, slow at first, but Julian soon picks up the pace. He whines into Barry’s mouth unapologetically when Barry pinches his nipples gently. ‘Mmhh, you’re too good at this...’ Barry’s reply is lost in the intrusive sound of a phone ringing.
Julian jerks out of his reverie with a gasp. He left his phone to charge in the hallway. It’s most likely Barry calling, of course. He’ll ring back as soon as he can. There’s something here he has to take care of first, even if the mood was rudely interrupted.
Exactly a week after their first time, Julian gives Barry a look and pulls him towards Barry’s bedroom. Barry soon decides to appreciate this confident side of Julian and see where it takes them. It’s Saturday night and they have all the time in the world to enjoy each other. It’s all the more surprising when Julian pushes Barry down on the bed, flat on his back, and unceremoniously reaches for his belt. ‘Wow, Julian,’ Barry breathes as his partner strips him naked and refuses to take off any of his own clothes. ‘I want to see you,’ Barry whines after a moment of silence, just long enough for him to start feeling uncomfortable. ‘No,’ Julian says, smirking, ‘This is for you. I’m keeping them on for the moment.’
Julian settles on top of Barry and kisses him deeply, revelling in the way Barry melts under his touch, his mouth opening easily for Julian’s tongue. His hands slide down what seems like miles of bare skin to squeeze at Barry’s hips, and Julian moves his mouth down to his throat, suckling on Barry’s pulse point. Barry rewards him with breathless little sounds, his hands restlessly fluttering over Julian’s back. Smiling, Julian slips further down his lover’s body, kissing and nipping. His stubble leaves a slight redness in its wake. Barry seems to like it anyway. Mild pain kink, Julian recalls. ‘You smell great,’ Julian mutters into the skin of Barry’s belly. Barry shakes with suppressed laughter and Julian smiles, swiping his tongue over a spot on Barry’s waist that makes him gasp.
Just a little further down and Julian’s facing Barry’s dick, studying it with interest. His close scrutiny threatens to make Barry a little uneasy, but Julian just smiles up at him. He breathes out, blowing on Barry’s skin, and Barry’s cock jerks. Pleased by this reaction, Julian leans in to press a soft, almost reverent kiss to the head. Barry moans, surprised by this turn of events, and stutters out, ‘A-are you sure you w-want to – oh, god.’ Julian doesn’t hesitate, slowly licking and sucking on Barry’s cock. Julian’s mouth is hot and slick and Barry can’t quite trust this is really happening. It feels unbelievably good and in spite of Julian’s languid pace, Barry feels ready to come all too soon. Seems like he’ll embarrass himself again.
Unsure if Julian’s prepared to swallow, Barry withdraws from his mouth intending to ask Julian to finish him off by hand. But he overestimated his ability to hold off, especially with Julian’s blue eyes trained hotly on his face. Barry’s overwhelmed by his orgasm within seconds, and to his horror, his come splatters on Julian’s face and his grey woollen sweater. Julian pulls away sharply, swearing and sitting up at the end of the bed, staring daggers at Barry. ‘Fuck,’ Julian says emphatically. ‘Oh shit, no, Jules, are you okay? God, I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to, I thought I – it hit me quicker than I expected, sorry.’
Julian doesn’t say anything, and looks down at the stains on his sweater instead. Barry crawls over to him and squeezes his hand briefly. ‘Shit, I hope that sweater isn’t dry-clean only,’ Barry says, gently wiping Julian’s face with a tissue, and his boyfriend finally laughs, pulling the sweater off. ‘No, I can wash it. I, uh...’
‘Don’t say it, I’m a pig.’ Barry still looks guilty as hell.
‘No, you’re not. You startled me, that’s all. I’m okay.’
‘I thought I had time,’ Barry says quietly, ‘Didn’t want to come in your mouth without asking.’
‘Well, at least your intentions were sweet,’ Julian says with a spark of his old wit. Barry smiles, and leans in to kiss him slowly. They part, and Barry seems to be considering something. He comes to a decision soon.
‘You can come on my face if you want,’ Barry blurts out.
‘It’s not about getting even, Barry,’ Julian says, but there’s an interested spark in his eyes when he considers the offer. ‘Would you really... let me?’ Barry nods, softly pushing Julian to lie on his back and shuffling down his body. Julian gasps when Barry unzips his trousers, nudging them down to his knees, and pulls his cock out. He moves to take it in his mouth, but Julian pushes him away. ‘No,’ he says, ‘I’ll do it. Just stay close.’ Barry’s face softens into a submissive expression as he rests his head on Julian’s thigh. Julian’s hand wraps around his dick and squeezes. Barry simply watches, mesmerised, as Julian strokes himself slowly. He speeds up soon, enjoying Barry’s eyes on him and the hand caressing his inner thigh. ‘Mm, yes,’ Julian mutters, and Barry smiles, dropping a kiss onto his skin. He reaches up to find Julian’s free hand, entangling their fingers, and Julian comes with a sigh, staining the sheets. There isn’t much come on Barry’s face, all things considered, but he happily bends down and licks Julian clean.
‘I really am sorry,’ Barry says once he’s settled down next to Julian after wiping them both down with a washcloth. ‘I know,’ Julian says, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re forgiven.’ He leans in to kiss Barry, briefly licking into his boyfriend’s mouth, and smiles. ‘Let’s go to sleep.’
That Sunday, a cold, rainy afternoon in late November, Barry and Julian are huddled together in a tearoom, sharing a stack of pancakes between them. ‘So I was thinking that I haven’t thrown a proper housewarming party yet,’ Barry says, drizzling chocolate sauce on a pancake. Julian pulls up an eyebrow. ‘But you’ve been living at your flat for months.’ Barry shrugs and grins. ‘Alright, I just feel like a party. Life’s been good to me lately.’ He winks at Julian, who blushes right on cue. ‘A party at yours? Sounds like a lot of work.’
‘Not at all. We’ll buy drinks and only serve snacks that we can take straight out of a bag or a box.’ Julian appears unconvinced but as usual, Barry sees straight through him. ‘I know parties are intense for you.’ Julian looks up from his mug of hot chocolate, and offers Barry a reluctant little smile. ‘We can keep it small. Just family and close friends. Ten people maybe, if you ask Caitlin and Felicity too.’ Julian shifts a bit closer still and leans his head against Barry’s shoulder. ‘I hate that you always have to accommodate my needs like this.’ Barry cuts off a strip of sugar-covered pancake and feeds it to Julian. ‘Stop it,’ he says insistently, ‘You know I don’t mind. You’re just sensitive, nothing wrong with that. And anyway...’ Barry leans in to whisper into Julian’s ear, ‘If you feel overwhelmed, you can always withdraw to the bedroom and think about everything we get up to in there.’ Julian laughs, delighted and a little shocked, and says, ‘Fine, let’s throw a party.’
The Friday before the party, Barry and Julian go out to dinner. They try a new, good-looking restaurant and then stroll back to Julian’s place. Feeling a bit frisky, Julian pushes Barry down to sit on the couch and straddles him. Grinning down at his boyfriend, he leans in for a kiss. Barry’s heart isn’t into it, though, not really, and then he whimpers in a very unusual way. Worried, Julian withdraws from the kiss. ‘Barry? Are you alright?’ He strokes a hand through Barry’s hair. Barry says nothing. ‘It’s fine if you don’t feel like making out, seriously, of course it is –’ Barry shakes his head, and Julian hadn’t noticed until now how pale his boyfriend is. ‘It’s not that I don’t want – I just, I don’t feel so good.’ Surprised, Julian climbs off Barry’s lap and just in time, apparently, because Barry jumps up and rushes to the bathroom. Hesitantly, Julian follows him. He can hear Barry retching on the other side of the door and he jerks it open. ‘Barry,’ he exclaims, ‘Oh no, c’mere, you’re okay.’ Barry’s crying, his skin a sickly pale colour, and Julian pulls him close. ‘Did you throw up?’ Barry nods, wiping at his eyes with some toilet paper, and Julian jumps up to fetch a glass of water so Barry can rinse out his mouth. ‘Better?’ Julian asks softly, stroking some hair out of Barry’s eyes. ‘Was it the food?’ He helps Barry up and leads him to the bedroom. ‘Must have been,’ Barry says weakly, letting Julian help him out of his clothes and into his pyjamas. ‘I didn’t think you could get sick from lasagna,’ Barry continues. ‘I’m going to sue that place,’ Julian says, sounding like he means it, ‘Poisoning my boyfriend. Who do they think they are?’ Barry smiles vaguely and Julian puts him to bed. ‘You take a nap, you’ll feel better soon,’ Julian tells him and Barry closes his eyes, grateful for Julian’s care.
Julian’s there when Barry wakes, curled up on his side with an arm slung over Barry’s waist. ‘Jules?’ Barry says softly. ‘Mmm?’ Julian’s not asleep, apparently. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Okay, I suppose.’ Barry stares at the dark ceiling. ‘What time is it?’
Julian reaches for his phone. ‘Half past twelve. Do you need anything?’
‘I’m kind of hungry. Is that weird?’ Julian smiles at him in the dim blue light of his phone screen. ‘I’d say it’s a good sign. How about some toast?’ Barry nods and Julian disappears into the hall. A few minutes later, Barry follows him to the kitchen. Julian’s buttering toast and says, ‘I was going to bring it back to the bedroom.’ Barry laughs. ‘And then complain about all the crumbs in your bed? No thanks. We’ll eat here.’
The next morning, Barry feels as right as rain again. He sneaks to the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth, and then rejoins his sleeping boyfriend in the bedroom. It’s only eight when Julian stirs too, rolling over and burying his face in Barry’s hair. ‘You smell of shampoo,’ Julian mutters. Feeling bold, Barry reaches down underneath the sheets and lets his knuckles brush the front of Julian’s boxers. ‘Were you dreaming of me, then?’ he asks and Julian snorts. ‘Wouldn’t you just love to know?’ Barry swiftly rolls over on top of Julian and kisses him. ‘Good morning, by the way.’ Julian laughs into his mouth. ‘Morning, Barry. Feeling better?’
‘Lots. Thanks for taking care of me yesterday.’
‘Of course,’ Julian says, ‘Anytime.’
For want of anything else to say, Barry kisses Julian passionately. No better way to express his gratitude, after all. Julian’s immediately into it, arching up into Barry’s touch, whimpering when his boyfriend slowly drags his tongue down his neck. Julian’s own hands are all over Barry, stripping him in a hurry. ‘Woah,’ Barry says, startled, ‘I’m not quite there yet.’ Julian sighs and drops his hands down onto the mattress for the moment. ‘Sorry, sorry. I don’t mean to rush, I just feel a bit... impatient.’
‘I’m not surprised.’ Barry winks at him, teasing at the waistband of Julian’s boxers. ‘How long have you been hard?’
‘Not sure, I was asleep. But it feels like quite a while. I probably won’t last long.’
‘Well, that’s usually my problem,’ Barry says honestly and they both laugh.
‘Hey, if you’re still feeling off – we don’t have to do anything just cause I’m... uh, hot.’ Barry shakes his head and helps Julian shrug off his pyjama top. ‘I feel fine, don’t worry. I’ll catch up.’ Wiggling his eyebrows, he says, ‘What were you dreaming about?’ Julian refuses to answer, but his eyes are shining when Barry bends over and whispers into his ear, ‘I bet it was some dirty fantasy, hm? But you’ve still got to tell me what it is that Julian Albert fantasises about...’
‘Later,’ Julian promises, struggling to take his underwear off. ‘I won’t forget,’ Barry says emphatically, falling onto his back and drawing Julian on top of him. ‘I’m counting on it,’ Julian smirks. He reaches down to stroke Barry gently but shakes his head when Barry tries to return the favour. ‘I have something else in mind.’ He sits up, straddling his gloriously naked boyfriend with a big smile.
When Julian grabs the lube from his nightstand, Barry sucks in a sharp breath and looks up at him with gleaming eyes. ‘Are you going to...? You know you can, if you want to.’
Julian shakes his head. ‘No. Not that. But... close.’ He starts spreading lube over Barry’s inner thighs, keeping an eye on his boyfriend’s reactions. ‘Oh yeah,’ Barry says when he catches on to Julian’s meaning, ‘Close is good.’
‘Okay, I’m not entirely sure how this is going to work,’ Julian admits, slicking himself up and settling down on top of Barry. ‘Pretty easy, I think, I’ll just close my legs around your –’
‘This is weird. Is it weird for you?’
‘I think you should shift forward a little – oh yes, like that.’ Barry bites his lip when Julian’s cock slides into place perfectly between his thighs, the tip very close to where he actually wants it. Julian smiles, and moves, his eyes falling shut and his mouth dropping open in a breathless gasp. ‘Oh, I didn’t think it would be this good,’ he mutters, almost to himself. Barry grins up at him. Rutting like this might not offer him much stimulation, but it’s worth the wait just to see Julian’s face in this moment. Like he expected, he doesn’t last long, dragging Barry in for a kiss just before he comes and collapses on top of him.
Julian pulls back, eyeing the mixture of come and lube between Barry’s thighs. ‘God, you’re a mess,’ Julian whispers, sounding slightly awed. Barry throws his head back into the pillow and laughs. ‘Your fault, you know.’
‘My sheets too,’ Julian observes dryly, grabbing some tissues, ‘and they won’t be as easy to clean.’ Barry coughs. ‘I don’t mean to rush you or anything, but were you planning to get me off too or is it only about y –’ Julian swiftly pins Barry’s hips to the bed and says, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll swallow.’ He winks and sucks Barry’s cock into his mouth in one smooth movement. Barry gasps and loses the ability for coherent speech for several blissful minutes. Julian makes good on his promise – and he really appears to enjoy Barry pulling at his hair. ‘You like that?’
‘Why so surprised, Barry?’ Julian grins up at him. ‘You like it when I hurt you a little.’ Barry shrugs. ‘True, that. C’mere so I can kiss you.’
‘So, we good for this party tonight?’ Julian asks once they’ve dozed for a bit. Barry stretches lazily and leans over to peck Julian’s shoulder. ‘After this start to our day, absolutely.’
‘Alright then, let’s get going, because we have a lot to do.’ Julian really is very energetic today, Barry observes, and it’s great to see him so confident. Julian drives them to the supermarket to stock up on booze and crisps, and after a quick headcount goes home to spend some time with Merlin and to squeeze a couple of kitchen chairs into his car. ‘Seat eleven people, no problem, Barry says,’ Julian grumbles when he drags the heavy chairs out of the lift and into Barry’s flat. ‘Thanks, baby,’ Barry says with a grin, accepting a chair and taking it inside. They spend the afternoon lazying around with a few books, Barry sporadically jumping up to tidy the room or go check something in the kitchen. ‘Nervous?’ Julian asks softly, pulling Barry in close. ‘Of course not,’ Barry lies and Julian smiles. ‘I’m sure no one’s going to murder anyone, Barry.’
‘Did we buy enough drinks?’ Barry asks, worried again. ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’ll be drinking our overstock for weeks to come.’
‘Why did I think this would count as a small party? We should have divided them up in smaller groups. Or picked a venue instead of doing everything ourselves.’
‘Barry,’ Julian says, cutting off his boyfriend’s rant, ‘Go take a shower and put a fancy shirt on. You’ll feel better when everyone’s here, I promise. Use the expensive shower gel I brought from London, it’s very relaxing.’
‘Alright, alright,’ Barry says, getting up, ‘Bet I made you nervous, too.’
Julian laughs. ‘I can neither confirm nor deny that allegation.’
‘Typical lawyer-speak,’ Barry calls out before shutting the bathroom door behind him.
As soon as Joe barges in with his entire family in tow, Barry’s forced to forget about his nerves. They’re still greeting everyone when the doorbell rings again, announcing Caitlin and Felicity’s arrival. ‘Julian said this is a late housewarming, so we brought you an orchid,’ Felicity says, handing the plant over to Barry, who smiles uncomfortably, thanking them. Turning to Julian, he hisses, ‘Do you know how to take care of this?’ Julian glances at the bright white orchid. ‘Not a clue, mate.’
‘Oh well,’ Barry says, putting the flower down on a windowsill where it will probably die unloved, ‘Grab a drink from the fridge, everyone.’
An hour later, Barry and his siblings are dancing as silly as possible, dragging Cisco and Jesse along with them. ‘God, I’m so embarrassed,’ Julian mutters to Hartley, the both of them sat on the couch and unable to take their eyes off the spectacle. ‘Like watching a trainwreck,’ Hartley agrees drily. ‘What do I see in him?’ Julian wonders idly as Barry does his best impression of a chicken. ‘I’m asking myself the same thing,’ Hartley says. Cisco, not to be outdone, appears to be impersonating a pig. Julian and Hartley share a look and burst out laughing. ‘Please distract me,’ Julian says, ‘What do you do for a living?’
‘I’m a physicist,’ Hartley says.
Julian smiles. ‘I wanted to be a physicist.’
‘But you’re not?’
‘No. Well, circumstances. I’m a lawyer.’
‘I do research at S.T.A.R. labs. That’s how Cisco and I met.’
‘You work together?’ Julian always thought couples working together would be a recipe for disaster. ‘Sort of. We’re on different floors though. It’s not that we’re constantly together, cause I agree that would be too close for comfort.’ Barry and Cisco are still leading the room in their silly dance, and Barry’s eyeing Julian with the clear intent of getting him to join in. ‘Oh no,’ Julian says, ‘how many beers has he had? Quick, tell me about your research, maybe he’ll understand that we’re too busy to dance.’
Hartley’s thrilled to be discussing his research with someone who actually understands what it entails. ‘Cisco can keep up with me just fine, but our other friends don’t give a damn about quantum physics.’ Julian laughs. ‘I know the feeling. Fuck, are we the only sober people here?’ Felicity has just pushed Caitlin up against the window and is now kissing her girlfriend thoroughly. ‘There’s an awful lot of queers at this party, Barry. I like it,’ Hartley calls out, smirking. ‘As long as you leave my boyfriend alone,’ Barry responds, laughing. ‘Don’t worry, I’m not into blond guys.’
‘For the record, I’m not gay,’ Iris says.
‘Pity,’ Felicity giggles, only to be cut off by Caitlin’s indignated, ‘Hey!’ and another kiss.
‘Time for my speech,’ Barry says, taking another sip of his beer. ‘Oh boy,’ Julian mutters to Hartley, ‘I may need to intervene.’
‘Dear friends,’ Barry exclaims loudly, leaning against the mantelpiece. Julian notices Joe looking uncomfortable at the back of the room. I know how he feels. Barry appears momentarily lost for words, and Julian takes the opportunity to interrupt. ‘Can I say something?’ Surprised, Barry offers Julian his improvised stage. ‘Uh, so I know none of you knew her, but I really just want to toast to my grandmother. I had to bury her three weeks ago.’ Barry smiles sadly and raises his glass. ‘To Rose Albert.’
‘To Rose Albert,’ the others echo.
The party doesn’t break up until the early hours of the morning. Julian keeps expecting the police to turn up and complain about the noise, but either Barry’s neighbours don’t care or these flats are seriously well isolated. Joe points out that his shift starts at eight and he’d like to squeeze in some sleep before then, thank you very much. Wally, Jesse and Cecile have been caught up in a furious game of Monopoly for hours. They’ve been laughing a lot. Barry made coffee for everyone around midnight and once he’d sobered up a bit joined Julian and Caitlin in an animated discussion about local politics. Joe and Hartley, the designated drivers, round up everyone into their cars after an extensive goodbye. Julian’s just about ready to collapse and Barry isn’t far behind. ‘We’ll clean up tomorrow,’ he says, wrapping his arms around Julian. ‘We’ll regret it,’ Julian insists, but Barry says, ‘It’s two thirty in the morning. You’re almost asleep on the spot. Let’s go to bed,’ and that’s that.
The following morning, Barry finds Julian reclining in the bath, his eyes closed. ‘Hi,’ Barry says, and Julian hums softly. ‘Mind if I join you?’
‘By all means,’ Julian says, opening his eyes and shifting over to make room for Barry’s long legs in the bathtub. ‘So,’ Julian says, pouring shampoo into his hand and rubbing it into his hair, ‘Good party, huh?’
‘Yeah, I’ve been to worse parties,’ Barry admits. Julian shoots him a curious look. ‘Did you party a lot when you were younger?’ Barry holds a hand over Julian’s eyes to protect them and gently rinses out the shampoo. ‘I did in my late teens, yeah. Iris and I went to a lot of bars and clubs. At least the ones we could get into at our tender age.’ Julian strokes a hand through his wet hair and says, ‘I’ve never been a party boy. I went to a huge party my sixth-form classmates organised, mostly out of curiosity. God, it was so crowded and the music was deafening. I hated it. And I got shoved against the wall when a few guys passed by throwing punches. It really wasn’t my scene, you know?’ Barry laughs. ‘I made out with a guy from my class at prom. I can assure you that my coming-out at school was spectacular.’
‘Oh, I bet. Well, in my opinion, the fewer people present, the better the party. Much easier to handle.’
‘I’m coming round to that opinion myself. Oh no, I’m getting old.’ Julian laughs and says, ‘You’re definitely older than me.’
‘Five months doesn’t count for much once you hit your late twenties, Jules. Hey, listen, jokes aside, I have to admit I felt a little jealous last night.’
Julian frowns, trying to remember what could have caused this jealousy. ‘Why?’
‘You, uh. You and Hartley get on well.’ Understanding flashes in Julian’s eyes. ‘Oh, Barry. There’s no need for that. You do realise we were geeking out about physics all evening, right?’
‘Yeah, I know. It wasn’t really about you and Hartley specifically. You see, um...’ Barry takes a deep breath, noting Julian’s worried look and squeezing his hand reassuringly, ‘Throughout college, I was together with a guy called Philip. We took a bunch of classes together – he was studying to teach economics. We became study partners and one thing led to another.’
‘Okay,’ Julian says, grabbing his shower gel and gently massaging some into Barry’s feet and legs to help him relax. ‘For the next three years, we had a steady relationship. Calm. No dramas.’
‘Unlike with me,’ Julian mutters. ‘Stop it,’ Barry reacts sharply. ‘We were set to go on a road trip after graduation, see if we could stand each other’s company twenty-four seven. Then we’d decide whether we wanted to move in together or not. But a few days before the trip, Philip sent me a dirty text that clearly wasn’t meant for me.’
‘How did you know?’
‘Because I don’t have any of the anatomy Philip described so colourfully.’
Barry nods. ‘Yes. I confronted him without thinking it through and it took him by surprise. He was forced to admit he’d been cheating on me for three months. But he was very sorry and obviously it wasn’t going to happen again.’
‘Did you believe him?’
‘I wanted to. I almost did, but then his bit of –’ Barry bites down an insult, ‘His girlfriend strolled out of his bedroom, clearly not expecting to see me. I told Philip to take her on our road trip instead, and walked out. We spoke a few times after that but I didn’t want to hear any more excuses.’
‘I’m sorry that happened to you,’ Julian says, reaching out to take Barry’s hand. Barry shrugs. ‘It’s a long time ago, and I am over it. But sometimes it gets triggered and I react a bit weirdly.’
‘That’s completely understandable.’ Julian leans forward and strokes down Barry’s cheek gently. ‘Hartley couldn’t take his eyes off Cisco, you know. Just like I couldn’t take mine off you. I’m not going anywhere, Barry.’
Barry smiles softly. ‘I know. C’mere.’ He pulls Julian into a kiss. His boyfriend responds warmly and scoops up a handful of soap suds to spread over Barry’s chest. They both laugh and mess around in the water for a while, until they’re more turned on than playful, and they decide to take it to the bedroom. The morning sun is bright in Barry’s room. Not bothering to draw the curtains shut, Julian drags Barry to the bed. ‘Your hair is wet,’ Barry says, ‘It’ll dry all messy.’
‘Such hardships,’ Julian sighs mockingly. Barry laughs and kisses him gently. ‘We should have brought a towel though. The sheets will get wet.’
‘Barry,’ Julian says seriously, intending to either cut off Barry’s nervous chatter or figure out the cause of it, ‘Do you want to make out or not?’
‘Oh, I definitely want to make out,’ Barry says, ogling Julian’s naked body and pulling him on top. Their kiss turns heated quickly, and Julian moves to trail kisses down Barry’s throat and over his chest. ‘I love you,’ Julian breathes, his mouth whispering over Barry’s skin. ‘I love you too,’ Barry moans softly. Closer, he thinks, I want him closer. Barry wraps his arms and legs around Julian and squeezes, successfully pressing his boyfriend closer. Julian laughs, delighted, and kisses him again, Barry’s fingers tangling in wet blond hair. Julian’s in the mood for this – slow, lazy, loving. We could stay in bed all morning, just be together, explore each other...
The doorbell rings just as Julian gently curls his hand around Barry’s cock. ‘Oh, what,’ Barry groans. ‘Ignore it,’ Julian says, nipping at Barry’s neck. The bell rings again, prolonged and insistent. Then Julian’s phone buzzes and he reluctantly lets go of Barry to answer it. ‘Looks like we won’t get rid of whoever it is so easily,’ Barry complains. With a sigh, Julian picks up the phone. ‘Caitlin?’
‘Morning! Are you at Barry’s place?’
‘So are we. Can you let us in?’
‘Now? Caitlin, we’re not up yet,’ Julian groans. ‘We’re here to help you clean up. One-time offer, take it or leave it.’ Julian remains silent, casting longing glances at Barry’s naked chest. ‘Come on, Julian. I bet the living room and kitchen are a real mess... All those dishes... spilled drinks... I think I saw Cisco drop a piece of apple pie...’
‘Okay, fine,’ Julian grumbles, hanging up the phone and scrambling for his pants. ‘We’ll have to finish this later,’ he says regretfully. Barry pouts at him before getting out of bed, unashamedly showing off his body. ‘They better do a bang-up job of cleaning up,’ Julian says, grabbing a shirt – Barry’s, as it happens – and padding out to the living room barefoot to buzz Caitlin and Felicity in.
‘Breakfast, boys?’ Caitlin says brightly, strolling into the living room. ‘We brought pastries fresh from my store,’ Felicity says, ‘My assistant’s running the place today.’
‘Well, that changes things,’ Barry says, setting the table for four. ‘I like what you did with my old place, by the way,’ Felicity says, ‘I didn’t have a chance to tell you yesterday.’
‘Thanks. I’ll make coffee,’ Barry says. He’s wearing Julian’s blue dress shirt from last night. Julian likes the way it looks on him.
After a relaxed breakfast, Julian grabs an empty box and starts collecting the soda cans strewn all over the floor. Caitlin moves to help him, while Felicity and Barry pick up everything that needs to be cleaned and take it to the kitchen. ‘Get me a bag for the regular trash, Julian,’ Caitlin calls out. ‘Yes, ma’am,’ Julian snarks at her. Caitlin pulls him aside. She’s made a study of his ruffled appearance and their switched shirts, and now she’s looking to confirm her suspicions. ‘I’ve never seen you in a red plaid shirt before. Suits you.’ The shirt’s a little too tight on him, uncomfortably stretched at the shoulders.
‘It’s not mine,’ Julian says quickly.
‘You don’t say. And Barry hasn’t shaved yet. Were you...?’ Caitlin asks softly, wiggling her eyebrows. ‘Shut up,’ Julian tells her, blushing fiercely. ‘Oh, in that case, I’m sorry we interrupted.’ Julian shrugs. ‘It’s alright. We’ve got time.’
‘So you’re doing okay then?’ It’s a loaded question and they’re both glad Barry and Felicity are very loud with the dishes, laughing and criticising each other’s skills. ‘Yes. We take care of each other. It works.’
‘I’m very glad to hear that,’ Caitlin says, picking up some empty beer cans and crushing them before chucking them into Julian’s box.
That afternoon, the weather’s lovely and Felicity drags the rest of the group out for a late lunch and a visit to an impossibly tacky Christmas market. ‘Oh my god, this is terrible,’ Julian mutters to Caitlin while they watch a dance staged by a group of Christmas elves. Barry and Felicity seem to be enjoying themselves, but their partners withdraw to buy some coffee at a stall. ‘So,’ Caitlin says, ‘any plans to move in together yet?’ Julian stares at her, dumbstruck. ‘I’m just saying. You’re wearing Barry’s shirt, and you sleep over a lot, right?’
‘The weekends, yeah. Sometimes on weekdays. It’s too early to move in, though, come on. We’ve only been together six months. You waited, what, three years?’ Caitlin shrugs. ‘Everybody has a different pace, I thought I’d ask. Don’t look so horrified, Julian.’
‘I’m not, I just... I hadn’t thought about it. And I really do need time to myself, you know that.’ Caitlin looks pensive for a moment. ‘Everybody needs space. I’m sure Barry wouldn’t want to deny you yours.’
‘I’ll, um, consider it,’ Julian says, and turning back to the stall he asks, ‘Shall we bring our geeks back some muffins?’, effectively ending their conversation.
In the evening, Julian finally changes out of his boyfriend’s shirt and lies down on the bed for a bit, staring at the ceiling, lost in thought, before returning to the living room. Barry’s on the couch, scrolling through a website on his phone. ‘Orchid care for beginners,’ Julian reads over Barry’s shoulder, ‘Interesting.’
‘Well, since Caitlin and Felicity were so great today, I figure it’d be rude to just let their plant die without even trying to keep it alive.’
‘You’re on your own there. My grandma used to say I could kill a plant just looking at it.’
‘Then please stop looking at my orchid,’ Barry says, reaching back and pulling Julian into a kiss to divert his attention. Julian joins him and cuddles up to his boyfriend, who puts his phone away and pulls Julian close.
‘Now I believe we have some unfinished business to attend to...’ Julian says with a twinkle in his eyes. ‘Mm, true that.’ After a moment of consideration, Barry decides to bring it up. ‘I haven’t forgotten, you know,’ he smirks, ‘When you were in London you said you’d tell me a fantasy of yours. You’ve been skirting around it for ages.’ Julian laughs, bites his lip for a moment, and says, ‘Okay, I’ll bite. It’s – imagine we haven’t met before.’
‘So I guess I’ve had a bad day or something, and I go out and end up in a bar late at night. You’re the barman.’ Barry jumps up and heads to the kitchen. ‘Barry?’
‘Nuh-uh, you don’t know me. I’m Chris, the bartender.’ Barry starts messing around with glasses and bottles. Julian laughs, unsure what to do. ‘Come on,’ Barry says, ‘You played along with my story. Now I’ll play along with yours.’
‘Oh, what the hell,’ Julian says, strolling over to the breakfast bar and taking a seat. He has to admit Barry’s kitchen is suited for this fantasy, especially when Barry turns the lights down and leans over the bar. ‘Hello. What can I get you?’
‘Um. White wine please.’
Barry digs last night’s half-empty bottle out of the fridge and pours out a glass. ‘Does this story hinge on you not having any money to buy a drink?’ Barry whispers. Julian snorts. ‘No, but that’s actually a better idea than the straight-up seduction I usually imagine...’
‘Great, we’ll combine the two,’ Barry says, setting the glass down in front of Julian.
‘Cheers,’ Julian says. He needs to make conversation, so he follows it up with, ‘Quiet here tonight.’
‘Mm,’ Barry says, ‘Nasty weather. Most people stay at home.’
‘It’s stopped raining though.’
‘Good. I haven’t seen you here before, have I?’ Barry says with a flirty undertone.
‘No, I’m not from around here... I was just walking and I got thirsty. This was the first bar I saw.’
‘Well, I’m glad you dropped by.’ Barry’s eyes flick up to a point past Julian’s shoulder and he calls out to an imaginary customer, ‘Thank you and have a good night!’ Damn, he’s good, Julian thinks, and says, ‘I’m the last patron here, apparently.’
‘Oh, don’t sweat it,’ Barry says, ‘I’m not in a hurry to close up.’ He offers up a flirtatious smile, earning him a grin, and says, ‘I’m Chris, and this is my bar.’
Julian tries to come up with a fake name for himself, and his eyes drift to a Leonard Cohen CD on the corner of the bar. ‘I’m Leonard. I’m a... radio presenter.’
‘Would I have heard you?’
‘Doubt it,’ Julian says, ‘They always give me the 6 AM slot and you work late, so I presume you’re not listening to the radio at that hour.’
‘I might start to. Yours seems like a good voice to wake up to...’ Julian laughs at Barry’s bold flirtation. ‘How much for the wine?’
‘Leaving so soon? Damn.’
‘No, I’ll stick around for a bit.’ Julian smiles at the handsome barman. He hasn’t got anywhere to be, so. ‘It’s five dollars.’
Julian makes a show of patting himself down in search of his wallet and becoming ever more nervous when he can’t find it. ‘Oh, shit, you’ve got to be kidding me... do you take credit c – never mind, I haven’t got my cards on me either, fuck fuck fuck.’
Barry raises an eyebrow. ‘Is there a problem? Leonard?’
Julian coughs nervously. ‘Uh, I don’t appear to have any money on me.’
‘That is problematic indeed. I’m afraid I will have to insist on some form of payment.’
‘I have – I can go home real quick and get some? Okay, I know, you can’t trust me to come back. You could come with me? Is that crazy? Oh, shit, why didn’t I look before I left the flat, god, I’m such a scatterbrain...’
‘I really don’t want to call the police on you.’
‘I know, I’m so sorry, I can’t, I don’t know... There must be something I can do to...’ He gives Barry his best puppy eyes and reaches across the bar to take the other man’s hand.
‘A blowjob should cover the costs,’ Barry says shamelessly. Julian sputters for a few moments. He may have been flirting, but this sudden proposition takes him by surprise. Once he regains his footing, Julian cheekily replies, ‘My blowjobs are worth more than five dollars.’
‘Prove it and I’ll happily pour you another glass.’ Barry’s eyebrow is raised again, this time in a clear challenge, ‘You know you want to.’
‘Yes,’ Julian says simply, ‘I do want to.’
‘Where?’ Barry mouths, clearly stepping out of character for a second. ‘There’s a dark alleyway,’ Julian whispers. ‘Why don’t you follow me,’ Barry says out loud, ‘I’ll close up the bar first.’
Barry pulls Julian into the hallway, pins him to the wall and kisses him hungrily. Julian clutches him desperately. He’s clearly gagging for it as much as Barry is, so Barry pushes a leg between Julian’s while their hands roam, and hisses, ‘Get to work, pretty boy.’ Julian moans at those words, and Barry takes a second to check that he’s okay with this. But Julian smiles, and pushes Barry against the opposite wall, undoing his belt in the process. Barry thinks he may never forget the image of Julian dropping to his knees for him, in the shadowy hallway passing for an alley in their imagination. ‘The cobblestones are going to kill your knees,’ Barry says, his concern genuine. The cold floortiles can’t be too comfortable. Julian only smirks. ‘I’ll bring you off before that happens.’
‘You sure love to brag, Leonard.’ Julian’s mind is hazy. He’d forgotten the fake names already. He pushes Barry’s trousers and boxers down to his knees and takes some time to tease, nuzzling at Barry’s thighs and carefully avoiding his cock for now. Julian enjoys the quiet, repressed sounds Barry makes, clearly true to the idea that they’re outside in the street.
Barry’s hand comes down to tangle in Julian’s hair and guide his mouth where he wants it. ‘If you need me to stop, squeeze my ankle, okay?’ Barry says sincerely, and Julian nods, his eyes bright and warm. ‘I’m okay,’ he says honestly, ‘I’m okay with this.’
‘Okay,’ Barry says, slowly pushing into Julian’s hot mouth. Julian’s sucked him off before, but this position is entirely different from being in a bed together. Barry can’t help but worry Julian will struggle with the power balance. Still, Julian seems fine, happily meeting his eyes while finding a suitable rhythm. Barry keeps his hand in Julian’s hair, moving his head gently but letting Julian keep control of the pace. ‘So beautiful,’ he says, ‘Please never bring your wallet to my bar.’ Julian’s mouth twitches around his cock as he tries to laugh. He sucks harder, renewing his efforts to entice wonderful sounds out of Barry’s mouth. ‘Yes, fuck, Jules. Feels amazing, oh god... Gonna...’ He finds Julian’s hand on his hip and squeezes it in warning. Julian’s eyes fall closed and Barry comes with a deep groan. ‘Yes,’ he sighs as Julian swallows quickly. ‘So good for me.’
Julian pulls away and gives him a dirty smirk. He winces when he gets up, but doesn’t complain about his knees hurting, and instead wraps Barry in his arms. ‘You get off on it, huh?’ Barry says, back in character, squeezing Julian’s erection through his pants. ‘I bet you do this all the time... sucking off strangers in dark alleys...’ Julian groans. ‘Do you really not have any money, or is this just a trick you use to get lucky?’ Barry quickly unzips Julian’s trousers and pushes a hand into his underwear.
‘I swear it’s not a trick, I never do this – ahhh – yes – touch me, like that, so good.’
‘I’ll bet it is,’ Barry says distractedly, leaning in to kiss Julian deeply. It doesn’t take long until Julian’s spilling over Barry’s hand and whimpering into his mouth. ‘There we go,’ Barry says, ‘Consider your drink paid for.’ Julian laughs, and mutters something about loving Barry in spite of him being a giant roleplay nerd, then drags him to the bedroom. ‘I’ve never actually acted out a fantasy,’ Julian says, ‘but it’s definitely got its perks.’ They kiss lazily for a bit, content to enjoy each other’s company until Julian winces. ‘Uh, I really need to clean up.’ Barry eyes the sticky remains on his hand and agrees. ‘Let’s go take a shower,’ he says, leading the way.
Barry briefly stops by Julian’s place after dinner on Monday. Well, he intends to keep his visit brief, but of course they end up making out on Julian’s red couch for quite some time. Julian offers Barry some peanuts and says, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m dropping by Caitlin and Felicity tomorrow night. Want to come?’ Barry pulls a face. ‘I wish. I’ve got that parent-teacher conference I mentioned earlier. And by the time that’s done, I’ll be knackered. I’m sorry.’ Julian leans in to kiss him. ‘It’s fine, Barry, stop apologising. If you have to work, you have to work.’ Barry snatches up a handful of peanuts and announces he’s leaving. ‘Before I’m tempted to stay the night again,’ he smirks, kissing Julian goodbye.
By eight PM the next evening, Barry’s desperate to go home, but he’s still got three more names on his list of appointments. He quickly sends a crying emoji to Julian and adds wish I was with you instead. Julian responds with a selfie that shows Caitlin and Felicity kissing in the background. Feeling like a third wheel myself. Barry smiles at the picture and puts his phone away.
The next parent is a tall woman who takes the chair right next to Barry instead of the one on the other side of the table like almost everybody does. She offers him her hand and says, ‘Ruth Johnson. I’m Tibby’s mother.’ Barry offers her an insincere smile. Tibby’s going to be the death of him, truth be told. There’s rarely an English class that she doesn’t disturb with a constant need for attention, expressed through an ever-louder series of sarcastic remarks. It’s hard work trying to get the other kids to listen if one of them refuses to shut up. And now Barry has the joyful job of telling Ruth Johnson this.
Ruth leans in, just a little too close, her shoulder touching Barry’s. He recoils instinctively, but she simply follows. ‘So. How’s Tibby doing?’ There’s something unnerving about this woman, and Barry tries to ignore it as he searches for Tibby’s grades sheet. ‘Well, she’s averaging a B minus, so she’s doing fine. Tibby’s very quick-witted and social.’
‘She gets it from me,’ Ruth says, quirking a smile.
‘I am, however, a bit worried about her behaviour in class. I feel like she distracts the other students by talking loudly throughout lectures.’
‘What does she talk about, then?’ She’s either insulting me or bragging about whoever she made out with last weekend. Ruth brings her arm up around his shoulder. He has no idea why she’s doing that. ‘Often about the parties she attends.’ He attempts to look disapproving about the wild parties Ruth lets her daughter go to, but for some unfathomable reason she makes Barry feel very small. ‘Come on, Mr Allen, she’s a teenager. She just wants to have fun. I’m sure you love to let your hair down on the weekends. After all, you look like a fun-loving guy, no?’ Ruth’s hand squeezes his shoulder. Barry’s smile is plastered on his face, almost painfully. You don’t know the first thing about me. ‘Tibby also deliberately interrupts me with unsolicited opinions on my manner of teaching.’ Ruth laughs. ‘Surely you can handle some light criticism?’ She condescendingly pats his hand, then rests her fingers over his. ‘It’s hard to teach a class if no one’s paying attention, Mrs Johnson,’ Barry says with a steely edge to his voice. ‘Well, then it’s up to you to keep their attention, isn’t it?’ He can barely suppress a scoff, so he moves forward to try and finish this quickly. ‘In conclusion, I think that Tibby can do better, if she focuses more during class.’
‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ Ruth says curtly, reaching for her handbag and getting up. ‘Thank you for your time, Mr Allen.’ To Barry’s abject horror, Ruth leans in and smacks a wet kiss on his cheek. He can’t imagine what his face must look like in that moment. Not knowing what to say, he relies on a basic goodbye, discreetly wipes off his cheek, and turns his attention to the next, blissfully polite parent.
It’s almost nine o’clock by the time Barry leaves work and he hasn’t had any dinner. Julian’s helpfully sent him a picture of a tasty-looking steak and fries that Felicity cooked. Well, Barry’s not planning to put in any more work tonight, so he picks up a hamburger on the way home. As he expected, he’s knackered when he gets home and has little enthusiasm for the dirty dishes he left in the sink this morning. Better to get it out of the way though, instead of being faced with them again tomorrow. Barry considers putting on some music, but then decides that silence is better for his tired brain.
On Wednesday night, Julian calls Barry and says he needs some air. ‘Want to come with me? I’m going to the park behind mine. They’ve put up the Christmas decorations. I bet you’ll love it.’ Barry laughs. ‘Alright, fine. Give me half an hour and I’ll pick you up out front.’ Merlin spends the time until Barry gets there headbutting Julian and trampling all over the newspaper he’s trying to read.
They stroll into the park holding hands, admiring the fairy lights strung through the tree branches. After a round through the park, Julian pulls Barry into the trees and wraps his arms around his boyfriend. ‘What are you up to?’ Barry asks, grinning. ‘You’ll find out soon enough. This place is pretty secluded... Every time I walk past, I think about getting you alone.’
‘I knew you had ulterior motives, inviting me out at this time of night.’
‘This time of night? It’s barely half past nine. You’re getting old, Barry.’
‘Shut up,’ Barry says, smiling and leaning in to kiss Julian deeply. ‘Remember when we went to the forest?’ Julian says, nuzzling Barry’s neck, ‘The day after we got together.’
‘Mmhm,’ Barry says, leaning his head back to give his boyfriend better access. ‘I come here to think about that,’ Julian admits, pressing kisses right underneath Barry’s jawline. ‘Yeah?’ Barry breathes, ‘I remember you were turned on by the thought of a ghost haunting the woods...’ Julian laughs huskily, and unzips Barry’s thick coat to reach inside and find the skin of his shoulders. ‘It’s not ideal, out here,’ Barry says, feeling for Julian’s waist underneath his elegant woollen coat. Julian’s mouth traces over Barry’s ear. ‘It’s just to get you worked up, love. So I can take you home and... well, we’ll improvise.’ He trails his hand down to rub the front of Barry’s trousers gently. His boyfriend groans, but then hastily takes a step back. ‘If somebody sees us,’ Barry says nervously, ‘they’ll think that we’re...’
‘Casually hooking up?’ Julian supplies. ‘Okay, but we know that we’re not. Casual. At all.’ Barry still seems uncertain, so Julian takes his hand and leads him out of the copse. ‘Come on, let’s go home.’
Barry’s quiet until they get inside Julian’s flat. ‘You okay?’ Julian prompts gently. ‘I’m not sure,’ Barry admits. ‘It’s fine if you’re uncomfortable making out in the park, you know.’ Julian hands him a glass of water and cuddles with him on the couch. Barry won’t really look at him. ‘Yeah, I don’t know, it just... it doesn’t work for me.’ Julian shrugs. ‘Alright, no harm done. Let’s watch a movie instead.’ As usual, they stay up far too late for Barry to go home.
December passes in a haze of Christmas shopping and sending out cards. Barry goes over the top decorating his apartment with lights and ornaments. Julian’s lost for words the first time he visits after Barry’s decorating spree. ‘Oh, this is... quite something,’ he says, schooling his features into a neutral expression. ‘I know, right?’ Barry beams at him from the couch. ‘Yeah, you might have told me to bring sunglasses.’ Julian winks at him and Barry waves off his concerns. ‘Let me have my fun, Jules.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of denying you,’ Julian grins, padding over to kiss his boyfriend.
On a rare night alone, Julian spends some time contemplating how far they’ve come in their months together. If Julian hadn’t gone to the library that day and at that time, he might never have met Barry. Even so, if it hadn’t been for that coincidental second encounter their lives would still look very different. Julian fondly thinks of the way his stomach was always in knots when he was about to meet up with Barry. He doesn’t miss that feeling, but it reminds him of the excitement of falling in love with someone new. Now that they’ve settled down into their quiet routines, it’s much easier on Julian’s mind, and he’s less exhausted in the aftermath of their dates.
He has been neglecting his sketchbook, though. Merlin is curled up next to it, as if the cat’s making a point. ‘Alright alright, no time like the present,’ Julian tells his cat, picking up the sketchbook and a sharp pencil. He doodles a bit to get back into the rhythm and then sets about drawing two figures closely entangled on a deserted beach. He tries to make the image appear both innocent and erotic. Julian wouldn’t admit it’s him and Barry, but the men’s hair colours probably give the game away. Not to mention the green swimming trunks pushed halfway down the dark-haired man’s legs.
‘Nice palm tree,’ Barry smirks when Julian shyly shows him the drawing a few days later. ‘Shut up,’ Julian says, shoving Barry’s shoulder with his own. ‘Do you ever draw anything properly sexual? Only, I’d be interested to see it if you did,’ Barry whispers into his ear, his breath tickling Julian’s skin. ‘Why, d’you need inspiration?’ Julian grins, laughing when Barry kisses him hotly instead of replying.
It’s after three AM on the night before Christmas, and Barry can’t sleep. He’s been tossing and turning for hours, padding out to the bathroom again and again in the hope of getting comfortable enough to fall asleep. It’s no good. Julian’s breaths have been slow and even since midnight and Barry feels jealous of him. With a sigh, he rolls over onto his stomach once more. Julian stirs beside him. ‘Barry?’ he says sleepily, ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you. I can’t sleep.’
Julian hums softly and sounds much more alert when he says, ‘Need some help?’ Barry laughs, remembering the first time Julian helped him get to sleep. ‘Sure. What did you have in mind? Meditation again?’
‘Nah. I could never focus on that right now.’ Julian’s hand finds the back of his head in the pitch dark and draws Barry into a lazy kiss. ‘Oh,’ Barry says, ‘I suppose that’ll work.’ Julian laughs, gripping Barry’s back and pulling him closer. ‘What you need is a rush of hormones,’ Julian says dryly and Barry snorts. ‘Seriously? Now?’ Julian shifts a little until he can whisper, ‘Well, either that or we could play cards,’ into Barry’s ear.
By means of response, Barry swiftly pins Julian down and rolls over on top of him. ‘Playing cards at three in the morning is against my principles,’ he states firmly. ‘I wouldn’t want to sway you from your principles,’ Julian agrees, surging up to kiss his boyfriend. ‘Don’t you ever get cold?’ he says, stroking Barry’s bare skin, ‘Weren’t you wearing pyjamas when we went to bed?’
‘Yeah, they’re on the floor somewhere. I was too hot. It must be because you’re here.’
Barry slowly begins unbuttoning Julian’s pyjama top. He doesn’t try to take it off, but simply slides his hands underneath to caress Julian’s chest as they kiss. The duvet slips down, baring Barry’s back to the cold air in the room, and he shudders. Sensing his reaction, Julian reaches down to pull the duvet back up to cover them almost entirely. ‘Thanks,’ Barry mutters, his mouth searching Julian’s neck and softly covering it in kisses. Julian moans, his grip on Barry’s shoulders tightening. It’s intense, being together like this in the pitch dark. They usually favour low lighting so they can see each other’s expressions, but solely relying on touch and sounds has something going for it. Barry kisses his way down Julian’s chest until Julian says huskily, ‘Come back up here, Barry,’ and he is powerless to resist. ‘What did you have in mind?’ Barry asks softly, leaning over Julian again, their noses brushing. Julian strokes down Barry’s sides, squeezes at his waist, and reaches to pull his boxers down. ‘Might need a little lube here,’ Julian says thoughtfully. ‘Mm, hang on,’ Barry says, getting to his knees to reach for a drawer on Julian’s side of the bed. The familiar objects inside feel cold and strange as he rummages around, finally pulling out a tube. Sitting up, he opens it and sniffs. ‘What are you doing?’ Julian says with laughter in his voice. ‘Checking that this is lube and not anti-inflammatory cream. I usually keep a tube in this drawer, so.’
‘Oh, good thinking.’
‘Give me your hand,’ Barry says, squeezing some into Julian’s palm. Using his dry hand, Julian pushes his own underwear out of the way and manoeuvres Barry on top of him. Barry’s slicked up his own fingers meanwhile and instinctively catches on to what Julian wants. He brings their cocks together in close proximity and wraps his hand around both of them. Julian groans, his back arching up and his mouth desperately seeking Barry’s. Julian brings down his own hand to join Barry’s, their fingers entangling as they jerk each other off. ‘Feels great,’ Barry mutters inbetween kisses, ‘Who needs to sleep, anyway?’ Julian laughs, breathless. ‘You’ll sleep like a baby when we’re done, trust me.’
‘I do,’ Barry whispers, ‘I trust you with my life.’
Julian’s cheeks flood with heat at this unexpected admission and he’s glad for the darkness surrounding them. He slides his left hand over Barry’s chest and rests it on his heart. Barry’s heartbeat is fast, excited. He presses closer to Julian, settling his full weight on top of his partner. Julian moans and pushes on Barry’s shoulders so he rolls over and they’re curled up on their sides. Barry squeezes Julian’s dick a little harder in response and Julian bends over to gently nip at Barry’s neck. Barry chokes out a moan and twists his hand over the head of Julian’s cock. ‘Shit, Barry,’ Julian hisses into his ear as he comes, spilling over his boyfriend’s hand.
Hesitantly, Barry brings his fingers up and smears some come over Julian’s mouth. He cuts off a small noise of protest by leaning in and licking it up, helplessly moaning into the kiss. ‘Fuck, you’re dirty at this time of night,’ Julian tells him, sounding breathless. ‘Is that a complaint?’ Julian can hear him smirk. ‘Definitely not.’ Barry hasn’t finished yet, and Julian speeds up his strokes. Soon, Barry’s desperately rutting into Julian’s hand, their mouths plastered together once again. ‘Oh, yes,’ Barry sighs, ‘Fuck, Jules, yes.’ He drops his head down onto Julian’s shoulder, panting through the aftershocks. Julian grabs a few tissues off the nightstand and cleans them up quickly. ‘Oh, we’re gonna regret that in the morning,’ Barry says when Julian drops the soiled tissues on the floor. ‘Go to sleep, Barry,’ Julian mutters fondly, pulling the other man in close.
As it turns out, Julian was right about that rush of hormones.
On Christmas day, Julian cooks for the two of them at his flat and they lounge around to let the excess amounts of roast turkey and three vegetables settle in their stomachs. Barry eventually drags Julian out to an ice skating rink. Barry proves to be an okay skater and Julian is positively terrible at it, but that’s alright because it provides him with an excuse to hold Barry’s hand.
When they get home to Julian’s place and huddle together for warmth with some hot chocolate, Barry says, ‘Okay, I know you only wanted that book for Christmas, but I do have a surprise too.’ Julian frowns at him, glancing at the glossy cover of Salini’s long awaited sequel to Hay Fever. ‘Is there a clue in the title?’
‘What, Sweet Torture? You do that to me every other night, Jules. No, listen, this is just a suggestion, alright? It’s fine if you think it’s too soon.’
‘Barry, I’m just not ready to move in together, it’s very sweet of you but –’ Barry takes his hand and strokes it reassuringly. ‘That’s not it. Would you like to go away for a weekend with me?’
‘Oh!’ Julian hesitates for a moment, ‘Yeah, sure, sounds great. Where would we go?’
‘I don’t know, somewhere quiet, a bit rural maybe? I mean, not some bump in the road fifty miles from a grocery store.’ Julian laughs. ‘When London felt too loud, too busy, too stifling for me, I’d fantasise about living in a place just like that. A ghost town.’ Barry grins fondly. ‘So let’s find a small town with a grocery store but a quiet atmosphere.’
The both of them have time off until after New Year’s Day, so they take the opportunity to drop by their family and friends and exchange well-wishes. Joe invites Julian and Barry to his New Year’s Eve party. ‘He insists on having all of his kids under the same roof again this one night a year,’ Barry says when he passes on Joe’s invitation to sleep over, ‘So I have to stay. You can go home if you like.’
‘As if I’m going to spend the first night of the new year apart from you,’ Julian scoffs, ‘I’d be happy to share your old bed with you.’
‘It’s a single,’ Barry warns. Julian laughs. ‘What a pity. I’ll have to snuggle up close with you. Eurgh, it’s going to be a nightmare –’ Barry cuts him off with a warm kiss. ‘You’re such a tease,’ he says.
Julian gets a bit wistful recalling the New Year’s Eves of his youth, playing quizzes with his family – grandma Rose was impossible to beat, year after year – and watching fireworks huddled together in front of an open window. Barry gently brings him out of his melancholy and hugs him, asking no questions. He doesn’t recall much about celebrating with his own parents, but he gets it. Julian was pleased to receive a Christmas card signed by both his parents two weeks ago. It’s a gesture, even if there’s no trace of a personal message.
It’s nearly 2 AM when Joe’s New Year’s party breaks up, after a really good night. Joe breaks out the family photo albums so his kids can squeal in embarrassment at their younger selves. Julian melts into Barry’s side and expresses his admiration for teenage Barry. ‘Yeah, I would have crushed on you back then too,’ he grins. ‘Awww, we could’ve had a high school romance,’ Barry says, feeding Julian a spoonful of ice cream. ‘God, we could’ve been hearing this constant litany about Julian since Barry was sixteen,’ Iris mutters to Wally. Everyone laughs and soon after that, they say their goodnights.
Barry points out the different rooms as they head to bed. ‘Wally’s got the attic room, the lucky bastard. Youngest kid. This is the bathroom and Iris is at the end of the hall opposite Joe. This one’s ours.’ Joe left Barry’s room mostly untouched. Iris moved out a few months before Barry did so Joe uses her room for extra storage. Julian drops his overnight bag next to the wardrobe and looks around. He spots a few comic book posters on the walls, a stack of college textbooks on the desk and a plastic box full of toys. Kneeling in front of the box Julian lets out an undignified squeal. ‘You have a Lego submarine! Oh, look at that gorgeous thing, I always wanted one.’
‘You must be drunker than I thought to get so excited about Lego,’ Barry says with a grin, stripping off and searching for his toothbrush. When he returns from the bathroom Julian has lifted the yellow and black submarine from the box and he’s studying it reverently. ‘I collected Lego catalogues, you know,’ he tells his amused boyfriend, ‘I loved to read them and dream of all the sets I didn’t have. This was one of my favourites. I did have a small underwater vehicle from the same collection.’
‘Well, you can play with my toys tomorrow if you like. Come on, let’s get to bed.’
‘Okay, okay,’ Julian says, undressing quickly and nipping out to the bathroom.
The room is dark when he returns but Barry flicks the bedside lamp on to guide Julian to the bed. ‘Barry Allen,’ Julian says, amused, ‘Are you naked?’ Barry laughs and presses his body against Julian’s completely. ‘I thought we could start the new year off with a bang. Oh god, that was a terrible pun, I’m sorry. But what do you say?’ Julian’s tongue plays over the shell of his ear by way of answer. ‘I’m a little drunk,’ Julian admits, hands roaming over his boyfriend’s body. ‘Mm, me too. Why did you put on pyjamas? Now we just have to take them off again.’ He already has Julian shirtless by the time the reply comes. ‘Because my mind isn’t as depraved as yours.’ Barry snorts. ‘Like hell it isn’t.’ They kiss deeply as Barry’s fingers curl around the waistband of Julian’s trousers and underwear, swiftly jerking both down when Julian moans into his mouth.
‘Hey,’ Barry says, suddenly remembering something, ‘We need to be quiet. Joe and Cecile are right next door.’ Kicking his clothes to the bottom of the bed somewhere, Julian gets a naughty idea. ‘Oh, I know what’ll keep me quiet... Not sure whether it’ll have the same effect on you though.’ Julian kisses a path down Barry’s neck and torso, heading further down. ‘What? Jules, I can’t keep quiet if you...’
‘But it’ll definitely work for me... hard to talk around a mouthful of dick...’ Barry laughs sharply, shocked at Julian’s sudden penchant for dirty talk. Julian disappears completely under the duvet, stroking and kissing Barry’s inner thighs, and nuzzling his cock before swallowing it down all the way. Barry cries out in pleasure and his hands come down to tangle in Julian’s hair as praise spills from his lips.
Iris curses the day she decided to take her bed along when she moved out. She bought a new one six months later anyway. As it is, she’s been tossing and turning on this narrow, hard camp bed for over half an hour, and it’s getting old. She’s wide awake, and thirsty, so she decides to sneak out to the bathroom and get some water. On her way back, a sharp cry stops her in her tracks. It came from Barry’s room, she realises quickly. Tiptoeing closer to the bedroom door, Iris hears another pained sound. She’s steeling herself to go in and ask if everything is okay when she hears her brother’s voice, unmistakeable but much breathier than she’s ever heard it before. ‘Suck me off, baby, feels so good... Oh, yesss.’ Her eyes widen and within seconds, Iris has locked herself back in her room. Oh, Barry. I did not need to hear that.
Barry bites down on his own arm to stifle his moans when he comes in Julian’s mouth. His boyfriend swallows without complaint and reappears to kiss Barry hungrily, his own arousal pressing against Barry’s leg. ‘I’m gonna do you, too... Sweet revenge...’ Barry promises. Julian laughs and makes to switch positions but Barry shakes his head. ‘No. Come sit on my chest.’ Julian sucks in a sharp breath. Interesting game they’re playing. He makes sure to leave one of Barry’s arms free. Barry even seems a little disappointed, but Julian insists. ‘I won’t trap you completely. I need us to be safe, so grab my ankle if something’s wrong, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Barry says, wrapping his free arm around Julian’s hips to pull him closer. Julian has to sit up on his knees to reach Barry’s mouth. Barry flicks his tongue against the head of Julian’s cock, inciting a moan. He teases for a while, until Julian impatiently bucks his hips forward, burying himself in Barry’s hot mouth. Barry whines around his dick, but when Julian makes to pull back, the hand on his hip keeps him in place. ‘You like it,’ Julian says, surprised, ‘You want me to just... take you.’ Barry tries his best to nod, so Julian cups the back of his head and presses forward. Julian groans deeply when Barry swallows around him, taking him into his throat. ‘Oh fuck,’ he chokes out, withdrawing a little to let Barry breathe before pushing in again. They work out a rhythm, Barry freely letting Julian fuck his mouth, occasionally moaning in sheer pleasure.
Julian’s amazed at how much Barry appears to enjoy this rough treatment. The events of some weeks back flash through his mind. You can come on my face if you want. Julian smirks when he feels he’s about to come, and pulls out sharply. Barry’s eyes are shining in the low light, his hair mussed, his lips slick with spit and precome. ‘Close your eyes,’ Julian says, gently stroking one hand over Barry’s cheek, the other working his own cock until he spills himself all over Barry’s face. For a second, Julian fears he may have crossed a line when his partner doesn’t react, but then Barry opens his eyes and smiles lazily. ‘Fuck, that was hot,’ he whispers, and Julian can only agree, flopping down next to his boyfriend, exhausted. He stares at Barry’s face for a moment, before swiping two fingers through the mess and pressing them into his mouth. Barry licks the fingers clean with a glint in his eyes and Julian laughs again. ‘You love it, huh? Submitting to me?’
‘God yes. I love it. But, uh, do you have any tissues in your bag?’ Julian bites his lip, uncertain, and carefully reaches out to pull his overnight bag closer to the bed. He has to dig through the whole thing but eventually comes up with a packet of tissues and wipes Barry clean quickly and methodically. He’s already chucked the soiled tissues into the waste paper basket when he notices a little bit of come close to Barry’s ear. Grinning, he leans in and licks it up before he can think about it too much. Barry giggles, turns off the light and pulls Julian into his arms.
They don’t wake up until lunchtime on New Year’s day, and after a refreshing and decidedly separate shower, they drift downstairs to join the rest of Barry’s family for a lazy brunch. The conversation meanders back and forth for a bit while they eat, until Cecile asks how everyone slept. They all mutter variations on ‘well but not long enough’, but the subject of sleep reminds Barry’s sister of something.
‘So, Barry,’ Iris says with an evil glint in her eyes, ‘Did you finally get laid, then?’
‘What?’ Barry says, but his blush gives the game away. Julian shifts uncomfortably in his chair. Wally, previously slumped in his seat and subject to a serious hangover, perks up and gives Iris an expectant look. ‘Yeah, I went to the bathroom last night and on the way back, I heard –’
‘Iris, don’t,’ Barry says emphatically. ‘Oh, there’s no shame in it, Barry. Fine, I won’t go into the details.’
‘Not fair,’ Wally complains, pouring coffee down his throat. Iris smirks and leans in to whisper something in Wally’s ear. Her youngest brother bursts out laughing. ‘Nice one, bro.’
‘You weren’t going to tell them!’ Barry protests feebly. Julian abruptly leaves the table and rushes to the bathroom. ‘Is he hungover too?’ Wally asks, hoping to share his misery with someone. ‘Yes, but not on booze,’ Iris giggles. Barry hears the bathroom door slam. Great, Julian heard that.
By the time they’ve eaten the leftovers of last night’s cake, Julian’s head hurts, and he’s so tired. The implications of Iris’s words about overhearing them keep his mind occupied. He fiddles with the sleeves of his dress shirt and twirls his cake fork between his fingers. He can feel Barry’s gaze resting on him, worried, but he doesn’t look up. There’s no telling what Barry might see if he meets Julian’s eyes right now, but it’s unlikely to be good for their relationship. Barry’s fingers slide over to grab Julian’s hand, stilling his movements. ‘You okay?’ he says softly. Julian nods tensely, knowing Barry’s going to see right through him anyway. ‘Do you want to go home?’ Julian turns his head and whispers, ‘Yes. Can we?’
‘Sure. We’ve done our dues.’ They start the painstaking process of extended goodbyes and well-wishes for the new year. Driving the car home has the advantage of distracting Julian from his headache for a short while, as does playing with a very disgruntled Merlin. He’s used to Julian sleeping at Barry’s, but usually Julian takes care to drop by first thing in the morning and spend some time with his cat. Clearly, Merlin isn’t amused at having to wait until four in the afternoon for breakfast and a walk across the balconies. ‘I’m so sorry, my boy. We’ll stay here for the rest of the day, promise.’
‘Oh boy, all I’m good for at the moment is watching TV for the rest of the night,’ Barry says, sinking down onto the couch and waiting for Julian to join him. He doesn’t. He stands in the doorway to the living room and just stares at Barry, quietly seething. ‘Jules?’ Barry says, confused, ‘Are you alright?’
‘You told her,’ Julian says, deceptively calm. ‘What?’
‘You told Iris that we weren’t having sex.’
Barry pales a bit. ‘Yes, but –’
‘You told your sister about my issues.’
‘I didn’t.’ Barry gets up and approaches Julian carefully, but upon seeing his face decides to keep his distance.
‘Then why did she feel the need to point out she overheard us last night?’
‘Come on, Julian, she thought it’d be funny, it’s kind of how the three of us communicate –’
‘We’re in our late twenties and you communicate through high school level sex jokes?’
‘That’s not the point. Julian, honestly, I didn’t tell her that –’
‘What? Didn’t tell her that I’m utterly fucked up because a guy screwed me and I wasn’t into it?’ Barry’s never seen Julian this angry. It’s frightening, both in its own right and because it feels like they’re about to break up.
‘That you have issues with sex. I just said –’
‘You shouldn’t have said anything, Barry!’
‘It was ages ago, it just sort of came up – Julian, wait, don’t go!’
‘I thought I could trust you,’ Julian says, his voice cold but his eyes full of pain, and then he’s out the door.
Julian drives away, out of the city, into the night. At first he can only think of Barry betraying him, the anger translating into a heavy press of his foot on the gas. He slows down when he realises just how fast he’s driving, and that’s when other feelings set in. Fear creeps up on him and there’s a white car right behind him, sticking close, pushing him to drive faster because there’s no room to overtake him. Shaking, Julian clutches the wheel. He hates it when people do that. ‘Keep your distance, for fuck’s sake,’ he mutters, indicating he’s about to take a left turn. To his horror, the car follows him into this little back street on the outskirts of the city. Why would anyone else come out here this time of night? Julian isn’t even sure why he’s here himself. ‘Don’t think about it, don’t think about it,’ Julian tells himself strictly, but of course he thinks about it. Not long after he got his driving licence, back in London, a man followed him halfway to the next county and when Julian stopped and left the car, the other driver got out and started shouting abuse at Julian about his driving style. Too slow, too shaky, unsafe. He was a complete stranger who was in a hurry, but apparently not in such a hurry that he couldn’t spare half an hour to make a point to Julian. Nowadays, whenever Julian’s feeling vulnerable while driving he quickly jumps to the conclusion that someone is following him. It’s a pain in the ass, especially right now. The fear threatens to incapacitate him.
His relief when the car finally takes a different turn is palpable, but the shaking doesn’t stop.
Barry paces the living room for the best part of an hour, his mind reiterating the fight and this can’t be happening. Julian will be back any time now, he’s sure of it. He got mad and needed to get some space, and he’ll calm down and come back here so they can talk it out. Barry sends half a dozen apologetic texts and tries to call Julian, but it goes straight to voicemail.
Julian doesn’t come back.
In the morning, Barry wakes up next to Merlin, curled up on Julian’s pillow. It’s past nine already, and Barry knows Julian is at work by now, but still he searches every room in the flat hoping to see him. He’s been here, that much is clear. There’s a rumpled blanket on the couch, some breakfast dishes in the sink, and a small note addressed to Barry on the kitchen table.
Barry, I think it’s best if we keep our distance from each other for a few days. I don’t know what to do right now. We can talk later, I promise. X
‘Hi, this is Julian, leave a message.’
Barry must have heard that voicemail a hundred times by now. No matter how many apologetic messages he leaves, Julian never calls back. Not even a text. Tired of the endless imagined conversations in his head, Barry finally grabs his backpack on Tuesday evening, chucks his swimming gear in, and walks out to the bus station. At the pool, he flashes his season ticket at Catherine and tries to go straight in. ‘Hey, Barry, are you feeling okay?’ Barry swallows with difficulty and says, ‘Fine, it’s – it’s nothing. I just need to swim for a while.’ He can tell from Catherine’s eyes that she doesn’t believe him, but she waves him forward anyway.
It’s been a while since Barry swam. He seems to need it less when he’s with Julian, but now the cold water comes as a desperate relief. He swims a few laps quickly to warm up, staying under water for as long as he can. Then he slows down and settles in for the long haul.
Maybe if he does enough laps, he can outswim the pain.
What a shitty way to start the New Year, Barry thinks two days later. He hasn’t heard from Julian once and he’s pretty sure Iris is about to kick him out. He’s been sleeping on her couch, too depressed to stay at home for long. He’s there now, wearing his flannel pyjamas well into the afternoon, pointlessly flicking through TV channels. Iris is seated at the dinner table, glaring at him over her laptop. ‘Barry, you know I love you, but you’re cramping my style,’ she says eventually, ‘What’s worse, you’re not helping yourself at all. Please go do something. Camp out at his door if you have to.’
‘Tried that. I think he locked himself in. Either that, or he’s sleeping elsewhere too.’ With a sigh, Iris shuts her laptop. She’s looking seriously worried now. ‘I’ve never seen you this upset over a guy. Not even Philip.’
‘I know,’ Barry says sadly, feeling pathetic. His sister shakes her head at him, at the end of her wits.
Julian tries to pretend that life goes on, but his daily routines have been centered around Barry for so long now that he’s lost without him. It’s fine when he’s at work but as soon as he gets home, Julian faces down seemingly endless evenings alone. Several times, he tries to draw, but everything comes out looking twisted and ugly, so Julian gives up, discarded sketches piling up on his desk.
The city’s covered in snow by Friday afternoon, and the last thing Julian expects when he gets home is to find Iris West sitting on his doorstep, idly playing a game on her phone. ‘Hi,’ she says, ‘We need to talk about Barry.’ Julian sighs and says, ‘You’d better come in.’ Iris looks around his apartment curiously. At least he’s managed to tidy up in his abundant spare time, so he can offer her a seat on the couch and a drink in a clean glass. ‘How is he?’ Julian says softly, not meeting Iris’s worried eyes. ‘He’s taking it pretty hard,’ she says. Julian scoffs. ‘Well. He shouldn’t have...’ He shakes his head, impatiently wiping a couple of tears from his cheeks.
‘Look, Julian, whatever you think Barry told me, he didn’t.’ Julian finally looks at her, not understanding. ‘But you made that crack about –’
‘Barry only said that you were taking it slow by mutual agreement. That’s it. There were no details and I didn’t ask for any.’ Julian looks pained. ‘It’s a sore subject for me, as you can tell. I can’t always... think straight, when it comes to this.’
‘For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for what I said. We’re always teasing each other about our relationships, you know. I didn’t mean anything by it.’
‘I know,’ Julian says, ‘I just... got so angry.’ Iris smiles wistfully and says. ‘You’ll be alright. Now go talk to him, so he’ll stop moping around on my couch.’ She gets up and grabs her purse. ‘Hey, one more thing,’ Julian says, ‘How did you know where I live?’ Iris promptly waves a business card at him. ‘Barry has his favourite lawyer’s card. Bye now, Julian.’
Julian still has a key, but he knocks and waits for Barry to open the door. He can’t be sure where they stand, so it would be highly inappropriate to just walk in without warning. Barry seems desperately relieved to see him. ‘Julian! Thank heavens, I’m so sorry – come in, don’t just stand there –’
‘My boots are wet, the snow – it’s a mess out there.’
‘I don’t care, take them off or whatever. I’ve been so worried about you, god...’ Julian leaves his boots by the front door and follows Barry to the living room. It’s only been a couple of days, but it feels like forever since he was here. The place looks the same, of course – books everywhere, fireplace roaring, a warm blanket draped across the couch, Barry’s laptop and coursework spread out on the table next to a flourishing white orchid. Nervously, Julian turns to Barry and says, ‘I’m so sorry for running out on you, I got so upset and I – I didn’t know how to deal with it.’ Barry sharply draws him into a hug and pulls him over to sit on the couch. ‘It’s okay, I forgive you. Just – just stay with me. I can’t stand being without you.’ Julian laughs, still sounding a bit apprehensive, and leans in to kiss Barry warmly.
It feels new, like they have to get used to one another’s touch all over again. Julian pulls on Barry’s shirt, and nods to the lush, deep red carpet in front of the fireplace. Barry smiles softly and follows Julian’s lead, covering his boyfriend’s body with his own. There’s a screen guard but even so, the heat from the fire is intense. With any luck, that means Julian’s planning to get them naked. Briefly looking up from Julian’s face, Barry notices that the sky outside is a pearly grey, and it’s snowing again. Julian reaches up to kiss him, his hands slipping underneath Barry’s shirt with practised ease. ‘God, I’ve missed you,’ Barry says inbetween kissing and working Julian’s sweater off. ‘I know,’ Julian says, dragging Barry’s shirt over his head, ‘I know. I’m sorry.’
‘Stop apologising – just let me see you...’ Barry sits up for a moment so Julian can strip off his shirt and oh, I’d forgotten about that plan of Julian’s...
‘You had your tattoo done,’ Barry whispers, awestruck. The skin around the perfect miniature solar system is still a little reddened. ‘You like it?’ Julian says with a bashful smile.
‘Fuck yeah. It’s so delicate. I love it.’ Barry reaches out carefully to trace around the edge of Saturn. With a secretive smirk, he moves his mouth further down to Julian’s waist and carefully sucks a mark into the sensitive skin there. Julian’s high-pitched moans are music to Barry’s ears. Oh yes, I’ve missed that too. Barry’s hand moves down to stroke Julian’s leg through his dark grey jeans, and back up to rest over his belt buckle. He sends a questioning look up at his boyfriend. Julian nods, reaching out to squeeze Barry’s hand. ‘Yes,’ Julian says confidently. Barry takes his time, slowly undressing Julian and shifting himself so Julian can return the favour. They curl around each other on the carpet, gloriously naked, and Julian whispers, ‘I want to make love to you. Properly.’ Barry’s eyes darken with desire. ‘God, yes. Let’s.’ He frowns for a moment, considering. ‘Do you want to move to the bedroom?’ Julian shakes his head, smiling blissfully. ‘No. Here’s perfect.’
‘I’ll, um, I’ll get a couple things from the bedroom.’ Barry has the decency to blush as he scrambles up and disappears down the hall. Julian laughs, delighted, and it’s weird to be so exposed on the floor, so he drags the soft blanket off the couch and covers himself with it. ‘None of that now,’ Barry says as he comes back in, crawling under the blanket with Julian, ‘You don’t have to hide from me.’ They kiss again, and Julian pulls back a fraction to say, ‘How do you want –’
‘You top,’ Barry says easily, ‘I really don’t mind.’
‘You should probably know,’ Julian says, trailing a gentle hand over the curve of Barry’s ass, ‘that I’ve never topped before.’
‘Really?’ Barry sounds shocked.
‘Yes. My previous partners just... assumed that I’d bottom. And I did.’
‘Right, okay. Well, I’ve done it both ways.’
‘Which do you prefer?’
Barry shrugs. ‘Depends on my mood, really. I’m fine either way, promise.’ He doesn’t want Julian to worry about a thing right now. Julian smiles, and surges up to kiss him deeply, desperately. Barry pushes his leg between Julian’s, aching to be closer. One arm wraps around his back, Julian’s nails digging into his shoulderblades, and Barry groans into his mouth. He fails to pay attention to Julian’s other arm, so it comes as a complete surprise when a slick finger breaches him slowly. Startled, Barry bites into Julian’s bottom lip, and his partner hisses, but doesn’t withdraw from the kiss. ‘When did you even –’ Barry mutters into his mouth, and Julian laughs, says, ‘You’re easily distracted.’
‘Feels good,’ Barry sighs, close to Julian’s ear, his eyes drifting shut.
Julian shifts underneath him, momentarily sidetracked by a sudden sore feeling in his shoulders. ‘Bloody hell, this floor is actually quite hard...’
‘Come now, Julian, my lush carpet couldn’t possibly –’
Julian flips them over and Barry hits the ground painfully, letting out a surprised oof. ‘Okay, fine, it doesn’t entirely take away the feeling of the floor... ohh but you’re good at that, fuck.’
Julian smirks as he stretches Barry carefully with two fingers. He’s giddy with excitement that he couldn’t contain even if he wanted to. Barry’s panting underneath him, his eyes closed but his mouth open and inviting another deep kiss. Still mine, Julian thinks, amazed that Barry’s still putting up with him after their fight. Six months and counting. ‘I’m sorry, Barry,’ Julian whispers, ‘I’m so sorry for what I said.’
Barry laughs, breathless. ‘Your timing is terrible,’ he says, pushing down on Julian’s fingers inside him, ‘Doesn’t this – ah – prove I forgive you?’
‘Maybe,’ Julian concedes, working a third finger in, ‘but I needed to say it again.’
‘I love you,’ Barry replies, and that says it all.
‘Okay?’ Julian says, withdrawing his fingers and reaching for a condom and more lube. Barry nods frantically. ‘Yes. I’m good.’ He watches Julian’s preparations with a heated gaze and draws him back into his arms as soon as possible. Barry’s tight, and hot, and such a perfect fit for him Julian might forget his own name. Barry whimpers when Julian bottoms out inside of him. ‘Am I hurting you?’ Julian asks, immediately concerned, sliding his fingers through Barry’s hair to provide comfort. ‘No,’ Barry chokes out, ‘Doesn’t hurt, just... intense.’ He’s not looking at Julian, just clinging to him tightly as he tries to even out his breaths. Then, quite suddenly, Barry grabs the back of Julian’s head and pulls him in for a kiss. ‘Please, Jules,’ he says, and how could Julian refuse this man anything? He reaches for Barry’s hands, lovingly pins them to the floor next to his head, and rocks his hips, gently at first. ‘Mmh,’ Barry groans, pushing back against him as Julian briefly buries his head in Barry’s neck. Slowly, Julian increases the speed of his thrusts, keeping a careful eye on his boyfriend’s reactions. Barry makes a high, keening sound when Julian hits the perfect spot inside him. ‘Yes, like that, Jules...’
‘Oh,’ Julian moans, ‘I think I get why people love to top now.’ Barry huffs out a laugh. ‘The view from down here isn’t bad either.’
‘Can you come untouched?’ Julian asks, almost out of idle curiosity, pressing his abdomen down on Barry’s cock to emphasise his point. ‘Uhh, not sure. It’s never happened, but I’m not opposed to – ah – trying, if you keep hitting my – fuck...’
‘Here?’ Julian asks, hooking his arms under Barry’s knees and changing his angle purposefully. He watches with hooded eyes as Barry throws his head back and cries out. ‘You feel amazing.’ Julian’s almost afraid to say it out loud, and Barry pulls him into another kiss by means of response. ‘No, too soon, shit,’ Julian whines when he feels his orgasm rushing forward. ‘Just let go, baby, ‘s okay, c’mon,’ Barry tells him, meeting his eyes determinedly. Julian comes with a sharp cry, desperately kissing him again, and Barry follows suit, overwhelmed by the emotions on Julian’s face. ‘Oh god,’ Barry breathes when Julian withdraws slowly and collapses next to him. ‘Yeah. Oh god,’ Julian agrees, laughing softly. ‘You’re unfairly good at that for a first timer, you know that, don’t you?’ Barry teases and Julian smiles widely. ‘We’re gonna wreck our backs if we stay on the floor. Bed?’ he suggests and Barry nods happily.
They get up slowly and Julian wanders to the window, looking down on the street far below. It’s dark enough in here so he doesn’t have to worry about being seen stark naked. Barry checks the blanket for stains, declares it clean and drapes it back over the couch. He comes up behind Julian and pecks the joint of his shoulder and neck. ‘It’s beautiful out there,’ he whispers, ‘The snow.’ Julian turns around, his eyes shining and slightly damp. ‘Beautiful in here, too,’ he says, taking Barry’s hand and leading him to the bedroom. After a quick stop in the bathroom they crawl into bed together, sitting up against the headboard wrapped in an extra blanket. ‘I can’t believe we just had make-up sex,’ Julian says slowly, smiling at Barry as he entwines their fingers. Barry throws him a thoughtful look. ‘Do you want to talk?’
‘I think we’d better.’
‘I feel terrible about talking to Iris. I never meant to hurt you.’ Barry rubs over Julian’s thumb as he speaks.
‘I felt humiliated,’ Julian says, ‘I couldn’t stand the thought that your entire family knew we had sex that night, and that it was a major big deal you even got me that far.’
‘It wasn’t like that at all, I –’
‘I know. Iris apologised to me, and told me you only said we were taking it slow. I feel so... stupid, I guess.’
‘No,’ Barry says, ‘Don’t.’ He’s quiet for a few moments, then says, ‘I felt awful. I thought you’d never come back.’ Julian stares at him, then wraps his arms around Barry to comfort him. ‘That wasn’t the plan at all. You know me, I need time to deal with my thoughts.’ Barry nods, lost in his own musing.
‘I love you,’ Julian breathes into Barry’s ear just before they go to sleep, and Barry smiles, responding in kind. For the first time in four days, they sleep soundly.