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I Can't Believe You

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It had been an excruciatingly long three weeks. He had agreed to go on behalf of his father, with the understanding that he’d be much more likely to close on a deal, having had a much warmer relationship with their contact in Florence than Alfred did. What was assumed to be a week spent in Italy, a few evenings spent pouring over contracts while sat in the heat of the setting sun, had suddenly turned into three weeks of meeting new business contacts, video conferences held with his father from the comfort of his air conditioned hotel room, and even a trip to Bologna by request to meet with his father’s lawyer. Now, after three weeks of this routine, four hours waiting at the airport for his delayed plane, eating crisps and finishing his paperback, two hours in the air spent anxiously flipping through the in-flight magazine and picking at his fingernails, and twenty five minutes shuffling along passport control, he was finally within reach again. James.

When it had looked like it would only take a week to reach a deal, Thomas had offered to pay for James to come with him, knowing that he’d easily amuse himself within the city while he attended droll meeting upon droll meeting, and picturing candlelit dinners on terraces together during his free time. Ultimately, it was James’ own work that prevented them going together. He had told Thomas it was unlikely the school would let him have a week off, and when one potential week away from work turned into three they both knew it was impossible. So, Thomas had steeled himself for three weeks without James. 

Thomas messaged him pictures throughout his day, from architecture, sunsets, and badly angled selfies, to pictures of street cats, his newest literary purchases, and particularly interesting looking sandwiches. In return, he got emails during James’ work day, multi paragraphed things that detailed his every move, from his breakfast, to what Mrs Mason at number 78 had said to him that morning as he was leaving, to stupid comments his students had made during his lessons. He knew James checked his phone on his breaks, and never minded having a backlog of photos to respond to. They adjusted. They made do. 

But now? Now, Thomas could see him over the heads of the people crowding the airport, slouched in an armchair at the coffee shop, tapping the side of his drink absent-mindedly while he checked his phone. Thomas’ suitcase had been one of the first to come out on the conveyor, and so he’d managed to get ahead of the rabble, which was why James probably hadn’t yet realised that his flight had let out. He resisted the urge, somehow, to run.

The second he came into James’ view, both coffee and phone had been dropped unceremoniously on the table, and he’d come rushing towards him, arms coming up to wind around his neck before he’d even had a chance to speak. His hand came up to cradle the back of James’ head, and he marvelled at the feeling of the soft, coppery strands under his palm. With the other, he cupped a hard jaw, thumb stroking along the hair there, much neater now than it had looked in the pictures James had sent only hours before, when Thomas had been catching his taxi to the airport.

“You’ve shaved.” he said, smiling as his eyes roved over James’ form, taking in every detail. He wore the smart looking shirt Thomas had bought him for Christmas, his beard had been carefully trimmed, and the corners of his eyes crinkled as he did the same to Thomas.

“You’re more tanned than you looked in the photos. The sun suits you.” James said with a grin, stroking over his cheek. He leaned in towards him, hand still on his face, and kissed him for the first time in twenty one whole days. Thomas closed his eyes, swaying into the kiss, but James decided to break away from him altogether too soon.

“Come on, you.” he chuckled, reaching past him to grab the suitcase handle. “There’s only a certain amount of public attention I’m willing to deal with at six in the morning in the arrivals lounge. I don’t want to go on Twitter later and see some teenager going viral with, ‘Oh look, here’s two old men I saw getting off with each other at Gatwick.’, thank you very much.”. 

“Old men?” Thomas laughed, smacking him on the arm. 

He picked up James’ phone and almost-empty coffee, grabbing his spare hand after sliding the mobile into his back pocket.

“You’re a dick, and I’ve missed you dearly.” 

“I love you, too.”

---

They had managed to hit peak rush hour traffic, although it didn’t seem to annoy Thomas as much as usual. The slow crawl down the motorway gave him the excuse to drink in James, his profile as he drove, the stretch of denim over his thighs, his knuckles on the steering wheel. He slouched in his seat, watching James with adoration.

“What food have you got at home? I’m starving, didn’t eat anything proper on the plane.” he said, rolling his shoulders back against the headrest. 

“I went shopping yesterday, don’t worry. Eggs, bacon, hash browns, cranberry juice. Got all of your favourite bits.” 

“Thanks, love.” Thomas said with a sigh. He looked ahead at the road, watching the early morning sun creep up the skyline. A buzz came from the pocket of his jeans, and he groaned, throwing his head back against the seat. “That will be my father, already. Jesus, I didn’t even tell him what time the plane was getting back today, he must have tracked it...”

“Whatever he wants, tell him to fuck off.” James grumbled. “Actually, just don’t reply, because he’ll ask you to come to his office, and you’re mine for the rest of the weekend. I decided already.”

Thomas snorted, unlocking his phone to read the paragraph his father had sent him. 

“Did you now?” he said, playing along with James’ little game. He had no intention of speaking to his father again until Monday, which James rightly knew.

“I did. I’ve not seen you in three weeks, he’s not allowed to have you. He could try dragging you by the ankles from our bed, if he liked, and I’d be there waiting to fight him off, bollock-naked and armed with a hammer.”

He laughed then, bringing his hand up to ruffle the back of James’ hair. 

“Don’t worry, darling. You’ve got me all weekend to yourself.” he said, running his fingers over James’ scalp. He saw goosebumps rise on the creamy pale skin of his neck, and James began to shift in his seat. 

“Thomas, in case it’s escaped your notice-” James started, voice strained as he craned his head into the touch. He could see that his knuckles were starting to turn white on the wheel. “I am still driving.”

As much as he enjoyed riling James up with little touches, those moments of contact even more endearing to him now after having been separated for so long, Thomas gave up with a chuckle, instead leaning forward into James’ space.

“Luckily, you’re quite the proficient dr-”, he began, before getting cut off by a sharp hiss from James. Thomas had been resting one hand on his upper chest, and had patted it while he’d been talking to James. He frowned at the man, who had now schooled his features into a cold stare, eyes fixed on the road ahead of them.

“What happened?” Thomas asked, his voice having dropped an octave. He’d retreated back to his own seat, but he’d become hyper aware of the stiff way that James held himself, and the twitch of his eye when he rolled his shoulder.

“Nothing you need to be concerned about.”

James tried to swat him away with one hand when Thomas reached a hand out to pull at his collar, his jaw clenched as he began to drive forwards. The traffic had started to ease, and the road stole his focus. He sighed, giving in to Thomas’ ministrations.

“It’s nothing, really.” he said, both hands back on the steering wheel, allowing Thomas full access to his chest. He undid the top two buttons, gently pulling back the shirt and exposing the long, angry looking graze that crossed the side of James’ upper chest.

“I assume,” Thomas began, inspecting the wound with his brow furrowed. “You aren’t going to tell me how this happened?”

James coughed, his eyes darting back and forth between the moving traffic and Thomas’ fingers tracing gently over the pink skin around the graze. It had looked like he’d cleaned and treated it properly, at least, and Thomas was thankful for that much.

“Fine, you caught me. I went to the pub with Jack after work last Friday, got extremely drunk and woke up with this the next day, no idea how.” said James.

“No, you didn’t.” Thomas said without missing a beat, buttoning up James’ shirt now that he was satisfied with the wound itself. It didn’t look like it was giving James much trouble, and it looked likely to heal up soon without any scarring, as long as James didn’t pick at it. “I saw Max’ Instagram, she took him and Anne out to see an orchestra. Try again.”

“I went to Eleanor’s for tea last week, and her new puppy got a little overexcited.” he said, a barely concealed smirk threatening to pull the side of his mouth upwards.

“Right, and you were shirtless in Eleanor’s living room for what reason exactly?” Thomas asked, raising an eyebrow. 

“Alright, so the truth was, I subbed in for Jack’s Year 11 drama class while he was off sick, and they were rehearsing the fencing scene he wrote into Hamlet, and one of the lads got a tad too enthusiastic with his foil, and-”

Bullshit, Jack would never agree to letting you cover his drama groups, he didn’t talk to you for weeks after what happened last time.” Thomas said, his amusement over all of these hastily made up excuses almost eclipsing his concern for James. He mustn’t have thought that Thomas was going to find out so soon, he was normally so much better at having lies prepared in advance, even if only Thomas could see right through them half of the time.

“I can’t tell you.” James finally said, his thumb tapping impatiently on the steering wheel. “I can’t tell you why I can’t, either. It’s...sort of a secret. I can keep on making up stories until we get home, or you can-” he stopped, catching himself, eyes flickering over towards Thomas, who braced his fingers on James’ forearm, a comforting press.

“Or I can what?” he asked, rubbing circles into James’ clothed skin. He stared up at the man, waiting for him to break. James sighed, bringing the fingers of the hand that wasn’t on the steering wheel to rest over Thomas’.

“Or, you can wait until we get home and you’ll see for yourself.” James said with a deep sigh. He saw his chest heave as he dragged his hand away to focus on driving, now that they were coming off of the motorway and away from the traffic. He almost felt bad for pressing James, he’d clearly been meaning to keep this secret tightly under wraps until they had gotten home, whatever it was. Thomas chose to hold his tongue, for now at least, on the matter.

He pulled his own hand back, giving James a bright smile.

“Alright, so what did you fancy doing for dinner later? I’d suggest going out for something, but I assume you’d rather not?” he said, earning an amused snort from his right. 

“You keep yourself away from me for three weeks, and then suggest spending our first night back together in public?” he said, voice incredulous as he shook his head. “You assume correctly.”

They had stopped at a set of lights, and James took a moment to turn as best he could towards him, a soft smile directed his way.

“There’s nowhere on this Earth I’d rather be this evening than sat between your legs, eating a takeaway and watching shit television. Though I’ll gladly take you out somewhere nice next week, after work one evening maybe.”

He grinned back at his partner, nodding forward when he noticed the lights having changed. James coughed, turning back to the wheel to drive and ignoring the horn beeping from behind them.

“That sounds wonderful. I’ll probably need it more after having dealt with my father, anyway.”

They spent the rest of the drive home discussing takeaway options for the evening, pushing the issue of James’ injury, and the surprise awaiting him at home, from Thomas’ mind.

---

They had pulled up to their shared apartment in good time, and James had refused to let him carry his own suitcase up the two staircases leading to their floor.

“Stop fussing, would you?” he said, holding back a laugh as he watched James stubbornly stomp up the concrete steps ahead of him, the case in hand.

“For fucks sake, I’m trying to be gentlemanly.” James grumbled, grunting as he maneuvered around a corner. “How much shit did you buy out there?”

Thomas did, incidentally, have a habit of being slightly overzealous with souvenirs from his travels. Admittedly, a fair bit of the added weight in his case was likely due to hard copies of agreements and photocopies of legal documents that he had agreed to bring back to his father. The new shirts, shoes, and bottles of Italian liqueurs he had brought back with him probably hadn’t helped either. 

“I didn’t even go over my weight allowance!” he protested, although it had been a genuine worry of his when he’d been packing back at his hotel the evening before. They arrived at their corridor, James fumbling in his pockets with one hand as they walked down the stretch to their front door. 

Thomas stopped against the wall with a sigh, looking around as he waited for James to unlock the apartment. Same hall, same awfully patterned carpet, same gaudy yellow doormat outside of Mrs Mason’s. Three weeks, and his world hadn’t changed even a little bit in his absence. 

He was torn from his moment of contemplation when he realised that James, having unlocked the door to the apartment, hadn’t actually opened that door, but was stood facing Thomas instead, hands buried in his front pockets and with a crease between his eyebrows.

“There’s just one last thing. Before we go inside.” he said, voice stilted as he rocked on his heels. Before Thomas could ask, he produced a familiar looking black silk blindfold from his pocket, holding it up between them.

Thomas raised an eyebrow, his mouth curving up in a smirk.

“So it’s that kind of surprise, then?” he said, taking a step closer to James and putting a hand on his hip. “I mean, I’ve been awake for the better part of twenty four hours, but I’m sure I can summon the energy to-”

“As much-” James interrupted, resting the hand that was holding the blindfold on Thomas’ chest. “As much as I’d love for that to be the case right now, it’s not.” he said, pausing for a moment when he finished, frowning as he considered. “Although, it could be. I suppose. Possibly after breakfast and a nap, though. You do look shattered.”

He nodded, taking the blindfold from James with one hand, and stroking over his knuckles with the other.

“Right, so, if you’re not blindfolding me and tying me up and having your way with me, then...” he pondered out loud, ignoring James’ panicked glance at Mrs Mason’s front door. “What’s this for?”

“I just need to keep the surprise for a little longer, that’s all.” James said, sounding rather nervous. “You’ll see. I promise. Just trust me?”

He grinned, anticipation starting to crawl its way up his spine, and put the blindfold on himself.

“Lead the way.” he said, holding both of his hands out in front of him for James to take.

“Okay just let me- just give me a second.” he heard James say. 

The sound of the door unlatching was immediately followed by the smooth roll of his suitcase wheels, catching on the metal of the threshold and transitioning to soft carpet, where it became muffled. Thomas tried to concentrate on every little sound, searching for any kind of clue from James’ movements. The suitcase stopped still. Then, a small grunt from James. He was...lifting something, perhaps? Footsteps moved to the other side of the room, and the sound of heavy furniture shifting.

“What on earth are you doing?” he called out, not feeling the need to hide his amusement. He tapped his fingers against his thigh, eager and waiting.

James’ footsteps grew closer, before Thomas felt rough hands take hold of his wrists. 

“Clearing a path.” he said, his breath suddenly very warm next to Thomas’ cheek. 

He felt himself being led into the apartment, the ground underneath his feet softening as he stepped into the room. James walked, cautiously, and Thomas focused on their direction. It was hard to decide which way they were facing exactly, as James had manoeuvred them both around furniture and objects which didn’t seem to be in their usual places, but he felt fairly certain that they had come to a stop either at their bedroom door, or the study.

“Are you ready?” James whispered in his ear. He’d come to stand behind him, one hand on his waist and the other reaching in front of him. 

“Mhhm.” he hummed, pressing back against his partner, James’ solid chest meeting the back of his shirt. “Although, I’m happy just to stay like this too.”

He felt James’ chest heave as he sighed, then the arm reaching forward twisted and he heard another latch twist open.

Hands reached into his hair, plucking the elastic from between the strands, lifting the dark silk, and bringing his vision back once more. 

Which was when his jaw dropped.

“I...” he began, the words refusing to come as he stared around the room. “I can’t believe-”

“Take your time, it’s fine.” James said from behind him, his voice a touch smug.

He span around on his heel, grabbing James’ face between his hands.

“You absolutely-” he started, interrupting himself with a kiss to his cheek. “-wonderful, absurd-”, more kisses, peppered over James’ freckled nose and brow. “-ridiculous man.”

He finished by crushing James in an open mouthed kiss, arms tugging his head close, pouring his thanks and his love into that one action.

James tugged him away, a grin having split across his face.

“Why don’t you take a proper look around?”

When his relationship with James had become serious, when James spent more of his free time at Thomas’ apartment than he did at his own rented flat, his shirts and underwear finding their way into Thomas’ wardrobe and his spare toothbrush a near permanent fixture in the bathroom, they had sat down to address the issue of accommodation, and the solution had become quite clear to them both. James would apply for a position at a school close by, and he would move into Thomas’ apartment. James’ initial unease at treating the place like his own home was chipped away through the months by Thomas, who encouraged him to share his space, to make adjustments where needed. 

He had bought the apartment in his youth, under guidance from his father. While he’d have been perfectly happy with living in a much smaller space, his father had insisted that having two bedrooms would give him the necessary room to spread out. He had also, without any subtlety, implied that the smaller room would make an ideal nursery, if he was to ever take a wife. Ignoring his father, he’d turned the room into an area for mostly storage, with a work desk positioned near the one airy window. Once James had joined him, they added another desk into the cluttered room, and it became their shared work space. Evenings were spent in comfortable silence, with James grading papers at one desk, and Thomas muttering over spreadsheets and contracts at the other. Overflowing shelves, folders, and even a long forgotten set of weights littered the space, and Thomas had spoken wistfully many times about the room he wished it could be, given time, patience, and work.

But James? James had taken his vision, and turned it into something beautiful, for them, for him.

“Did you do this alone?” he asked, voice hushed as he approached a wall- well, what was a wall, weeks ago. Now, polished mahogany shelves curled around both sides of the room, heavy under the weight of so many books. He knew that James had experience with woodwork, he’d been taught by his father, had even crafted their kitchen table but...the detail, the finish on the wood, the edges carefully carved into the shelves, the sheer commitment to them was astonishing.

“For the most part, yes.” James said, still standing in the doorway, hands behind his back. “I had Billy source the wood for me, and he loaned me a few of the larger tools. Gates heard what I was doing, and found the rug, said it would look good with the wood stain.”

He toed the rug in question then, a large, ornate design in a deep red and navy knit. Thomas stayed silent, still taken aback by the whole thing, gazing over the titles on show. Books he recognised instantly, books he didn’t, carefully arranged spaces waiting to be filled with future purchases...

“This is all of them. You’ll have to forgive me for my attempt at organising them, though. The ones that were already in here, plus the ones in the bottom of the wardrobe, the boxes from under the bed. I even let Miranda know what I was doing, and she donated a box from her collection. She’ll be chasing you up on those, though, to make sure you’re reading them.” James said with a snort, earning a laugh from Thomas. “I checked out your wish list, too. The books you kept on putting off buying because we didn’t have the room? Well, most of them are second hand, but they’re here.”

Thomas turned around and beamed at him. He stepped forward, stroking a thumb across James’ cheek.

“You are, without a doubt, the best man I have ever met.” he said, bringing their foreheads together. “You built me a library, James.”

“And, just as important, somewhere you can Skype clients from with pride, without having to worry they’ll see what a mess it is in here.” James said, his lips pulling into a grin against the side of Thomas’ mouth. “You’ve not even looked at your desk, yet.”

He was taken by the hand in an instant, led by James to the desk at the centre of the room. The items that had been on his old worn desk were still here, his pen pot, the plant, the framed picture of him and James in swim shorts on the beach with the setting sun of the Caribbean behind them. This desk, however, was made of the same shining wood as his shelves, sturdy and bright, with swirls and patterns carved into its edges. James had even upholstered his comfy office chair anew, to match the rest of the room. His paperwork lay in drawers built into either side of the desk, neatly arranged and waiting for him.

A sudden thought occurred to him, and he span around to fix James with a frown.

“Where will you work?” he asked. James stood tall, his chest puffing out in a moment of pride, and he went around to the other side of the desk. Behind it sat a cushioned bench, positioned low under the curtained window and between two of the book cases, giving the appearance of a window seat. He sat down on the cushions there, folded his arms over his chest, and smiled up at Thomas.

“Right here.”

“You’ll do no such thing.” he fired back. “You don’t have any space to spread your papers out on, you can’t write on anything-”

“Almost all of my work is done electronically, and I can perch here with my laptop, and look-” he said, reaching beside him. A re-purposed bar cart rolled towards him, and he opened a drawer to show Thomas his own papers, neatly organised.

He was impressed with James’ hard work, of course he was, how could he not be? But it had come with personal sacrifice from James, which he wasn’t entirely pleased with, if he was honest with himself. Although, speaking of personal sacrifice...

“Are you going to tell me how this happened, now?” Thomas said, reaching down to unbutton James’ collar, wanting a better look at his injury now that they were in the privacy of their own home. James sat pliant, his back against the window while Thomas’ fingers worked on his shirt. 

“I should have taken photographs of this place while I was doing the bulk of the job. It was quite literally my workshop, for a better part of a week. You’d have hated the mess, it looked as if a bomb had g-careful.” he hissed, Thomas having prodded around the wound.

“Sorry, love. I’ll clean it again properly in a bit, just to make sure.” he said, holding back a smirk. He redirected his attention to the rest of James’ buttons. “Go on, you were saying? Workshop? Bomb site?”

“Right. Anyway, I came home from work one evening, a little bit too eager to get started, and tripped over a pile of wood. Fell into a different pile of wood, and scraped down my chest. Had to sit with a pair of tweezers in front of the mirror for an hour, but it’s fine for the most part.”

Thomas nodded along to the conversation, having slowly reached the bottom of James’ shirt. 

“I see.” he said, walking his fingers back up James’ chest, dancing over his pectorals. He felt James breathing underneath his hands.

He brought one knee up to the window seat, half straddling James’ lap.

“So what, exactly, are we going to do about your desk?” he purred, edging up towards James’ jaw. “Because you can’t work on that cart, you simply can’t.”

“Well...” James breathed out, one eyebrow curving upwards as he spoke. “What do you suggest?”

Thomas brought his other leg upwards, dropping into James’ lap.

“There’s enough space in here now for two desks in the middle. I’ll help you build yours, I don’t want you getting hurt again.” he said, low in James’ ear, brushing his hands back downwards as he spoke, trailing over patches of hair, and landing on his nipples. He felt James’ arms come up behind him, cradling his back in a sturdy hold. “We’ll make it together.” he whispered. 

James leaned in, bringing their lips together in a heated kiss. Thomas nipped gently at his bottom lip, sucking at it before pulling away slightly.

“Thank you. I mean it. From the very bottom of my heart, thank you, for this, for you.” he said, his thumb tracing over the curve of James’ spit-slick mouth. James gazed back at him, sea green eyes that felt like home to Thomas, like life, filled with warmth. 

“I love you, so fucking much, more than words. I’d build a hundred libraries for you, given the chance.” he said, his voice roughened. His hands tightened at Thomas’ back, sliding up under his shirt, callouses (was it just his imagination, Thomas thought to himself, or were there more of them now than there had been before he’d gone to Italy?) rubbing up against warm skin. “Please tell me you’re willing to postpone a nap, for a little while at least?” 

He ground downwards into James’ lap, nipping at his jaw as he did so.

“We’ll find our way into bed eventually, I’m sure.” he teased, hands trailing downwards towards his waistband, the sun shining beams through the wide window at James’ back.

He was home, and it was perfection.