When Joe first mentions that they’re going east to Dedham to visit his mother this upcoming weekend, Leslie doesn’t hear it because Joe picks the one moment that Leslie’s ears are occupied to bring it up.
“What was that?” Leslie asks, pushing his headphones off his head and onto his shoulders. His neck pops from disuse when he turns it too quickly. He suppresses the fuck that immediately jumps into his throat, then looks down at Joe sprawled out next to him on the bed.
“This weekend,” Joe repeats, continuing to stare at his phone, expression bored to match his tone. “She wants us to go see her.”
“Something come up?”
“Nah. Just called to complain about how Tom and I haven’t gone back since Christmas, that’s it’s time we brought our boyfriends to meet her, blah blah.”
Leslie stares as Joe scrolls at something that must be endlessly fascinating because Joe doesn’t blink, not even once.
“When was this?” Leslie asks.
Last week? That could mean two or four or six days ago. Joe isn’t usually the type to spring things on people.
“Does this mean I’ll finally get to meet this elusive Will?” Leslie asks when Joe doesn’t elaborate any further on the matter.
Joe scoffs. “Only because he pulled his head out of his arse and finally made things right with Tom, that blinding idiot.”
“So you’ve said,” Leslie muses. He’s long lost track of the number of times that Joe’s deliberately steered him away from coming into contact with Will, all because Joe was holding a grudge and wasn’t going to relent until Will made it right. One doesn’t just forgive a person for breaking your brother’s heart, Joe practically announced every day and night without fail, especially if the wanker is your best mate.
Leslie recalls that day at Joe and Tom’s shared flat when Tom showed up with this mysterious Will in tow. Before Leslie could poke his head out to take a peek, Joe blocked his way and shut the door on them after offering nothing more than a curt sentence or two.
Despite his curiosity, Leslie knew better than to get in the middle of that mess. He’s witnessed Joe’s temper flare up several times in a few different settings. Sometimes it’s in the morning when Joe is grumpy from waking up on the wrong side of the bed, while other times, it’s when his fingers betray him by letting too much sugar slip into his coffee. More recently, Joe’s temper escalates when whatever it is Joe’s designing for work repeatedly pops up with an error message. Every time Joe fixes a bug, two more take its place. Leslie has to remove himself from the room whenever Joe’s string of expletives grows too loud and he needs some peace and quiet.
The point is, Joe isn’t as patient as most people assume him to be, nor is he as sensible. In fact, it’s rather hilarious occasionally overhearing Joe on a call with a few of his… less than bright coworkers on a project and mentally ticking off the boxes that indicated he was pissed.
Still, that doesn’t mean Leslie wants to face that wrath himself, so he let Joe deal with the ‘Tom and Will Situation’ until Joe was satisfied. Things seem to have worked out alright if Tom’s repeated whines about double-dating are any indication. Joe’s successfully fended Tom off thus far, but Leslie has a feeling that he’ll give in, eventually. Maybe this weekend is going to be the final nail in the coffin.
Speaking of which...
“Should I bring anything?” Leslie asks, already running through a list of items in his head. Flowers are nice and standard, aren’t they? Those’ll probably wilt by the time they make it to Dedham though. A gift basket could be good? No, too clunky and a pain to carry. What about a bottle of wine? Is that too formal? Does Joe’s mother even drink? It’s not like they’re attending a housewarming party or a wedding—
Thankfully, Joe rescues him before his chain of thoughts grows too long, as it’s keen to do.
“All you need to bring is yourself,” Joe says. “Fair warning though, Mum’s a force to be reckoned with.” Joe laughs almost like an afterthought, with a forced nature that indicates there’s something Joe isn’t telling him.
Before Leslie can ask about it, Joe rolls slightly onto his left side so that his back is exposed, shoulders and neck wrung taut. It’s strange because Joe has always talked about his mother with a smile that lights his cheeks, bringing out that resemblance he shares with Tom. Whatever the issue is, it can’t be because Joe doesn’t get along with his family. That’s something Leslie has always envied about Joe—he despises thinking this way because it’s not as if he begrudges Joe for it, but there’s no other way to put it.
He’s not sure if he’s allowed to push further at this point right now. He wants to know, not because he wants to be nosy, but because he wants Joe to understand that he doesn’t need to bottle up the harder parts of himself.
“Are we going by train, then?” Leslie asks.
Joe hums a monotonic sound, one that barely reaches Leslie’s ears due to his tinnitus.
“Already bought the tickets,” Joe says. “Saturday morning.” He pauses, then lifts his head, only slightly to expose his cheek but not his expression. “Is that a problem? Sorry I didn’t ask first. You didn’t mention having anything booked, so.”
There’s a strain in Joe’s voice that’s pulled even tighter than the tenseness in his shoulders. Leslie shuts his laptop, unplugs his headphones, and places them both gently onto the nightstand before scooting over and draping an arm over Joe’s waist, then digging his chin into Joe’s shoulder.
“I would’ve cancelled them to go with you,” Leslie says, muffling his words in the warm threads of Joe’s undershirt. It’s always guaranteed to coax a response from Joe, and sure enough, Joe’s laugh this time is much more honest.
“You’re ridiculous,” Joe says. He drops his phone onto the pillow and rolls back over, burying his face in Leslie’s chest. “Why am I even letting you tag along? Should’ve picked some other arse.”
Leslie smiles into the strands of Joe’s curls that fall gently over his forehead. He smells the aloe vera shampoo that Joe likes so much because Joe always smothers his entire scalp with it until bubbles are streaming down his neck.
“Only an arse can keep up with you,” Leslie says, tracing a finger behind Joe’s ear, then reaching over Joe’s head to turn off the lights.
Joe becomes increasingly distracted and forgetful as the week crawls by. On Wednesday, he leaves his phone on Leslie’s kitchen countertop before leaving for work, and Leslie narrowly misses running it over to the tube station before Joe gets on his train. Later, Leslie is standing outside on the balcony with his salad wrap in one hand and his phone in the other when a buzz nearly makes him drop both items onto the street below.
[Joe 12:15] Thanks, sorry about that.
It’s been hours since that morning’s incident had been buried in the back of Leslie’s mind. Did Joe not find reception until now, or did he only just remember to send the message? Instead of focusing on his compositions, Leslie spends several coffee refills and the rest of the day wondering if Joe left anything else at his flat.
On Thursday, Joe steps off at the wrong station on his way over that evening, a mistake that he’s never made riding the tube to any destination, ever.
[Joe 17:02] Gotta loop back, be there soon.
...Is the reply Leslie gets when he texts Joe asking if something came up and they need to skip their weekly jog through Hyde Park.
On Friday, Leslie rings the doorbell to Joe and Tom’s flat, only to be greeted by silence. After receiving no reply from Joe and standing in the corridor for five minutes, Leslie tries a different tactic.
[Leslie 18:35] Don’t mean to interrupt your trip, but can I ask you something?
[Tom 18:35] what’s up?
[Tom 18:36] was lauri not able to take myrtle?
Well, that’s one benefit of Tom’s being constantly glued to his phone. You can find him anytime, anywhere.
[Leslie 18:37] No, she came by yesterday.
[Leslie 18:37] Does Joe have something planned for tonight?
[Tom 18:38] not that i know of
[Tom 18:38] is he not home?
Leslie pulls up his calendar to double-check his memory. ‘Cinemas with Joe’ is still blocked off in grey from 19:00 to midnight.
[Leslie 18:39] Never mind. See you tomorrow.
Dispirited, Leslie walks back towards the lift, mind already spinning with other potential ways to spend the rest of the evening. When the doors to the lift open though, he comes face to face with Joe, who’s holding a tote bag filled with groceries in one hand and an open bottle of beer in the other.
“Shit,” Joe says, eyes widening, nearly spilling the beer onto the floor. “Shit, shit, shit, I completely forgot—the cinemas, that was tonight, wasn’t it?”
Leslie takes in the bag of flour, the carton of cream, and the batch of eggs that are poking out the top of the tote. “Are you making the shortcake again?”
“That was the plan, but—” Joe grips the tote tightly before swinging it a few centimetres closer towards his legs as if trying to hide it from sight but not wanting to make it too obvious. “Sorry, let me put these down and I’ll be out in a few.”
Joe squeezes past Leslie, diverting his eyes away when they press shoulder-to-shoulder, and Leslie catches him by the arm that’s holding the beer.
“Hey. We can stay in instead, if you want,” Leslie says. He’s not sure what’s going on, but three days in a row of strange behaviour is a pattern. He moves to pry the tote gently out of Joe’s hand, and it takes a kiss to the temple and a tickle in the stomach before Joe relents.
“Sorry,” Joe says again, sagging his shoulders as he relinquishes the groceries. “I really didn’t mean to—I know we’d been planning it for weeks, I get it if you’re pissed—”
Leslie kisses Joe again, this time on the mouth to shut him up. “It’ll take more than that to turn me off from you, Joe Blake.”
A flicker of surprise flashes over Joe’s face before Leslie nudges him towards the front door. When they finally make it inside the flat, he’s still trying to think of what else to say—Is everything alright? Is something wrong at work?—when Joe presses him urgently against the door, using their combined weight to slam it shut. Joe drops the beer noisily onto the nearby bookshelf, and Leslie abandons the tote of groceries along with it, deciding to worry about it all later, when he’s less occupied.
“I didn’t pack anything,” Leslie suddenly realises when they’re already past the ticket gate and are waiting on the platform for the train to arrive. He’d been so concerned with making sure the chargers for all his electronics were already with him that he completely forgot about the essentials. To be fair, he hadn’t been expecting to stay the night at Joe’s flat—was absolutely anticipating going home and retrieving his larger bag that was sitting in the hallway—but Joe had other plans for him, and one thing led to another, and… well.
Joe shrugs a shoulder, then heaves the strap back up when the weight of his bag begins to pull it towards the ground. “Think I’ve got everything for the both of us.” His face splits into a grin. “Including, you know. That.”
Leslie schools his expression into a blank one. “I don’t think we’ll get around to that.”
“There’s always time for that.”
“I’ll rephrase. I don’t think we’ll want to get around to that.”
“Mum won’t mind, she’s always been the blasphemous type,” Joe says, his grin still plastered on his face. He’s playing dirty because he knows the effect that his smile has all too well.
Leslie pushes down the urge to kiss the corner of Joe’s mouth and bite into it, though it’s good to know that Joe’s mother appears to be pretty free-spirited. “You know that’s not who I was talking about,” he says.
“And what, have those bastards keep us up all night instead? No, we’re gonna show them how it’s done.”
With that, Joe pinches him in the side, then boards the train.
Leslie is certain Joe is joking. Pretty certain. At least 99% certain.
For the duration of the first train, Joe tells him about everything. He reminisces about waiting for rain on particularly hot days, hoping it’ll water the crops for them. He describes the rolling fields dipping off of the land that they own that are perfect for sledding during wintertime. He mimics the sound that the horses make when they get excited about being fed, and even more so when they’re taken out for rides on the trail running parallel to a nearby river. He laughs about baby Tom waddling into the muddy field after him to pick cherries even though Tom was barely five and the basket he towed behind him dragged a line into the dirt as he struggled to keep up.
(“Five is not a baby, that’s a toddler, at least,” Leslie says.
“Five is definitely a baby if you’re Tom,” Joe vehemently disagrees.)
Joe always insists that his artistic ability maxes out at a poorly sketched out stick figure, but when he talks about Dedham, he speaks as if an artist might paint a landscape, or a poet might weave a sonnet, or a musician might compose a song. He reclaims the clear skies and the birdsong that London smothers with its tall skyscrapers and smog. He plants the patch of red poppies tucked away in a corner of the forest, watches over the tadpoles growing into frogs in the pond, and leads the occasional flocks of wild geese that pass by. He moves down the chronology of time as if life on Earth began when Tom was born nineteen years ago, and every year following that day deserves its own special mention in the spotlight.
What Joe doesn’t talk about, however, is the reason behind the sadness in his eyes when he reaches Tom’s ninth birthday, the ninth year of the world’s existence. It comes as suddenly as the first cherry blossom of the season and fades as quickly as the blossoms die out—or at least, it seems that way based on how Joe explains it to him. And just like that, with a rush of breath and scramble of words, they move on to the tenth year.
After that, Joe begins losing steam—likely from using all of his energy within thirty minutes, and also from whatever it is that caused the speed bump during his trip down memory lane.
“We’ve still got another train and a bus to go,” Leslie reminds him when Joe trails off in the middle of another story.
“You just want me to shut up,” Joe says, but he sounds relieved, as if he’s happy that someone stopped him because he wasn’t capable of completely pulling the brakes himself.
“I have better ways of shutting you up,” Leslie says, as the train pulls into Shenfield.
It doesn’t take long for the second train to arrive, and the moment they drop down into their seats, Joe’s window to Leslie’s aisle, Joe yawns.
“Wake me one stop out,” Joe says before tangling their arms together and then closing his eyes.
Joe falls asleep the second the train departs. The sunrise has long ended, but the sky is still a brilliant array of colours, made obvious by the orange that paints the ends of Joe’s hair and burns the tips of his eyelashes until they’re nearly luminescent.
After running his eyes over Joe’s profile more times than he can remember, Leslie carefully unhooks his arm from Joe’s with a mental apology and retrieves his phone out of his pocket. He tries to get some work done without having to resort to dragging out his laptop, but the screen is too tiny and he mistypes a B sharp as a B flat. Then, he decides to catch up on the latest football news but ends up speed-reading through all of the updates in less than ten minutes.
Twenty additional minutes pass, consisting of staring at the old woman sitting a few rows up before he picks up his phone again and taps out a message.
[Leslie 09:19] Any advice on meeting the parents?
He watches a shopping mall slowly bleed into a small town, then a grass field, then a vast array of nothingness before a ping refocuses his attention.
[LC 09:37] You? Asking for advice? Has the world ended?
[Leslie 09:37] Hilarious.
[Leslie 09:37] Well?
[LC 09:38] Not really. I’m in the same boat.
For real? Leslie shifts in his seat, wondering what to send back when another ping comes, and he quickly sets his notifications to silent.
[LC 09:40] I’m trying to get my boyfriend to sit still. He’s always been energetic but never this early in the morning. Guess he’s excited.
Leslie glances over at where Joe is collapsed against the headrest, neck tilted and breathing shallowly.
[Leslie 09:41] Mine’s asleep.
[LC 09:42] Sounds nice. I’m jealous.
[Leslie 09:42] You reap what you sow.
[LC 09:43] There’s always a catch, isn’t there?
[LC 09:44] Oh Lord, now he’s trying to take selfies with some cows that just passed by. You’d think he’s never seen one.
Leslie laughs, then cuts off before he wakes Joe up. This kid seems like a handful.
[Leslie 09:45] You sure you don’t want to dump him and find a new oneeeeeerrlgerjlgj
He props himself up with his right hand before he falls across the armrest and tumbles into the aisle. His left shoulder is now warm with the tingle of Joe pressed against him, though it would appear that the sudden trick of gravity didn’t do much to wake Joe up.
Leslie looks down at his phone in his left hand, then transfers it over to his right after sitting back up. He deletes the previous message and begins typing out a new one, very slowly and very poorly.
[Leslie 09:52] mine just fell on my texting arm think this’ll have to be it for now
[LC 09:53] Ta, then. Good luck to you today.
[Leslie 09:54] you too
[Leslie 09:54] cheerio
He places the phone facedown on the tray in front and repositions Joe’s head so that it’s tucked into the crook of his own neck, then laces their fingers together. He can already feel the numbness trickling into his upper arm, but it feels rather nice coupled with Joe’s steady breath heating his skin.
Thanks to a family of six with a lot of luggage to load, they narrowly avoid missing their bus when they arrive at Colchester.
They’re surrounded by a rowdy collection of children and elderly folk with a lot to chatter about, but Joe remains silent, jaw set, eyes unfocused, and mouth stretched in a thin line as he stares aimlessly out the window. He’s shaking his leg, bobbing it up and down against Leslie’s own in increasingly rapid increments. Leslie hears the jumbled mess of Joe’s thoughts as clearly as if they’re being broadcast through the speakers. They’re louder than even the screeching of the bus tires, or the unoiled hinges of the doors as they open and close to let off passengers.
The road becomes rougher as they travel deeper into the countryside. Joe hasn’t let go of his hand since Leslie first laced them together on the train. Joe’s grip begins to tighten like a snake choking its prey, and Leslie can feel the lack of circulation settling into his own fingers.
Strangely, it reminds Leslie of the night they met again—not when they kissed on the dance floor in the club, but during what came afterward in his flat, when Joe met his gaze head-on like a promise. It reminds Leslie of Joe prying his fingers free from the sheets and tangling them in his hair, allowing Leslie to pull as easily as Joe pushes, surrendering his life to Leslie, like Joe trusted him to take care of it.
It reminds Leslie of the next morning in the kitchen, his heart and soul bared, and Joe accepting that fragility with courage, kindness, and bravery that Leslie never felt in himself, not ever, not really. It reminds him of Joe freeing his hands clutched at the counter and wrapping his entire existence around him like the warmth of the sun. Like another promise.
Leslie wants to do the same for Joe. He wants to unfurl Joe’s knots, pull up his anchor, and set him free to sail the world—and, if Joe will let him, allow Leslie to follow close behind, always, without fail.
He picks both of their hands up from where they’re nested in between the denim of their jeans and covers the rest of Joe’s fingers with his other hand.
Joe turns at the motion as if to locate the source of it, and Leslie catches himself smiling when Joe’s eyes focus, and his mouth drops slightly open before closing again.
“Careful,” Leslie says, squeezing with the hand that still has blood running through it, “or you’ll suck the life out of me, and I’ll be useless for the rest of the weekend.”
It takes a few seconds for Joe to realise what he means.
“Shit,” Joe says, fingers going slack and arm withdrawing like a bridge being pulled up. “Sorry, you should’ve said something.”
Leslie brings him back, a simple hook of index finger on pinky. He rubs at the center of Joe’s palm, massaging the skin until the blood returns for them both, then reparks their hands in between their thighs, back to where they were before.
Joe goes back to being silent for the remainder of the bus ride, but an upturn at the corner of his mouth replaces the thin press of lips, so Leslie counts it as a win.
Blake Farm & Orchard is carved into the rusty sign that hangs on the gate, flanked by two oak trees giving way to a cobblestone path that runs the entire length to the front of the house, and then beyond that to the field behind it.
At first, Leslie doesn’t notice how far the path stretches because there’s a woman standing at the fork where it splits as if she’s the sole force making it do so. She doesn’t look very tall, but that’s about all he’s able to make out before Joe throws his bag to the ground and rushes into the woman’s arms.
When Leslie finally hauls himself and the bag over—what did Joe put in it?—to stand fully in front of them both, he… well, he still can’t see the woman’s face, because Joe is clinging to the woman like a newborn infant. Or a koala. Leslie steps a little closer and decides it’s a bit of both. A newborn koala.
“Please, Joseph,” Leslie hears, a much higher voice than he was expecting from the woman but no less commanding, “it’s as if you haven’t seen me in years.”
“Every day’s a year away from you, Mum.” Joe gives the woman another full-body squeeze before untangling all of his limbs. There’s the brightness painting his smile, the red rushing into his cheeks. It’s probably from all the fresh air that’s sitting in his lungs, dispelling and purifying the smoke from the city.
“That’s not what you told me on the phone.” The woman pinches Joe in the side, then glances in Leslie’s direction. “Well? Are you going to keep him standing there like that?”
“Ah.” Joe has the audacity to look sheepish. “Mum, this is Ellis.”
“Call me Martha.” The woman extends an arm. “It’s a pleasure.”
Martha’s grip is stronger than Joe’s. Leslie isn’t surprised—someone who was able to bring up not one, but two Blake boys is bound to have sturdy hands.
“Likewise,” Leslie says, shaking once. “Thank you for having me.”
“Let me guess,” Martha says, “he didn’t give you more than a day’s notice.”
“C’mon, you know I wouldn’t do that,” Joe complains.
“Is he telling the truth?” Martha asks.
Leslie nods, the same moment that Joe says, “I’ll have you know I told him five days in advance.”
“That’s certainly more than I would’ve wagered.” Martha crosses her arms. “Knowing you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Joe asks.
“Did you not tell—” Martha loosens her shoulders, glancing over at Leslie. He’s not prepared for whatever that look in her eyes means, but it softens before Leslie has the chance to find out. “Never mind. Tom called saying he’ll be another thirty, so why don’t we go inside? It must’ve been a long journey.”
Leslie’s seen his fair share of old buildings, both in London and elsewhere on the outskirts of his parents’ property, but this house is something else entirely. The foundation rests on a large square brick perimeter that extends upwards into an alternating pattern of crimson and dark brown, peppered with the occasional black. The walls branch out into three distinct pointed roofs, each in increasing size as they go from left to right, and there, behind the tallest roof, is where the chimney stands in the back corner of the house. Dark navy shutters bracket the windows, with vines and leaves dipping here and there, sometimes sinking into the closed spaces between the bricks. Upon a closer look, buds are adorning some of these vines, preparing to grow into petals of all shapes and sizes—it’s like the entire house is a flower bed.
When they finally make it inside, they move down the hallway decked with a wooden floor and spotless photo frames on the walls. At the end of it, past the kitchen and the dining area, must be the living area, because there’s half of a large fireplace in view from where Leslie is standing. It’s a traditional one, not one of those fake, electric machines that are installed in every flat in London. It brings back memories of the fireplace that was always burning in the mansion he grew up in, the one in the parlor room at the end of the twisting and turning great hall—the one that he couldn’t find warmth next to despite how tall the flames grew.
This one, the one that’s lying dormant in the Blake house, isn’t lit, doesn’t look like it’s been lit since the snow melted many months ago, but Leslie feels the lingering embers that laid rest to firewood, heated the bricks, and gave rise to smoke from winters past.
Joe’s touch on his arm draws him back, and Leslie turns to let himself be pulled towards the stairs. Every step is caved in from years of footprints, every surface of the carpentry smoothed out from the gravity of people bustling up and down—they’re nothing like the cold, marble steps of the arched stairway with gold railing spiraling upwards that Leslie’s used to. Those steps were one chip away from being a statue or a piece in a museum, not meant to be used but looked at. Maybe that’s why Leslie never found comfort in withdrawing to his room at the top—he was a corpse struggling to come back to life, returning to its locked vault in a mausoleum.
Here, the steps creak no matter how much Leslie takes care to lessen his weight. It’s strange, such a small, sudden reminder of his existence.
Joe leads him down the corridor, past two other bedrooms before pushing open a door with a faded piece of blue construction paper taped to the front. JOE, it reads in red and black crayon, in a very poor attempt at block lettering. The tiny blobs bordering the page are—stars? Planets? Asteroids? Something not even remotely related to space? There’s also an animal of some sort in the bottom right corner. It’s green, so—is it a frog? But, frogs don’t have fur.
“Nice artwork,” Leslie says when Joe drops his bag onto the bed. The sheets are a faded light blue, likely cotton-lined, with a duvet folded roughly on it in a manner that would’ve led a maid to be sacked if Leslie’s parents had anything to say about it.
Joe eyes him before collapsing back onto the bed with a thump. “Tom drew that, not me.”
Makes more sense. “How old was he?” Leslie asks.
Joe doesn’t reply, so Leslie takes it to mean that he either spaced out or is purposefully pretending he didn’t hear him. Joe does this sometimes when someone asks him a question that he doesn’t want to answer, and pushing him would only make him clam up even more. It feels like a culmination of little things that began when Joe first mentioned coming here this weekend. If Leslie were to try untangling the thread, would he end up succeeding or snapping it into two frayed ends?
He’s still deciding whether he wants to risk it when something in the corner catches his eye. When he walks closer, he recognises the unmistakable shape of a guitar head, attached to a neck that glistens dully underneath what looks like many years of usage. He runs a finger down the strings, then swipes across the surface of the body. The dust clings to his skin, and he reaches automatically into his back pocket to dig out a cloth before he remembers he left most of his stuff in his flat. He settles for rubbing his finger against his thumb and palm to scatter the particles. Shouldn’t the guitar be kept in a case?
The bed creaks, and that’s when Leslie realises he asked the question out loud. He turns to see Joe sitting up and looking in his direction with irritation written all over his face.
“Don’t touch that,” Joe says tersely. “It’s not supposed to be here.”
Leslie glances at the guitar again. “This isn’t yours?”
“No.” Joe pauses. “Not exactly.”
There’s a particularly hard edge to Joe’s voice, one that Leslie knows means the thread will snap. It’s unfair, because Joe always untangles him so easily, understands how the cogs inside Leslie’s mind fit together before Leslie has a full grasp of it himself. Meanwhile, Leslie is stuck here, not knowing what to do, and the doubt is infiltrating his chest in a way that he didn’t feel on the bus. Who was he to think that this would be as easy as two hands clenched together? How does he unfurl those knots, pull up that anchor, set Joe free to sail the world—would Joe even let him, would he allow him to follow close behind, always, without fail—
“Tom’s here!” Martha’s voice cuts off the crescendo of his thoughts. “Come downstairs, won’t you?”
Joe pushes off the bed and plasters a smile back onto his face. “You coming?”
Before Leslie can reply, Joe exits the room in a few quick paces, the same time that a buzz in his pocket steals his attention.
[LC 12:09] We don’t get this in the city, do we?
Underneath that is a photo of…
Leslie stares down at the screen, minimises the app, then pulls up his messages again. The photo is still there, which can only mean…
He bolts out of the room, rushes down the stairs, stops a few steps away from the front door, and watches as Joe pulls Tom into a chokehold. In the distance, towering above them all, are the two oak trees that greeted Leslie and Joe earlier that day—the same ones that are in Leslie’s phone, right now.
Standing behind Tom is a sandy-haired bloke who’s about a head taller than Tom. Leslie considers letting it go, leaving it unspoken. It wouldn’t do anybody any harm. Instead, he taps out a reply.
[Leslie 12:15] Will?
[LC 12:15] Yes?
[LC 12:15] Wait, how do you know my name?
[Leslie 12:15] Look up.
When Will finally meets his eyes, Leslie pinpoints the very second that the same thought flashes through both of their minds: fuck.
Sometimes, life likes to throw a curveball. All they can do is try their best not to get hit.
SIX YEARS AGO
In retrospect, he should’ve seen this coming. He always falls for the same type—clear blue eyes, dimpled smile, and a confident attitude with something to prove. The fact that Joseph Blake has to be the most frustrating and charming arse Leslie’s ever met is an extra cherry on top of an already lovely dessert.
“We’re not here to throw a party,” Blake announces from his place at the table, like he owns the entire room and everybody in it, like he’s a king and they’re his loyal subjects. “Beethoven’s classy. We already have the tracks from the last department function. Let’s go with that.”
“Everybody’ll be bored before the evening toast,” Leslie disagrees, head propped lazily up with his right hand. He scribbles the last of his composition assignment onto the edge of his notepad before flipping the page to a new sheet, then lifts his eyes. “They’ll leave. Don’t think you want that.”
“I don’t hear any better ideas,” Blake says, with a raise of eyebrows that teeters dangerously on the border between placating and concerned.
God, Blake is a stubborn prick. Does he know the aura he radiates? Does he know that Leslie wants nothing more than to draw more of it out of him?
They’ve already been at this for ten minutes. Judging by the murmur that ripples through the other students, nobody wants to jump in for fear of being the next target.
On one hand, Leslie’s grateful that they’re in this bubble by themselves, dragging the day out. They don’t speak otherwise, outside of the committee, so if this is the only way he’ll get the chance to talk to Blake, he’ll gladly take it. On the other hand, they’re fifteen minutes past the end of their official meeting time. He’s tired, he has a philosophy exam the next day, and he wants to go home.
“Beethoven’s great,” Leslie says, tossing his pen down and trying to salvage the situation. “Just not by itself, for this specific situation.”
Blake looks at him over his tumbler and narrows his eyes. “Then what do you propose?”
I propose going back to my place and letting me fuck the smugness out of you, is what Leslie wants to say, but that is definitely not appropriate right now, or at any time.
“We don’t even need to decide until the day before, right?” he asks.
“That’s your plan?” Blake asks after heaving a sigh. “To wait until the last moment?”
“I’ll mix something up.”
It’s evidently not what Blake was expecting, because he shuts his mouth and swallows down whatever planned retort he had on his tongue. “You?”
Leslie shrugs. “It’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”
“Not really,” Blake says with an unreadable look on his face. “Nobody’s expecting you to…”
“I’m offering. If you hate what I play the day of, feel free to kick me out and put on the Beethoven you like so much. I’ll even prepare the tracks for you, just so you feel like you have some semblance of control.”
Leslie hides a grin behind the back of his hand when Blake’s mouth twitches. That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Control. Control over mayhem, control over all unknown third variables that might swoop in and cause Blake’s entire empire to come toppling down.
He expects Blake to say no. And to be honest, he really doesn’t care about whether they play Beethoven or Mozart or fucking ABBA. He only cares about pushing Blake’s buttons.
“Alright, have at it, then,” Blake finally says. “Let’s see what you’re all about.”
While Leslie’s sitting there trying to figure out what just happened, Blake looks at his watch and peers at the clock hanging next to the window.
“Sorry for keeping everyone so late,” Blake says, already pushing back his chair. “We’ll reconvene next week.”
Leslie watches everybody else file out one by one until he’s left with Blake’s blue eyes staring back at him in the conference room.
“Did you need something?” Leslie asks.
Blake taps a finger against his tumbler. “No. You’re just full of surprises, is all. I’m looking forward to what you have to offer.”
Then, Blake smiles, and Leslie doesn’t get the chance to properly process the honesty behind it before Blake is out the door.
It’s times like these that Leslie wishes he would learn to shut his trap. Between his portfolio of compositions and his philosophy thesis that are due within a week of each other, he really doesn’t have the time to be tinkering with music for a department that’s not even his and for a mixer that doesn’t even matter. Despite what he told Blake, it’s not like anybody’s going to the thing expecting high-quality entertainment. They’re going for the ribbon-cutting, maybe the chair’s speech, and most definitely the free champagne.
This is what he gets for trying to show off, like a bloody idiot.
He can’t decide on a set of ten. He keeps mixing more and more tracks because it’s all he can think about while on the tube to the university or sitting there bored in his lectures—Blake’s face suspended in his memory.
You’re just full of surprises, Blake said, and Leslie wants nothing more than to catch Blake when he falls from the shock.
So, ten tracks turn to fifteen, then to twenty, then to twenty-five, until Leslie forces himself to delete the twenty-sixth track that’s in progress off of his laptop. Then, he dives into his automatic backup and deletes the copy saved there too, for good measure.
Twenty-five is ridiculous, but he loads them all onto a USB that’s lodged in his front jacket pocket like molten lead threatening to burn a hole through the cloth and his chest and expose his secret. He brings the USB to the mixer and plugs the damn thing into the port at the sound booth before he can think twice and tell Blake he decided to go along with Beethoven, after all.
Leslie stays in the tech room. It’s not like he needs to go out and mingle.
He watches Blake flit to and fro across the room to greet some of the more important-looking people in suits. As the evening drags on, Blake lets loose a little, and he says hi to all of the small children brought along by parents who couldn’t afford babysitters.
At one point, Leslie notices a kid sitting by himself in the corner on the verge of tears. Before he can move, Blake is automatically there, like he’d been summoned, kneeling down and making eye-contact. He can’t make out what Blake says, but the kid is smiling in no more than ten or fifteen seconds, and Blake picks him up, presumably to go find the kid’s parents.
Leslie isn’t sure if he’s jealous because he wants Blake to be summoned to his side upon request, or because he also wants Blake to pick him up like he weighs nothing. It’s utterly fucking absurd, the very fact that he’s even thinking about this.
He zones out after the speeches begin, then completely stops paying attention when there’s about an hour left to go. Blake disappeared at some point to deal with whatever it is he’s occupying himself with, so there’s nothing interesting to focus on, anyway.
Most guests are long gone by the time there are fifteen minutes left. Leslie is wondering if he should go out and help clean up when Blake appears at the door.
“Did you need something?” Leslie asks, those four words sounding much more intimate in the small tech room compared to the conference room.
Blake shifts his weight, then steps closer to the booth. From this distance, Leslie sees the tie that Blake is wearing to go along with his suit in more detail. It’s red, adorned with a cherry pattern. Did his mother give it to him? Did Blake choose it himself? Frankly, either option sounds adorable.
“I, ah.” Blake scratches the back of his neck. “I like your music.”
“Did I hear that right?” Leslie asks. “You’re paying me a compliment?”
“Piss off,” Blake says lightly. “Must’ve taken you a long time.”
“Not that long,” Leslie lies. “Only a few hours.” Four hours every day, for fourteen days in a row.
Blake nods but doesn’t leave. He stuffs his hands into his pockets, licks his lips, and—
“Did you need anything else?” Leslie asks, resisting the urge to pull on Blake’s wrinkle-free tie and trace the curve of those lips with his own.
“I was wondering…” Blake trails off, then flushes a bright pink. That, or the lights of the booth are reflecting onto his face to make it seem that way. “Could you—Could you give me a copy of them?”
Leslie blinks. “Of the classipop?” he asks, then curses.
Blake grins, his amusement unmalicious and playful. “If that’s what they’re called, then yeah.”
Is Blake pulling his leg? Leslie studies Blake’s face, rakes over every centimetre of it, and finds the same honesty reflected in Blake’s smile from that day in the conference room.
He’s in very, very dangerous territory.
“I’ll leave the USB here,” Leslie says. He has no use for it or its contents after tonight, anyway. “You can have it.”
“But it’s—they’re—they’re yours,” Blake says, eyebrows knitted in worry like he’s actually concerned that Leslie will be offended.
“I have copies.” Leslie doesn’t mention that he plans to delete them the minute he gets home. “Besides, this means a part of me will always be with you, won’t it?”
He hasn’t drunk a single drop of the free champagne tonight, but he might as well have if he’s going to go and blurt out something stupid like that.
Blake widens his eyes, and Leslie stands up before he says something else equally dumb, before Blake can respond with anything.
“I’m off-duty now, right?” Leslie says, wriggling his watch wrist. “Clean-up’s on Butler and those other lads.”
“Right.” Blake steps aside. “Good night. Thanks for your—for everything.”
For everything. Leslie bolts out of Blake’s warmth, out of the room, and out the building before he can think twice.
Okay. Now he’s drunk.
Well. Just slightly. Actually, not at all. He drank a pint, but that’s about it—for some reason, he can’t find it in himself to get properly pissed.
He looks around the pub and immediately feels a pang of loneliness in his chest that he’s never felt before. Maybe he’s outgrown this type of place, this kind of crowd.
Deep down, though, he knows it’s because he’s not with one very specific person.
He brings the second pint that he no longer wants to finish out with him behind the alley. He sniffs at it, swirls it around, tips some of it onto the ground—no, that’s a waste. He considers giving it another try when a dull thud distracts him.
There’s another bloke, squatted down and leaning against the brick wall underneath the pub’s shitty light. His head is tucked into his arms that are folded atop his knees. There’s only one empty glass that Leslie can make out from this distance, so either the bloke is sadly not blessed with the ability to tolerate alcohol, or there are more glasses hidden on the other side of him.
Leslie peers down the alleyway, towards the entrance, then back at the bloke before walking up to him.
“You alright there, mate?” he asks.
The bloke doesn’t move so much as a muscle. Leslie wonders if he imagined the noise from before.
“Hey.” He kicks gently at the bloke’s legs. “You alive, there?”
The bloke breathes sharply in, then lifts his head. His confusion is apparent from the way he squints, and it matches his tousled hair and his mess of a shirt collar, both of which must’ve gotten mussed from the alcohol he downed during the night. Leslie inspects the ground, sees no other glasses littered around, then fights down a laugh. Lightweight it is.
He feels a little bad thinking this, but Lightweight looks the way that Leslie feels right now. Still, at least he’s wearing his heartbreak proudly—that’s the only cause for anybody looking this pathetic.
“Who’re you?” Lightweight slurs. He pats aimlessly at the ground below, then frowns when his hand hits the empty glass.
“Doesn’t matter who I am.” Leslie squats down to match Lightweight’s height, though he thinks if they were both standing, that Lightweight would be slightly taller than him. “What happened to you?”
Lightweight stares at the pint in Leslie’s hand. “Are ya gon’ drink tha’?”
“Yes,” Leslie says. He moves the pint out of Lightweight’s reach when he attempts to steal it. “Really don’t think you need any more of this.”
“Piss ahhhhhhhhhhhhfffff,” Lightweight says. Then, he squints some more and leans in closer. “Y’know, you’re not half-bad lookin’.”
“Thanks?” Leslie says. Is Lightweight okay? Is this his first time drinking? He has no idea how old Lightweight is, or if he’s even eighteen, but he’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I’m serious,” Lightweight continues, dragging himself even closer. “Y’wanna, y’know… y’know?” He makes a sloppy movement with his hands, and Leslie nearly cracks up from the sight.
“Flattered, but we shouldn’t.” Under normal circumstances, he might actually go for it, but he’s not in the mood—it’s not one very specific person and all that. Besides, Lightweight is clearly not in the right mind to make any decisions.
Then, Lightweight launches himself towards Leslie, arms reaching out to grab blindly and toppling onto the ground instead.
“Woah, hey.” Leslie shifts backward. “Let’s sober you up, okay? Let’s…” he looks around, “let’s walk over to that bench over there.”
“Don’ wanna,” Lightweight complains, but he doesn’t try anything else, goes limp as a ragdoll instead.
Leslie sighs. Why does he get himself in these situations? He tucks an arm under Lightweight’s armpits and hauls him up. By the time they make it to the bench, Lightweight is completely passed out. Leslie sits down next to him, lights a cigarette, then peers up at the sky. It’s a full moon tonight.
Lightweight wakes up one pint, two cigarettes, and three hours later.
“Oh, God,” he says, hand automatically moving up to rub his temple. “What—”
“Finally,” Leslie says. It’s nearing one in the morning now, and he really wanted to just leave the pathetic sod by himself, but every time he got up from the bench, he sat back down again. Looking at him felt like looking at a mirror of his younger, sadder self, and he couldn’t in his right mind abandon him.
Lightweight turns to him. It’s obvious that he doesn’t recognise him. “Do I know you?”
“No.” Leslie considers how much to tell him, then decides he deserves the truth. “You made advances towards me.”
“Oh, God,” Lightweight repeats, horror pouring out of his voice and expression. “I am—I am so sorry, I’m normally not like that, but—oh, that’s what everyone says, isn’t it? Before they turn out to be a bloody creep like me.”
Leslie laughs in earnest. Lightweight is too uptight for his own good. “You’re fine. Nothing happened.”
Lightweight doesn’t look convinced, but he relaxes his shoulders slightly. “I’m really sorry. You should’ve reported me or something.”
“I should’ve punched you is what I should’ve done.”
Almost as if a second thought, Lightweight touches his face, seemingly searching for any bruises. “Why didn’t you?”
“You didn’t seem like the type to get yourself into these situations often,” Leslie says. He stubs out his third cigarette. “Are you?”
“Ah…” Lightweight looks down, then turns his entire body away. “There’s a—There’s a reason. Not a very good one, it’s not like it excuses my behaviour, but…”
Lightweight flushes, then begins fiddling with the strap of his watch. “Something like that. It’s… I’ve been feeling things I shouldn’t. Suppose I’m a little confused.”
Sounds complicated. “You’re not the only one,” Leslie says.
When Lightweight looks at him again, he looks incredibly, incredibly sad. “Were you dumped?”
Leslie stares, then bursts out laughing for a second time. Jesus, the balls on this bloke. “No. We weren’t even—it’s not like—no.”
“Unrequited,” Leslie says, after containing the last of his amusement. “Most likely, anyway.”
“I didn’t actually tell him.”
Lightweight looks positively perplexed, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing. “And you’re alright with that?”
Leslie shrugs. “It’s not really up to me, is it?”
“But how do you know? That he doesn’t—”
“Don’t think I’m the type he wants around permanently, even if he doesn’t know it.” Leslie flicks the cigarette stub over Lightweight’s head, scattering some ashes into his hair. “You’re one to talk.”
“It’s true.” Lightweight looks ready to defend someone's honour, but not his own, which probably needs a whole other conversation to unpack. “I mean it, I—”
“You don’t need to tell me anything,” Leslie interrupts. The less he knows, the better. “We’ve all got our troubles, don’t we?”
Lightweight deflates slightly, then pulls up his phone with renewed determination. “It’d be nice to have someone to talk to, though. Don’t you think?”
Leslie eyes him and takes in the hesitance in his posture, the hopefulness on his face. As ridiculous as the entire notion is, maybe Lightweight just needs a friend. Or, maybe it’s Leslie himself who needs one, even if it’s a random bloke he found pissed in the back alley of a pub. Off of just one pint, too. Bloody Christ.
“Give it here,” Leslie says. He programs his number into the blank entry on the screen, then hands the phone back before he can erase it.
“Lieutenant DJ?” Lightweight asks, grin dangling off of his lips. “What’s this, a stripper name? Is that what you are? A stripper?”
“And if I was?” Leslie hands his own phone over. “It’s my stage name. I play clubs at night sometimes, it’s a part-time gig.” He snatches the phone back when Lightweight is finished with it. “LC?”
“Lance Corporal,” Lightweight says. “It’s what my mates in the history department like to call me. Apparently, I look like this one soldier in a photo they found in their books.”
“Well, then that makes me your superior. And as your superior, I’m laying some ground rules. No spamming, no memes, no personal information. Got it?”
“Thanks,” Lightweight says, nodding sincerely, and Leslie would roll his eyes if he didn’t have a feeling the bloke really meant it. “Nice to meet you, Lieutenant.”
Leslie accepts his outstretched hand and shakes it. “Likewise, Lance Corporal.”
“You know, ‘Lieutenant DJ’ has a nice ring to it,” Tom says. He’s sprawled out on the sofa, with one leg dangling off the edge and the other propped on the sofa back. He takes out a crisp from the plastic bag perched on his stomach, pops it into his mouth with a loud crunch, chews thoughtfully for a few seconds, then lifts his head. “How come you never told me your stage name?”
“You never asked,” Leslie says.
“Does Joe know? He must, right?”
Leslie thinks back to the many times Joe mock-saluted him whenever he had to leave for a gig.
“What do you think?” he asks.
“I think that sounds like a yes,” Tom says. “Still disappointed neither of you ever told me.”
After an incredibly poorly spun recollection of events, courtesy of Will’s stammering enunciation and flushed face, Leslie had no choice but to interject and set some things straight. He really didn’t want to let And I think I tried to grab his dick at some point sit out in the open for longer than necessary, considering nothing even really happened. What’s more, he definitely didn’t want to deal with Joe’s incredulous look for the rest of the day without having done his due diligence of clearing this whole mess up.
It was then that Martha had appeared and asked for two volunteers to go to the grocer’s with her. Before Leslie could blink twice, Joe had dragged Will with him out the door, leaving Leslie behind at Tom’s mercy to field all sorts of questions.
“Did you pick the name yourself?” Tom asks.
“That also sounds like a yes.”
“If you say so.”
“It does kinda sound like a stripper name, though.”
Leslie doesn’t bother gracing that comment with a response.
“So that’s it?” Tom takes out another crisp and waves it around. “For six years, you and Will just”—crunch—“just never knew each other’s name?”
“We didn’t talk that much.”
“But you’ve texted.”
“On occasion.” The topics were benign and generic most of the time. Nearly got run over by a taxi. Rain’s coming down hard. Why do people insist they’re right when they’re undoubtedly wrong? Those were among the more exciting things that Leslie’s received over the years.
Sometimes, though… sometimes, despite the line they drew at personal information, they couldn’t help but veer into that territory. It was difficult not to when things got a little rough. How do you make yourself stop feeling a certain way? How do you not fuck up all the time? How do you fix what you’ve broken?
How do you know if you’re in love?
If Leslie found himself answering those questions from time to time, well… all he can say is that it’s easier to face them when it’s not in person. It’s not a switch you can turn off. We’re always fucking up in some manner. Maybe it’s not something you can fix.
It felt like he was talking to himself, more often than not.
Tom crunches noisily on another crisp. He’s staring at something on the ceiling. Leslie looks up and picks out a brown stain, along with a tiny hole. Tom could be looking at either of those things. Leslie looks back down and finds Tom’s gaze fixed on him.
“What?” Leslie asks.
“You two don’t seem to have that much in common, is all.” Tom tilts his head. “I could be wrong, though.”
“Will was drunk. People have more things in common when they’re pissed.” Leslie leaves out the part about not being pissed himself, about feeling sorry for Will—and about this sentiment arising more from empathy rather than mere pity.
“He’s never been great at drinking,” Tom agrees. He crunches on a fourth crisp, then slides the rest of the crumbs directly from the bag into his mouth.
Leslie watches Tom wipe his mouth with his sleeve. “You’re not…” He’s not sure what he wants to ask. Angry? Jealous? Irritated?
Tom laughs. “I’m a little surprised, I guess. I mean, small world, right? Who would’ve thought? But thinking back on it now, it kinda makes sense.”
Tom’s eyes go wistful. He’s probably putting two and two together, realising that the reason Will was so pissed drunk was likely because of him—because of whatever it is that happened between them back then.
“He never told me anything, if it makes you feel better,” Leslie says.
“That sounds like him, always keeping secrets,” Tom says. “Thanks for that.”
Huh. Leslie has to admit it, Tom is a lot more mature than he’d been giving him credit for. If anything, he expected Joe to be the one to—
“Are you worried about what Joe thinks?” Tom asks with a smirk.
Leslie narrows his eyes as Tom opens another bag of crisps. “No.”
“Good,” Tom says. “You shouldn’t be.”
With that, Tom picks himself up and pads out of the living area with his crisps in tow. Leslie is left sitting there with only the ticking of the grandfather clock in the corner accompanying his thoughts.
Joe would never be angry over something like this. He might be petty in certain situations, like whenever Leslie puts the eggs on the third shelf of the refrigerator instead of the second, or when Leslie washes the colours before the whites on laundry day, but not for something like this.
There’s nothing even to be angry about, is there? Leslie never told him about—about anything, back then. Not about the way Joe immediately caught his attention during the first committee meeting and cemented Leslie’s decision to stick with the job until the end. Not about how Leslie found Joe’s stubbornness both frustrating and charming. Not about the four hours every day, for fourteen days in a row. Not about wanting to grab Joe’s tie and press their lips together—not just inside the booth, during the mixer, but all the times that Joe wore a tie before then. Joe had some strange impulse for looking formal at every meeting, and Leslie had attributed it to another reason why Joe had a rod up his arse.
Leslie never mentioned any of that, so Joe couldn’t have possibly known. So, why did Joe’s eyes go dark when Will spilled the truth? Was it because Leslie wasn’t as good at projecting apathy as he thought? Was it because Joe now knows that Leslie went to the pub directly after the mixer, after running out to avoid anything Joe was going to say? Was that too obvious, did it weigh on Joe’s mind all these years, did Joe finally figure out that Leslie has been, for six whole years—
“In case you are worried, though,” Tom says, popping back in, “the best way to Joe’s heart is through his stomach.”
Before Leslie can interject, Tom is gone again, as swiftly as he appeared. Does Tom know? What does he even know? Does he see through him like Joe sees through him, do they both see through him—
No. Tom is blurting words out, as usual. But, Tom is also the one who knows Joe best, understands how Joe’s physicality is tethered to the inner workings of his mind.
Leslie hovers a hand over his chest, at the bump where his phone lies in the inner pocket of his jacket, then glances at the kitchen.
The mansion was never very warm or inviting save for the kitchen—there, the fires were always running, standing by should the lord or mistress of the house crave something in the early mornings or the middle of the nights, yes, but also because of the staff. The head and sous chefs never paid Leslie much mind, though they didn’t kick him out, either—Leslie had a feeling they didn’t care much about the hierarchy aside from their pay.
It didn’t matter, because Leslie’s interests laid elsewhere. He found that there were still good things to be discovered if one knew where to look. There were the kitchen porters: Baker, who occasionally let him peel some potatoes if he was bored; Hall, who chopped onions without batting an eye and told him the trick was in how sharp the knife was; Clarke, who scolded him for getting in the way of sanitisation but never had much bark to his bite.
There were the junior chefs, who occasionally explained the intricacies of their stations to him as a way to further their own training: Turner, who showed him how to sprinkle in spices in just the right amount without overwhelming the taste; Morrison, who perfected the art of removing fishbone with one smooth swipe of the knife that Leslie still has no clue how to mimic; Lloyd, who got Leslie to realise that he didn’t care much for chilled foods but appreciated their art—once, he tried to duplicate an ice carving of a dove and gave up before the head was fully formed.
There were so many others: Hughes, who taught him how to cut meat into even strips; Ward, who hated the smell of oil but managed to fry chips to perfection; Grant, who had his own special grill stowed away in the corner that he didn’t allow anybody else to touch—Leslie knows because he snuck a peek once and got a light rap on the wrist before Grant made him a burger to show off his skills and apologise.
Leslie’s favourite by far, however, was Rose. Not because Leslie liked sweet things—in fact, he never had a particular fondness for sugar, much preferred the savoury—but because Rose was undoubtedly the one person in that bustling kitchen who invented a new creation every fortnight. They were tucked away safely in Rose’s leather-bound notebook, written down in a sprawling half-print, half-cursive that looked as if it was lifted out of a traveler’s musings. Rose let Leslie take a look when he stayed past his curfew one night, having snuck into the kitchen to find Rose in the middle of perfecting a carrot cake trifle. Every recipe in the book took Leslie on a different journey—the orange and vanilla crème brûlée to France, the red bean daifuku mochi to Japan, the guava bolo de rolo to Brazil.
Every single page whisked him away to a different country across the world, and that’s what Leslie always thought that food was supposed to do—take you to places that would make you forget about the cage that your body was trapped in.
Then, around a month after they began dating, Leslie walked in on Joe making a shortcake for the first time. Joe had just finished because there was a tray with the dessert cooling on the counter. Crumbs were plastered to Joe’s face and forearms while his apron remained incredulously untainted. His eyebrows were furrowed as well, likely out of frustration because the shortcake didn’t turn out the way he wanted. Not sweet enough, Joe kept complaining while throwing his hands up. The texture’s all wrong.
Joe was always a perfectionist when it came to baking, but he never threw out an entire day's work on account of an off-flavour or a slightly botched step. Every single instance in which he made the shortcake again, it was always the same—Joe’s discontentment, followed by a toss of perfectly good-looking shortcake into the dustbin after one bite.
It was clear that this wasn’t just a recipe in a book or a ticket to a faraway foreign land.
One time, Leslie exited the bedroom at around two in the morning to get a glass of water and found Joe asleep at the kitchen counter. His laptop was open to his work, and his head was buried in his arms as he napped. Leslie was planning on waking Joe up when he got a closer look at the screen and saw a bulleted note open on the bottom right corner with the typical ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, butter, milk, heavy cream—until he reached the end and saw one scoop of jam, jelly, something else followed by a slew of question marks before the first step of the method.
He snapped a photo of the recipe before shaking Joe awake and had promptly forgotten about it until approximately twenty minutes ago.
Standing here now, he wonders what Joe would think if he caught him attempting something that required so many cups of heavy cream, he could make a loaf of cheese out of them. They always split their kitchen duties like that when it’s just the two of them staying in on a stormy night, and sometimes on clear nights, too—Leslie’s savoury meals to Joe’s sweet confections.
He’s beginning to remember why that was the case, as he stares down at one scoop of jam, jelly, something else??? and wonders why he decided to do this when he definitely has no clue what this last ingredient is supposed to be. If Joe couldn’t figure it out, then there was no chance in hell he could without—
Leslie turns. Tom is leaning against the entrance of the kitchen. He’s not eating crisps anymore, but he still looks as amused as before.
“Do you know what this is?” Leslie asks, holding out the recipe on his phone.
Tom pushes off the wall, hands in jeans, then peers down at the screen when he’s close enough. He laughs, and the edges of his eyes crinkle when he does—a resemblance he shares with Joe.
“No wonder you’re stuck,” Tom says knowingly. “Hold on a minute.” He looks around the kitchen, then turns towards the pantry.
“Did he ever tell you why he likes these so much?” Tom asks, voice muffled from where he’s rummaging through the shelves. He pokes his head out. “Joe, I mean. I assume that’s why you’re going through the trouble.”
“Not in detail,” Leslie says. “Just that it reminded him of life back here.”
“He would say that.”
Tom ducks back out of sight, then emerges from the depths of the pantry with a jar. Leslie tries to make out the tiny handwriting on the label from where he’s standing, but all that’s written on it are a few numbers—a date, from the looks of it.
“Mum’s recipe,” Tom explains, untwisting the top and handing it over for Leslie to smell. Cherries, obviously—along with an additional odour that he can’t place.
“Secret sauce?” Leslie asks, before allowing Tom to take the jar back and spoon a healthy amount into the bowl. Tom is very liberal with it, nearly scraping half of the jar empty of its contents.
“Something like that.” Tom pokes a finger into the jar, swirls a circle around the dip at the entrance, then pops it into his mouth. “You’re lucky that Mum happened to have some sitting around.”
Leslie’s never seen Joe use anything similar in his previous attempts. Maybe this is what he was missing.
Leslie opts for continuing to stir the mixture rather than respond with anything else. He actually expects Tom to leave, not step closer and stare into the bowl like there’s gold waiting to be found at the bottom of it.
“Something wrong?” Leslie asks. Did he forget a step? Add too much of a specific ingredient? He zooms in on the recipe and begins mentally going through his actions from before.
“Did he—” Tom bites his lip. He’s still looking into the bowl, eyes following the spatula’s movements.
Leslie pauses mid-stir. “What?”
“Did he really not tell you anything?”
Tom’s shoulders are tense, pulled tightly like Joe’s were earlier that week. Will Tom’s thread also snap in half if Leslie’s pushes?
“Is there something I should know?” Leslie asks.
Tom lets out a helpless sigh. “That arse,” he mutters. “Typical.”
Tom begins tapping his fingers against the flour-coated counter, eyes flitting between the bowl and Leslie’s face from time to time. Leslie’s seen this before—it’s what Tom does whenever he’s warring with himself and working up the courage to do the right thing, even if it’ll cost him.
“Our dad left us,” Tom says. “It’s been… ten. No, eleven years to the day now?” He blinks. “Shit, yeah, eleven years. I was a brat so I don’t remember the details much, but Joe… Joe was almost fifteen. He was crushing it at school, aced all his studies, and all the teachers liked him. Did you know he was captain of the football team? I think that’s what made him so freakishly popular, you know? How many people do you know are both smart and good on the field? All the girls wanted to date him. A lot of the blokes, too.”
Tom’s wide-mouthed grin fades to a simple upturn of lips, like he’s recalling a secret memory only meant for himself.
“He gave up so much to take care of us,” Tom continues. “And it wasn’t fair, you know? It wasn’t fair that our dad was such a prick. It wasn’t fair that he broke Mum’s heart, and it wasn’t fair that Joe was so kind. It wasn’t fair that Joe had to be the strong one for all three of us when his life was just getting good. He always put up that brave face, always tried to hide how he was feeling, and—”
Tom wipes a sleeve at the corner of his eye, leaving a trail of flour dusting his temple. “Thank Christ Mum saw through him. She found Joe crying here on the floor the first year after our dad—after he—and, well, I was still clueless at the time so I didn’t completely get it until a few years later, but—”
He brushes the back of his hand against his nose to stifle a sniffle. “We made shortcake that night, Mum and Joe and I, just the three of us. Mum taught us and she put this jam in it, and Joe never figured out how to recreate it even though Mum has offered to show him. But you know Joe. Always treats every challenge as a personal struggle, always too stubborn to ask for help, because he thinks he has something to prove. Because he thinks he has to—to fight everything himself, or take on the world, or some bullshit like that, and—after I grew up and started to understand a little, I wanted to punch him in the stomach for thinking he could fool me with that rubbish, I swear to God. But he was trying so hard, I didn’t have the heart to ever tell him that, because it would just make it harder for him, and—”
Tom cuts off, voice lost in the middle of his choked sobs. Leslie has long stopped stirring the batter, hands and arms and the entire kitchen frozen in time as Tom pours it all out, enough for both Joe and himself, and—
Leslie doesn’t know what to do. He’s never been the best at using words, especially when they count the most. Then again, words don’t seem to be what Tom needs right now. What Tom needs is Joe here to let him know that everything is okay, but Leslie isn’t Joe. He can’t give that to Tom. How could he ever?
But, he’s seen the way Joe wraps Tom in his arms, as easily as Joe takes in air like it’s second-nature. He’s seen the love and kindness in Joe that Tom spoke of every day. He sees it now that they’re dating, yes, but he saw it even before they were dating, during the mixer, when Joe lowered his height to greet that lost child like a friend. And if Leslie can’t strive towards that same love, that same kindness, then what sort of man—what sort of partner would he be?
So, he tries it, a shot in the dark—he unfolds his arms and refolds them around Tom’s shoulders, pulling Tom against him.
And he doesn’t talk, just lets Tom cry, gives Tom the time he needs. As Tom remains there, nose buried in Leslie’s shirt and his entire body trembling, Leslie’s only thought is that he finally understands why Joe always says the best part of his life is being an older brother.
The batter has settled into a flat mass by the time Tom sniffles a final time and leans back, eyes puffy to match his red cheeks.
“Thanks,” Tom says, after putting on a smile. “I knew I was right to change my mind about you.”
Leslie feels his pulse quicken. “Is that a good thing?” The Blake brothers are notorious for being unpredictable, and Leslie’s learned by now that trying to keep up with their speed is a constantly evolving game.
Tom’s eyes begin to twinkle mischievously. It’s born from the same glint that Joe carries whenever he’s about to crack a joke, often at Leslie’s expense.
“I heard you, you know,” Tom says gently. “Around three weeks ago, when Joe got called in for work.”
The bowl tips from the uneven pressure that Leslie exerts on the edge. Fortunately, he catches it before it slides off the edge of the counter, though not before some of the batter sloshes out, spilling onto the floor and splashing up onto the ankle of his jeans.
Tom’s expression is kind. Not judgmental, or wary, or anything of the sort, but kind. For a moment, Leslie is caught thinking that Tom may be the more dangerous Blake between him and Joe—Joe’s wrath has nothing on the piercing nature of Leslie’s own reflection in Tom’s gaze.
Should he shrug it off? Pretend he doesn’t know what Tom is hinting at? There could be a million other things Tom is talking about. For all he knows, Tom could be referring to something completely mundane, like when Leslie secretly threw out the disgusting smoothie that Joe kept trying to feed the both of them in an attempt to eat healthier.
But, one look at Tom and Leslie can see the earnestness coursing through Tom’s blood, filling his lungs, planting roots in his bones, all to make up his entire being—and Leslie doesn’t want to lie, even if it’s to deny something he hadn’t been wanting anybody to bring up.
Tom is the type to treat the world with honesty, and Leslie thinks it’s only fair that he treats Tom with honesty in kind. He owes that to him, at the very least—for telling him about Joe. For taking care of Joe in his own ways.
“And what did you think?” Leslie asks. He abandons the bowl, pushing it deeper towards the wall so he doesn’t tip it again. He’ll probably have to start a new batter anyway, considering how many disruptions it’s encountered since it was first created.
“Does it really matter what I think?” Tom asks, a little surprised.
“Of course it does.” Leslie doesn’t even need to think about it. It’s a fact. Tom is part of Joe’s life. They’re a package deal.
Tom grins, visibly pleased. “I think what you’re really asking is if he’d say yes, isn’t it?”
Leslie looks down, shoves his hands deep into his pockets, finds a tile that’s more cracked than the others, and stares at the center. It’s so very odd, standing in this quiet kitchen, the only audible sounds being the ones coming from himself. He hears the rush of blood in his ears, the twist of denim from his fingers digging a trench into his pockets, his erratic breathing that he’s trying to decrease to a slower tempo. Deep breaths, Joe always told him, whenever the nerves got particularly bad. Let yourself accept that you need to breathe.
He listens to Joe and breathes. Then, when he’s ready to ignore the pounding inside his chest, he nods.
Tom taps him lightly on the wrist. “You know, I thought it was Joe playing when I came home that day. Imagine my surprise when I saw it was you.”
Leslie tears his eyes away from tracing another perimeter around the tile and looks up. Tom is still smiling, though the wistfulness from before has returned, dimming his light ever so slightly.
“Bet Joe never told you that either, did he?” Tom asks. “That he used to play.”
Don’t touch that, Joe’s voice echoes in Leslie’s mind. It’s not supposed to be here. Was Joe only talking about the guitar, or about what the guitar used to mean to him? Joe hasn’t told Leslie a great many things, it seems.
Then again, it’s not as if Leslie’s been particularly forthright with his past, either. Not just about that night at the mixer, but about what happened before their paths crossed, when Leslie was a child that he doesn’t remember being, around parents he doesn’t remember having, growing up through the years he doesn’t remember living through. Even so, Joe knows about some of the loneliness—it’s hard to keep it all carefully hidden when you spend your days and nights with someone like him. Someone who you want to follow. Someone who you want to stay with forever.
Leslie wonders if Joe has actually been lonely as well, even growing up surrounded by the love afforded to him by Martha and Tom. He wonders if Joe even knows that he’s lonely. Above all, he wonders if this may be a reason why he’s so drawn to Joe, so they can cancel each other’s loneliness out and try to be less so together.
He loosens his fists, only realising then that he’d been keeping them balled up in the first place, then sighs. “He didn’t tell me,” he says.
“Are you mad?”
Leslie shakes his head. Why would he be? Everybody’s got scars they want to hide. Some heal and fade away, while others never disappear no matter how much time has passed. Leslie has his fair share of both types, but it’s the third kind that’s the most terrifying—the kind that’s invisible save for the times when you’re at your worst. That’s when it catches your heart in a web and tightens with every attempt to fight it off—it’s where Joe is at right now.
Tom suddenly laughs, light and easy.
“What?” Leslie asks. He always thought that Tom was an open book, but today is teaching him that it’s a situational trait.
“Nothing. Just—that face you have on right now… yeah. I’m glad I changed my mind.”
Tom hops onto the counter, then leans his head against the cupboard. “Do you remember that storm we had recently? I came home and you two were on the sofa. I don’t know what you were doing, but you were plugged in, and Joe was next to you working on something himself, I reckon.”
It had been a particularly rainy and windy day, the weather having gone completely shit despite the forecast for a mild evening. They’d had to cancel their plans and stay inside, which was a shame because Joe was looking forward to the open-air seaside restaurant that required reservations a month in advance.
“You should’ve looked up,” Tom says.
Up? Leslie furrows his eyebrows.
Tom waves his hands. “I mean, I know you were focused, so you couldn’t have noticed, but I just meant—I wish you could’ve seen the expression on Joe’s face. He was happy, you know? But it wasn’t just that. He looked content. At peace? And I knew, I just knew then that you’d be the one that Joe was gonna spend the rest of his life with. I was a little jealous, at first. Joe practically raised me—it was us against the world. I even got angry, can you believe it? I was happy for him, of course, but it also felt like you were gonna take him away from me, and that was so hard for me, for a while. I never told Joe, because that wouldn’t be fair to him. He deserved something good in his life. I didn’t know if you were gonna be that good thing, but it was better than before when he had nothing.
“But then, Joe smiled, and you weren’t even doing anything. You were just sitting there, not even paying attention, but he’d never looked at anyone like that before, in all the years I’ve spent with him. And as I watched the two of you, I thought to myself that I’d been looking at this entirely wrong. What Joe means to me, nobody could ever take that away from me. He’s not going anywhere just because he has you in his life now. And besides, it’s—it’s like I’m getting another sibling. And now, I’ll have two big brothers instead of just the one.”
Tom flushes bright red as if realising how much he’s admitted to in the span of five minutes. “What I’m trying to say is, if you saw the way Joe looked at you that night, I don’t think you’d need to ask me if he’d say yes.”
Leslie understands the words that Tom is saying. He understands, objectively, what they mean, but his mind won’t allow him to fully internalise them. How can Tom be so sure? How can anyone be sure about these things?
But, if anybody could come close, it would be Tom, wouldn’t it? And if there’s anything Leslie knows about Tom with 100% certainty, it’s that Tom would only commit to something if he believed in it with his entire heart.
“You’re not as much of a disaster as Joe makes you out to be, you know,” Leslie concedes. He reaches out, arm acting on its own, and flicks a few specks of flour onto Tom’s face, adding to the bit that’s already sticking there.
“And you’re only discovering that now?” Tom says in between laughs while attempting to throw his own handful of flour back in Leslie’s direction. “Good thing I finally set you straight, then. If you’re gonna be a part of the family.”
Part of the family, huh? That would be nice.
Before Leslie can figure out what to say to that, a rustle in the corridor interrupts his thoughts. Joe is standing there, a bag of groceries in one hand, a bottle of beer in the other—a spitting image of yesterday night. His eyes widen, just like then, causing the afternoon sun to reflect in them, lighting up the shadows buried there from twenty-five years of existence.
“How long’ve you been standing there?” Tom pipes up. “It’s not polite to stare, you know. Or eavesdrop.”
“We weren’t eavesdropping,” Will says, appearing from behind Joe with his own bags of groceries in tow.
Tom crosses his arms and puts on a scowl, though Leslie can tell that it doesn’t contain any true animosity or anger. “I wasn’t talking to you, you dolt.”
“Yes, Tom,” Will agrees easily. He flits his eyes between Tom and Joe, then turns his attention to Leslie, though he doesn’t appear to plan on saying anything. Leslie hasn’t known Will long in person, but judging from their first meeting and their sporadic texts over the years, Will is the type to think his thoughts rather than say them. Especially when they carry too much weight for the English language to support.
“Help me put some of this in the extra pantry downstairs?” Will asks, addressing Tom. “Your mother is there already. We should lend a hand.”
It’s incredibly obvious what Will is doing. Leslie lets it happen anyway, lets Will whisk Tom away and leave him in the kitchen with Joe.
“How much did you hear?” Leslie asks. His mind goes on auto-reverse, trying to figure out if anything he or Tom said in the past few minutes could’ve clued Joe in on… on anything, really. On any of it.
Joe carries the groceries over to the counter, then sets the beer down on the kitchen island before blocking the sun from his eyes with Leslie’s body. Even so, Leslie can still see the blue of those eyes. He could probably pick them out of a lineup by now.
“I heard enough,” Joe says, quiet and low.
How much is enough? What does that mean? Leslie is dying to ask, but Joe cuts those thoughts off with a sudden duck of his head. The hairs on the back of Joe’s neck catch in the light due to the few centimetres that Joe has on him. It reminds Leslie of blinking his eyes open in the mornings, mind still hazy and tired until he sees Joe lying next to him on his stomach. Whenever the sun shines directly onto Joe, Leslie has no choice but to reach a finger out and trace Joe’s curves, beginning at the base of his head and ending at the tail of his spine.
Leslie’s arm is halfway raised to do exactly that right now when Joe drops his head onto Leslie’s shoulder. Joe’s breath tickles Leslie’s collarbone as Joe mumbles out something unintelligible, his words distorted on Leslie’s skin.
“I didn’t hear you,” Leslie says, placing both palms on Joe’s cheeks and holding his head up to look at him. He forgets about the flour and batter and jam that are all over his hands until they smear over Joe’s cheekbones, the tapered edge of Joe’s eyes, and across Joe’s lips when he brushes a thumb over them.
Joe licks at the sweetness, likely out of reflex. He’s always loved tasting the batter or the frosting or the dough or whatever it is that he’s making as he goes. It never made Leslie want to do anything about it because it had never seemed that obscene before this moment. Maybe it’s because Joe had always been too focused on the task before him to make anything out of it. From the dilated pupils of Joe’s eyes now, wider than would be expected even in the shadow of Leslie’s form, Leslie is absolutely certain that nothing about this is an accident.
Then, the darkness clears, and the blue returns.
“I said,” Joe says, voice light and back to its normal register. He holds up the bag of groceries. “Do you want to help me make something?”
Leslie recognises those ingredients. They’re the same ones Joe was carrying last night, the same ones inside the abandoned bowl on the kitchen counter.
“Looks like we had the same thought,” Leslie says, relaxing his shoulders. It’s a little embarrassing that Joe caught him before he could finish, but maybe it’s not so bad, starting over with Joe.
Leslie begins sliding his hands off of Joe’s face, but Joe moves faster than him, leaning forward to press a kiss to Leslie’s lips. Leslie tastes the flour and the batter and the jam and the beer and all of everything that makes up Joe on his tongue, and he reparks his hands in the dip where Joe’s neck meets his shoulders.
They do eventually make the shortcake, though it takes Tom and Will returning from the pantry to pry them apart—Bloody Christ, Joe! Tom complains, in mock disgust, my eyes!—and get them back to work.
The last time Leslie sat down for a proper family supper, it was the night of his eighteenth birthday. He never cared much for birthdays, whether it was his own or someone else’s—they were nothing more than a day out of three hundred and sixty-five. There’s a one in three hundred and sixty-five chance of being born on any particular day of the year, a one in twelve chance of being born in any particular month, a one in seven chance of being born on any particular day of the week. The chances seem like they amount to something if you let them snowball, but chance only means something if you believe there’s a higher purpose to it.
Chance serves no higher purpose. It only serves oneself, to make something out of nothing. To transform coincidences into fate.
His grandfather died that very night, in the middle of the banquet. According to the family physician, it was lung cancer that took him out. It came as a shock, but it wasn’t exactly out of the blue, per se. They all knew he had less than a year left. It just so happened that the frail old man coughed and collapsed and took his last breath at the very moment the clock struck midnight and Leslie became a man.
On day one of officially being eighteen years old, he took his inheritance, his guitar, and his attitude and left on the earliest morning train to London. He hasn’t looked back since. If they didn’t want him to leave, then they should’ve kept a closer eye on his grandfather when he was drafting his will.
That was the first and only time Leslie thanked God for something. Not that at least one person in his family had some semblance of common sense, but that this person kicked the bucket and freed him from the glitter, from the gold, from all of high society that made him sick to his stomach with the masks shielding their faces and the greed pumping through their blood.
Was it fate? No—just an act of randomness. A roll of the dice. A game of chance. One in three hundred and sixty-five, one in twelve, and one in seven. No point in turning a coincidence into fate.
Still, that was the only time Leslie liked being born on a particular day. He even went to church and thanked the Lord for his help, even if he knew He likely had nothing to do with it. It wasn’t even Sunday, but he prayed like it was.
The Blakes appear to be a praying family. Leslie saw the wooden cross hanging above the fireplace with the Bible sat underneath it, neatly atop the mantel, after Martha returned from the downstairs pantry and showed them around the house. It surprised him a little, considering neither Joe nor Tom ever seemed to make any reference to it. In fact, he thought that they were completely agnostic, just like him.
Now, he’s sitting here, gathered at a table of five. It’s smaller than the dinner parties he was forced to attend as a child but significantly more terrifying because he can’t hide behind his glass of champagne and gold cutlery. He’s sitting here, with a tin cup of water and a single silver fork, watching Martha close her eyes, her head dipped and a prayer whispered on her lips.
Joe and Tom don’t follow suit, and neither does Will, probably because he’s doing whatever Tom is doing. Leslie copies all three of them and stays still. And yet, somehow, it feels blasphemous. His mind, the corner that betrays him by occasionally being tugged back by his past, is telling him, Put your hands together and make work of them.
Joe must pick up on his unease because he squeezes his hand and shoots him a reassuring look. If Leslie’s deciphering it correctly, it’s saying something like, Don’t worry. Don’t overthink it. Your hand is fine in mine.
He believes in Joe more than he believes in the good Lord, so he listens, and squeezes back.
The prayer is a short one, and the silence is quickly shuffled away by two claps and the next command out of Martha’s mouth.
“Well, don’t just sit there. Eat!”
The Blakes move very fast. Food is serious business for them. Leslie has seen first-hand what happens when Joe and Tom are in the same room with not enough of whatever the entree is to go around. Usually, it’s on a night that Leslie cooks while visiting Joe at his and Tom’s flat. He can never get the portioning right because Joe and Tom eat a lot, and he always comes up short of one additional helping for each of them. In the end, he has to offer them some of his own to break the fight.
You need to stop babying him, Joe always scolded whenever Leslie would take pity and spoon Tom his extra potatoes or stew, and Tom would always respond in kind, See? See how much nicer he is to me than you are?
Leslie knows neither of them mean any of it, which is why he enjoys it. Maybe his subconscious keeps fucking up the portions because he likes seeing them bicker. He’s never admitted it, but there’s something about the way Joe dials up his childish nature around Tom that’s particularly amusing to attend to. Maybe he just likes watching Joe’s face come alive, animated with the happiest expressions, his entire body gesturing as he attempts to steal Tom’s fork and knife and his entire plate along with them. Maybe he just likes sitting there, observing the two of them go at it until they remember he’s there and order him to pick a side.
This is when Leslie has to put aside his personal biases and pick Tom, because the first time this happened and he picked Joe, Joe gave him a talking to and refused to partake in their routine nightly activity. It was on a day when Joe took out his contacts early and wore his glasses at dinner, thick black frames balanced on his nose in an incredibly salacious manner. They accented his blue eyes and his strong jaw, both of which are Leslie’s favourite physical qualities in him.
All of that, coupled with Joe’s still damp hair dripping water down his neck from not toweling off properly after his shower and the oversized, nearly see-through white t-shirt that went past his shorts, made Leslie go absolutely fucking crazy. He wanted to push all the dishes off of the dinner table and ravish Joe then and there, but one, the pot roast took forever to marinate so he wasn’t about to throw all of that hard work out the window, and two, Tom was there. So, the fact that he didn’t get to work off the pent up energy that night in bed because Joe was being a good brother and a stubborn fuck? It was very frustrating.
The next morning, though, was a different story. It was a Saturday and Joe wasn’t well-oriented enough on Saturday mornings to put in his contacts nor change into proper clothes before nine—a fact that Leslie managed to take advantage of until it was eleven. Everything worked out, all things considered, though Tom did complain about the ruckus and refused to talk to them for the rest of the day. That was the day that they decided to move their routine, nightly or otherwise, to exclusively occur when they were at Leslie’s flat—or, to whenever Tom wasn’t home.
Here, some one-hundred and thirty kilometres outside of London, the same scene is unfolding before him. Joe isn’t wearing his glasses or his oversized t-shirt, just a normal button-up and jeans, but Leslie wants to ravish him nonetheless. There is, however, a pot roast on the table, and Tom is still there, but there’s also the addition of a person who actually has the power to control their hunger, both literally and figuratively.
“You two are setting terrible examples,” Martha scolds, rapping Joe and Tom’s wrists with her wooden spoon. “Let our guests go first, won’t you?”
Joe quickly withdraws his arm but not before he successfully steals a roll and breaks it in half. “You know I can’t resist your rolls, Mum.”
Unfortunately for Tom, he isn’t as quick.
“No fair,” Tom complains when Martha swats his hand away again. “Why does Joe get to keep one?”
“Because I’m actually sharing mine,” Joe says, dropping one half into Leslie’s hand. The bread is still warm from the oven. “You’d just eat the entire thing like the rude little twat you are.”
“Mum!” Tom gestures wildly in their direction. “Are you just gonna sit there and let this happen?”
Martha chuckles with a shake of her head and pinches Tom’s ear. “He’s not wrong, dear.”
“You’re always on Joe’s side,” Tom grumbles as he rubs a finger at his ear. “You’re on my side, aren’t you?” he asks, turning to Will, whose face is as passive as it gets. Leslie’s got to hand it to him, it’s impressive.
Will looks between Tom and Martha mildly. “I’d rather not say.”
“Good answer,” Martha says approvingly. “I like you. You’re a keeper.”
Tom is obviously caught between being annoyed and being embarrassed, because his mouth opens and then immediately shuts without a word. The tragedy of being the youngest person in the room with no power to fight back, Leslie supposes.
“I’m on your side,” Leslie says, passing his half-roll over to Tom’s much smaller palm. There are still around ten rolls left on the table, so there’s more than enough to go around, but clearly, this isn’t about that. Besides, it’s kind of fun seeing Joe’s reaction in these types of situations.
Leslie turns, expecting mock-exasperation and a laugh, just like the nights Leslie fucks up the dinner portions. What greets him are wide eyes and a faint flush hanging off of Joe’s cheeks, a very similar look to the one in the kitchen earlier, and the one from yesterday.
“Look at that,” Martha says. “He’s a keeper, too.”
Joe’s flush transforms to a full-on blush, and Leslie sits there, unable to do anything but be mesmerised. The only time Joe ever gets close to being this red is when they… well.
“Let’s just eat,” Joe mumbles, darting his eyes away and shoving the entire half-roll into his mouth.
“Aw, look at him, he’s shy,” Tom lilts, delight heavy in his voice. “I don’t know how you did whatever you did to him, Les, but I like it.”
Joe kicks Tom under the table the same time that Will places a disapproving hand on Tom’s shoulder.
“Why does he get a nickname too?” Will asks. His eyebrows furrow, like he’s trying to figure out why some object isn’t adhering to gravity or the established laws of physics.
“I give nicknames to everyone,” Tom says matter-of-factly. He begins counting off on his fingers. “You’re Sco. Lauri’s Ri. Eleanor’s El. And Ellis is Les.”
“Ri and El got their names from me,” Will mutters under his breath. “Also, you never call me Sco.”
“I do,” Tom defends. “Sometimes.”
Will’s face scrunches even more. “When?”
“I don’t have a nickname,” Joe says, mid-chew on his second roll.
“Joe is your nickname,” Tom says. “And I’ve got plenty of other ones for you. Bastard. Prick. Arse.”
Leslie considers chiming in and agreeing with Tom on all of those accounts, but ultimately decides to keep quiet. It doesn’t last long though because he makes eye-contact with Martha when he glances in her direction in search of the soup, and he finds himself unable to tear himself away from the scrutiny in her gaze. He feels like he’s being taken apart piece by piece—like he’s one of those extravagant matryoksha dolls that his mother used to collect from her travels abroad, unwrapped layer by layer until only the smallest, most fragile part of them is exposed to the world.
“Can you pass the soup?” Leslie quickly mumbles to Joe. Anything to divert the attention somewhere else.
“Sure,” Joe replies absent-mindedly, temporarily breaking from his quarrel with Tom. “Here you are, love.”
Leslie isn’t sure whether it’s because he doesn’t catch the bowl in time or if it’s Joe who lets go too early, but when they look down, the bowl is tipped bottom-side up and there’s tomato strewn all over the wooden floor.
“Seems that Joe’s name for him is better than all of yours, Tommy,” Martha says, turning to them and punctuating her comment with a wink. It’s enough for Leslie to flush the same red as Joe did earlier and possibly the same red that’s now splattered onto his shirt.
“Not helpful, Mum,” Joe says, voice strained. He pushes his chair back with a squeak and pulls Leslie up by the arm. “Let’s get you out of that.”
“Ooh, kinky,” Tom coos. It’s the last audible thing that Leslie hears before Joe drags him around the corner, up the stairs, and into his room with a heated touch.
Joe lends him an old shirt of his. It’s loose around the shoulders because Joe is broader, and the waist is tighter because Joe is slimmer. Every centimetre of the fabric smells like old wood, dust, and rain from being in storage. More importantly, though, it smells like Joe.
“I don’t have anything else that’s suitable,” Joe says apologetically. His gaze lingers somewhere on Leslie’s chest, then looks up to meet his eyes. “That’ll have to do for now.”
Leslie looks down to try and figure out what Joe was staring at. There’s a faded logo of… something, printed in faded grey on black. He makes out a few symbols that look like musical notes.
“This is fine,” he says. Better than spending the rest of the night and all of tomorrow in his long tee that’ll need a lot of bleach to wash the tomato stain out. It was one of his favourites, too. Maybe he’ll just buy another one. He raises his arms over his head to get used to the way the shirt moves with his body and frowns when the sleeves don’t hug his arms as close as he likes them. After a few more stretches, when he’s satisfied with how the shirt sits on his skin, he raises his head to see Joe staring at him again.
“What?” Leslie drops his arms. “Does it look weird on me?”
They didn’t turn on the lamp because there’s still residual sunlight streaming in through the curtains, but he swears that he’s not imagining the pink that’s once again adorning Joe’s cheeks.
“It doesn’t look weird.” Joe flicks his eyes up and down. “It, um.”
Leslie follows Joe’s eyes to the bit of skin that’s exposed by where the shirt is riding up a bit, revealing his hip bone, then bites down a smirk. Seriously?
“Was this a ploy to get me in your clothes, Joe Blake?” Leslie asks, stretching his arms up again to let the shirt ride up even more. “All you had to do was ask.”
“You’re the one who forgot your stuff, you idiot,” Joe retorts, hooking a finger under the hem of Leslie’s—Joe’s—shirt and pulling.
Leslie goes easily, even helps Joe along by stepping forward. “And whose fault was that?”
“Yours.” Joe wraps his arms around Leslie’s waist, then snakes his hands up Leslie’s back, tapping a few fingers in an erratic pattern against his spine. It reminds Leslie of the light clacking of keys as Joe types away at his laptop whenever he’s too focused to pay attention to anything else.
Leslie grips gently onto Joe’s forearms, maneuvering them until Joe is flush against the closet, back arched and legs tangled with his own.
“Think it was your fault, actually,” Leslie says. “For distracting me and making me stay the night.”
“Not my problem you’re so easily distracted,” Joe says. He drops his lips to Leslie’s neck, trailing downward until he lands on Leslie’s collarbone, replacing his lips with a drag of teeth and a bite.
Before Leslie can retaliate with a knee pressed against Joe’s cock or a palm on Joe’s arse, Joe pokes him in the stomach on the right, just under his ribs.
“Hey!” Leslie recoils on reflex, one hand shooting up to rub at the bite, the other to cover his ribs.
“Careful there, love.” Joe smiles innocently. “You’re starting to be predictable.” With that, he hooks his arm with Leslie’s and leads them back out the room.
Tom waggles his eyebrows at them when they rejoin them at the table, presumably because the bite on Leslie’s neck is visible, and also because Tom is a little shit. Joe knocks him lightly on the back of the head before sitting down and stealing the last of the roll off of Tom’s plate, completely ignoring Tom’s whine.
Will gives Tom his roll.
That night in bed, Leslie lies there under the duvet, thinking back to the good hour or so of Martha’s primer on Joe and Tom’s histories in Dedham. For example, he learned that Joe had a pair of red-haired, green-eyed twins—one bloke and one gal—chasing after him when he was seventeen, and being utterly and completely clueless about it.
(“It was so bloody obvious. Even I could tell, and I was eleven!” Tom said while grinning and munching on a piece of shortcake. “Joe had no idea. Those poor bastards.”
“I thought they were just really nice,” Joe defended, tone exasperated and ears going red. It was evident from his crossed arms and his head roll that this was a recurring story that was brought up repeatedly at every family gathering to embarrass him.
“They gave you flowers and chocolates on St. Valentine’s,” Martha said, chuckling into her tea. “Sometimes on other days, too.”
“They were nice,” Joe said, helpless.
“You say that about anyone who lets you borrow their pen,” Will piped up, clearly happy to stir the pot. “Joe here’s a legend among my mates in history and lit. I’ve gotten so many requests to set him up with some of them. He has an unofficial fanclub, too. Drives me mental.”
“You’re making that up,” Joe said, ears going an even brighter shade of red. He turned to Leslie, then, with a plea in his eyes. “Don’t listen to him.”
Leslie made a mental note to fish the details out of Will later, when nobody was listening.)
He learned that Tom was better than Joe at singing even when Tom was ten and Joe was sixteen—not surprising, considering the many times he’s overheard Joe’s one-man karaoke sessions in the shower.
(“The pastor had to pull him aside and ask him to try a little harder,” Martha said. She had a photo album open, flipped to the appropriate page of Tom and Joe with the other members of the church choir. “Can you believe it? The pastor.”
“Mum,” Joe said, pulling the album away and shoving it back under the coffee table. “He doesn’t need to hear this.”
Joe didn’t need to worry too much about it—after all, it was the very idea of Joe standing still long enough to participate in a church activity that had Leslie keeling over, not the singing.
“It doesn’t stop there,” Tom said. He was lying down on the sofa at this point, his head tucked on top of Will’s lap, Will’s fingers running slowly through his hair. “You should hear him try to belt out high notes in any Queen song.”
“An absolute tragedy,” Will agreed solemnly.
“Oh, I’ve heard the attempts,” Leslie said before Joe could stop him. “It’s very unfortunate.”)
He also learned that Joe, at age fifteen, was the youngest football captain to ever take their school’s team to victory.
(“It was just a local tournament,” Joe said, burrowing deeper into the sofa cushions when Tom dug out the old trophy and medal both with Second Devons Football Team, 2010 Champions engraved into the plaques.
“But you were so cool! That zero-degree goal!” Tom said, waving both items around with stars in his eyes. “We never got anywhere near close to winning when I was on the team.”
“Maybe it was your fault,” Joe said. “For being such a shit player.”
Tom dropped his arms and narrowed his eyes. “I’d normally go over there and hit you, but I actually agree with you this time, so you get a pass.”
“Your eye-foot coordination was never the best,” Will agreed, chin in his hands. “Remember when you tried to close the fridge with your foot and fell on your—”
Tom didn’t let him finish the sentence, but Leslie could easily picture it—in fact, he’d seen it several times in person himself.)
Leslie didn’t learn anything else about the Blakes after that. Martha got a dull glint in her eyes that was matched by Tom’s sagging shoulders and Joe’s hardened gaze. By then, the clock had long struck midnight. Leslie caught Tom’s small, sad smile before Joe pressed a kiss to Martha’s temple and pulled Leslie up from the sofa, bidding the room goodnight.
That’s the image in Leslie’s mind right now, as he stares up at the ceiling of Joe’s old room, with Joe beside him, heat close but not close enough—the three Blakes, their hearts bigger than anybody else’s he’s ever met, all drowned by the same point in time.
It wasn’t fair, you know? Tom’s voice echoes. It wasn’t fair that Joe had to be the strong one.
Joe’s shoulders were always broad. It’s a fact that Leslie’s reminded of every time he wraps his arms around them in the morning in front of the bathroom sink, or now, as he wears Joe’s shirt. He’s also realising that those shoulders weren’t born that way but rather forced into existence.
Leslie turns, cheek touching the cool fabric of the pillow as he watches Joe’s back, expanding and contracting slowly with his breathing. It’s shallow, with zero trace of snoring, meaning that Joe’s not actually asleep.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Leslie asks. The question sounds loud and intrusive amidst the moonlight and the faded vintage wallpaper. He lets it hang there, like a doorbell that’s been rung and can’t be withdrawn, and waits for Joe to either ignore him or open the door.
The shadows on the wall shift, along with Joe’s form.
“Tom told you, didn’t he?” Joe asks softly.
Leslie knows Joe doesn’t actually need his affirmation, visually, verbally, or otherwise, to know the answer, but he nods anyway.
Those broad shoulders of Joe’s shake with his light, inaudible laughter. “He could never keep his mouth shut.”
The tremors continue to ripple through the duvet, across the bed, all the way over to Leslie, and it’s only then that he realises Joe isn’t laughing.
What is it like, carrying so much on those shoulders? What is it like, being loved by the wisest mother, idolised by the most loyal brother, and still having both erased by the shadow of the past? What is it like, having the kindest soul on this earth and struggling to not be toppled by the weight of it all?
Leslie moves over, tips those shoulders into his embrace like he does every morning, and tries to understand. As the tremors continue, growing stronger with every sharp intake of Joe’s breath, the sheets and bed and Leslie’s entire soul shake along with them. It bends along with movements dictated by the only force that Leslie knows—the life that Joe holds inside his body.
Joe’s shoulders may be much broader than Tom’s, his muscles more toned and lined with a harder edge compared to Tom’s softer flesh, but when they’re accompanied by tears, they feel the same—human, with a lot of love to give.
They stay like that, Joe’s back against Leslie’s chest, Leslie’s nose buried in the crook of Joe’s neck, until Joe falls asleep. Leslie only lets the night take him too when he’s certain that Joe’s tears have dried on his cheeks.
The moonlight has given way to the pink hues of the sunrise when Leslie blinks open his eyes. The imprint of Joe’s body is carved into the surface of the sheets. Joe, himself, is not.
Leslie reaches a hand out, letting it dip into the curve. The sheets are still faintly warm.
He sits up, pulls on his jeans, and follows in Joe’s wake. The living area and dining room are both empty, leaving only the kitchen. When he gets there, he hears hushed whispers echoing against the dust caught in the light filtering through the window blinds.
“Just think about it,” Martha murmurs. She runs a hand through Joe’s curls, then back down the side of his head to rest against his cheek.
Joe leans into the touch, back hunched, looking smaller than he’s ever looked, despite the half a metre or so that he has over Martha.
Leslie tries to leave—it’s apparent that he’s intruding on a very private moment, but his shadow betrays him on the tiles, and Martha lifts her head to turn that gentle scrutiny onto him.
“Good morning,” Martha says, voice as steady as always. “Please, come in.”
Joe straightens his posture when he sees Leslie. He looks tired, thread worn thin, and barely holding on.
“I’ll come back later,” Leslie says.
“Nonsense,” Martha says. “Besides, I’d like to talk to you.” She turns to Joe and holds one of his hands in her own, patting it once. “Go tend to the crops, won’t you, dear? I promise I won’t keep him long.”
Joe looks down at her, then back up at Leslie through his long lashes. “Meet me outside when you’re done?”
Leslie nods. He seems to be doing a lot of that, lately—Joe’s always been very good at making him want to agree to anything, and the past twenty-four hours have merely strengthened that inclination. When Joe passes by, Leslie catches his arm, pulling Joe back in for a press of lips against the side of his head, before letting him go.
After Joe is out of earshot, Martha lets out a sigh.
“I suppose I should thank you for accompanying him,” Martha says. “To be frank, I didn’t think you would.”
After years of growing up around people who said everything but the truth, Martha’s bluntness is refreshing. Leslie wouldn’t have expected anything else.
“I understand,” he says.
Martha shakes her head. “I don’t think you do. That boy… He doesn’t always say what’s on his mind.”
But you know Joe. Always treats every challenge as a personal struggle, always too stubborn to ask for help, because he thinks he has something to prove. Because he thinks he has to—
“Because he thinks he has to fight everything himself?” Leslie asks.
Martha drops her shoulders. “Or take on the world, yes.”
“Or some bullshit like that.” Leslie smiles. “Tom said the same.”
“Tommy’s very in tune with people’s feelings. That’s one aspect where he’s better off than Joseph.” Martha takes off her apron and tosses it onto the counter with a light chuckle. “I know he’s not the fifteen-year-old who was kicking a ball in the field out back with Tommy anymore, but I still worry. Promise me you’ll take care of him. Promise me you’ll help him get some of it off his chest.”
She smiles tiredly, a dimpled gesture that crinkles the edges of her eyes. Leslie knows now, even without having seen a single photo of Joe’s father, that Joe must take after his mother. His blue eyes are lit by the spark in Martha’s own, accompanying the kind heart fostered by her care. It’s a realisation that drives Leslie to heartache because he’s not sure how he can possibly measure up to that, even if he’s willing to pour all of himself and more into it.
“He’s very lucky to have two people who love him,” Leslie says. He thinks about his own parents, now faceless ghosts in the attic of his mind. He can’t bring himself to think of the outcome if Joe had grown up as he did. “You and Tom.”
“He’s also very lucky to be loved by you.”
“How do you know?” Leslie hesitates. “Pardon me for being candid, but you don’t know anything about me.”
“That might be true, but something tells me you’re cut from a similar cloth. Joseph has always been loved by many, but not in the way he wants.” Martha hovers a hand out, letting it fall lightly on his wrist. “You give him what he wants.”
Martha’s palms are much more calloused than Joe’s—his broad shoulders must come from her as well.
“Thank you for saying that,” Leslie says.
“I’m saying it because I mean it. I know Joseph believes it, too.” Martha runs her other hand through his hair, an echo of her action from earlier with Joe. It’s this moment that makes Leslie realise that the only people who have ever done this to him are named Blake.
“Please forgive him,” Martha continues. “He’s a little obtuse when it comes to things like this. I think… I think he needs some time to overcome some things.”
Time, huh? If time is what’ll set Joe free, then Leslie will gladly give it to him.
“There’s nothing to forgive,” Leslie says. “I’ll do my best.”
Martha withdraws her hands. “Thank you.”
Leslie exits the back kitchen door and walks past the rows of crops all the way to the barn sitting at the edge of the field in the distance. His borrowed boots track light traces of footprints onto the blades of grass as he walks. It must’ve rained last night, but not enough to quench the ground’s thirst.
The barn is old and tattered. Some beams are splintered and falling apart, but the building manages to remain upright despite the damage. Maybe there’s some sort of makeshift patchwork that’s keeping the structure intact. Maybe the damage isn’t as bad as it looks. Maybe the barn is just that strong, able to stand tall despite all the injuries it’s weathered.
He almost doesn’t recognise Joe because of his clothes, but he knows it’s him anyway because there’s only one person in the world who makes him feel this way just by standing near him.
Joe is humming as he wrestles with untangling the hose. Leslie hears the off-key melody of… something. He can’t tell. It’s off-key for a reason, after all.
He doesn’t know how long he stands there leaning against the doorframe, eyes focused on Joe’s form, ears tickled by the morning breeze. When he shifts his weight, the door to the barn creaks—Joe turns, stretching out his arms as his eyes light up.
“Is this doing it for you?” Joe asks, all cheekiness, his teasing lilt dialed up to the maximum.
Leslie takes in the scruff that’s slowly growing all over Joe’s face—it gets like this whenever Joe is too buried in work and can’t spare the time to shave it off. It’s a rare sight, though it’s been becoming more regular recently, accompanied by some soft shadows beneath his eyes from not sleeping enough.
The hat that Joe’s wearing blocks out the sun from lighting the sparkle in his eyes, but it also hides the tired wrinkles on his face, so Leslie supposes it’s not a complete loss. The hat itself is ridiculous, of course—but out here, surrounded by piles of hay and an open grass field bracketed by the entrance of the barn, Joe fits right in with the scenery. He belongs here.
The rest of Joe’s attire ties it all together. The waterproof shirt not only hugs Joe’s muscles but his entire body like a second skin. The gloves and boots are lined with mud, but not fresh mud—dried, like they’ve seen many days and many nights of work, and are waiting for more of the same. The hose in Joe’s hand is snaked around his arm and his wrist, and Leslie briefly wishes that Joe would wrap it around his waist and pull him closer towards him.
At the end of it all, Leslie merely darts his eyes away. “You know it is,” he says.
There is nothing in the world that could ever make him not fall in love with Joe again—every new fact, every new look, every new moment always makes him fall twice as hard, twice as deep.
The shuffling of leaves and dirt carries Joe over to him. Leslie continues fixating on his object of choice—an empty pail in the corner—until he’s set free by Joe’s light touch on his jaw, turning him to meet his eyes.
Joe has a habit of cracking a joke whenever he thinks Leslie’s too serious about something that doesn’t warrant it. It appears that this is not one of those moments, because all Joe does is lean in and press a closed-mouthed kiss to Leslie’s cheek, his hat bumping up when it hits Leslie’s head.
“I’m very glad that you’re here,” Joe whispers. “Thank you for being here.” He says it with the full glow of the morning sun behind him, face and smile illuminated by the gentle yellow, and it’s almost too much to look at directly.
But, Leslie tries, and he hopes the tentative smile on his own face is enough for Joe to understand what this moment means to him—what it all means to him. “I’ll always be here.”
For a split second, Leslie thinks he’s said the wrong thing because Joe’s fingers on his jaw slip and Joe’s smile falters briefly before composing itself.
“Joe?” Leslie doesn’t want Joe to perceive too deeply into his words—not because he’s afraid of Joe discovering the truth, but because he doesn’t want to burden Joe with it before Joe’s ready.
That is, if Joe will ever be ready. It’s okay if he’ll never be, despite what Tom said yesterday, or what Martha told him earlier. Leslie doesn’t mind, tries to be content with however much is left in this dance of theirs before the song ends.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Joe still hasn’t spoken a word, and the look in his eyes doesn’t betray much, either. It’s rather presumptuous that Leslie ever thought he had Joe pinned down back in university, or in the club six years later—or, if he’s honest, even now. He knows the shape of Joe’s lips, the sounds drawn from Joe’s throat when he climaxes, the fit of Joe’s body against his in the lazy lull of the morning after. He knows all that, but Joe’s mind itself remains a mystery yet to be fully solved. He wonders if he’ll get the chance to stick around long enough to do so, or at least get in his best effort.
“Are you going to say anything?” Leslie asks.
Joe lingers for a few more seconds before lifting Leslie’s hand and kissing his knuckles. “Yeah. Those crops aren’t going to water themselves.”
Well… Leslie can’t say he’s surprised that Joe decides against explaining himself. Then again, the way that Joe curls his fingers with Leslie’s to link them together rather than letting them go might mean something. Your hand is fine in mine.
That’s what Leslie files away for later as Joe pulls him gently out of the barn, bringing them both into the sunlight.
After every single plant has gotten their share of water, Joe suggests staying outside a little longer.
“The river’s nice when the sun’s out,” Joe says. “It’d be a shame to miss it.”
It’s not out of the ordinary. Between the two of them, Joe’s always been the one to prefer outdoor activities, and now that Leslie’s been here, it makes sense why. The Blakes have sweet country air filling their lungs, tree sap and honey running through their veins, and the smell of freshly cut hay on their skin.
So, no—it’s not the suggestion itself that’s out of place, but rather the lack of enthusiasm behind Joe’s words when he makes it. He seems determined to see it through, so Leslie follows along. It’s not like he has anywhere better to be.
Joe takes him past the rolling fields, the red poppies, the pond with tadpoles growing into frogs. For some reason, they don’t look as beautiful as Joe described them—a result of faulty memory, or something else? They hit the mouth of the river, then they walk even further from there, upstream against the current, until they arrive at the fork.
There’s a stone there, lying in the middle, but it’s too cleanly cut to be nature-made. One look and it’s evident it was forged with a blade wielded by human hands. There’s no writing on it of any sort, but it’s clear what it represents—an unmarked grave.
Joe stands on the edge of the bank, boots nearly touching the water, eyes glued to the stone, and that’s when it hits Leslie—Joe was taking them back in time. He was taking them up the chronology of the world’s existence, into his own heart, until they reached the split between past and present—between before, and after.
Before was when Joe’s father was still a tangible person with flesh and bone that cast shadows onto his surroundings. After is when all that remains is the darkness, and nothing can be done to chase it away.
“Mum thought I should show you,” Joe says. He doesn’t offer any further explanation, as is typical by now, but it’s not necessary to understand.
“Does it help?” Leslie asks. He can’t imagine it does. How could a lifeless mass like that even begin to bury the pain? To begin making up for lives torn apart by a singular selfish act?
Joe says nothing for a long while. Out here, the air is calm, scattered across the sky and the water and the leaves in the trees above, in the grass on the ground below. The only place where it’s turbulent is inside Joe’s chest, where it’s threatening to conjure up a storm.
Leslie waits for it to hit, gives Joe the time.
“She thought it would,” Joe finally says. He crouches down, picks up a pebble, and tosses it into the river. It lands with a thud in the shallow water.
That’s a definitive no, then. Leslie kneels next to him. “What can I do?”
Joe picks up another pebble and throws a little harder. This time, it bounces against the stone before skipping back down into the river.
“Your being here is enough,” Joe says.
The storm is only half-formed. Something else is coming.
Joe turns his head, the sun catching his hair and eyes and nose in just the right way that casts a long shadow down his face.
“Sometimes,” Joe says. He lets out the breath he’d been holding, lets out the storm. “Sometimes, I think I’m the only one who’s still stuck.”
Leslie thinks about Martha, calling her sons home on the pretense of seeing them again on the anniversary, that tired face of hers greeting them with a strength that she’s carried all these years. He thinks about Tom, staring down into the bowl with an intensity that’s only matched by the racking sobs thundering against his chest and the cries of injustice he’d kept bottled up in his throat. He thinks about Joe, looking back at him now with those deep blue eyes, as deep as the ocean and yet not deep enough to let sink all of the shadows from twenty-five years of existence.
He thinks about the three of them making it this far and how grateful he is that none of them drowned before he could memorise the feeling of Martha’s hands running through his hair, of Tom’s cheeky smile lighting up every room he’s in, of Joe’s broad shoulders wrapped in his arms. He thinks about Joe’s everything, all of him, every bit that has fought through this war and come out the other side alive. Joe’s still here and ready to fight but aching for a rest he doesn’t think he deserves.
What is it like, having fought through a war with no victors, only lost youth and lost time?
Leslie can’t give Joe back the youth nor the time, but he can keep him company for the rest that’s yet to come, whether it’s minutes or days or years or an eternity. He can give Joe everything, all of him, every bit that’s somehow passed through the years and survived until now, to let him exist side by side with Joe.
What are the odds of their two bodies pressed together like this, right now, at this very moment? Leslie doesn’t believe in ascribing a higher purpose to chance, but he does want to believe that there’s a reason he was able to meet Joe in this lifetime.
Leslie picks up a pebble and tosses it in the direction of the stone without looking. Judging by the splash, he doesn’t hit anywhere close to the stone.
Joe glances in the direction of the noise. “You missed.”
Leslie shrugs and throws another pebble, gets another splash. “Missed what?”
“You know what.”
“It’s just a rock.” Leslie digs around for a smaller pebble, then flicks it in Joe’s direction, letting it bounce gently against Joe’s chest. “You’re not. You’re here with me too.”
The hardness in Joe’s eyes softens, letting the sunlight in a little more and increasing the contrast of his pupils against his irises. Leslie can see the wind beginning to die down, being replaced by a serenity that’s fighting its way to the forefront. It’s a lot nicer like this. Skies are always clearest after a storm.
“Want me to tell Mum that you said that?” Joe asks.
“I imagine she’d agree with me.”
“A bit pretentious, don’t you think?” Joe knocks against Leslie’s shoulder with his own. “When’d you become such a wiseass?”
“I’ve always been like this. You knew what you were getting yourself into.”
Something else mixes in with the softness in Joe’s eyes, and Leslie’s breath hitches. You should’ve looked up.
“You know,” Joe says, quietly, gently, with all the sweetness in the world, “I think you may be right.”
The dam breaks, and time becomes unstuck. It begins flowing the moment Joe leans in and kisses Leslie like it’s the first time he’s ever done it.
It starts pouring halfway through their journey back. Neither of them had thought to bring anything suitable for running in the rain, and even Joe’s hat and waterproof shirt do little to protect him from being soaked to the bone. When they emerge from the forest, leaves and grass are stuck to every part of their bodies like magnets. By the time they make it inside the barn, Leslie is almost certain they’re unrecognisable underneath all the mud and dirt. He begins picking some of the larger debris out of Joe’s face and hair, but Joe swats his arm away.
“I’ve got a better idea.” Joe picks up the hose and turns the nozzle at him.
Leslie holds up his hands. “No.”
Joe smiles. “Who’s gonna stop me?”
That’s how Leslie ends up soaked again, but he manages to wrestle the hose away from Joe at some point and retaliate. Eventually, the clouds break long enough for them to run the rest of the short distance back to the house before they’re soaked a third time.
Martha is shoving towels in their faces before either of them can even close the door or take off their boots. “You two took long enough,” she says.
“Lost track of time.” Joe looks down at his watch, then up at the clock hanging in the kitchen. “Shit, we’ve only a few hours before we need to leave.”
“I hope you’re not going out into society looking like that.” Martha looks them up and down. “Go get yourselves properly washed up. You better not track any mud onto my carpet.”
“Yes, Mum.” Joe presses a kiss to Martha’s cheek, and Leslie lets himself be dragged away.
Joe always takes twice the amount of time as Leslie does to do whatever it is he needs to do to make himself presentable, so Leslie lets him use the bathroom first, taking the opportunity to throw their various belongings into Joe’s bag. He doesn’t hear the shower turn on even after thirty minutes have passed and all that’s left to pack are the toiletries. That’s ridiculous, even by Joe’s standards.
When Leslie goes to take a look, Joe is standing in front of the mirror staring at his own reflection. The bottom half of his face is covered in shaving cream, and there’s a straight razor clutched in his hand.
“Is your brain so waterlogged that you’ve forgotten how to use that?” Leslie asks. Usually, it’s him who gets caught in a state of daydreaming by Joe, not the other way around.
Joe meets his eyes in the mirror. “Would you do it for me?” He turns around and shifts his weight onto the cracked porcelain sink. The pipes creak from the motion as if to assist in punctuating his request.
Leslie looks down at the blade. He’s only ever used a mechanical razor. “What if I hurt you?”
“You could never.” Joe extends the razor towards him, handle out.
Leslie runs his thumb over the back of the blade when he takes it, wondering if he’ll draw blood if he presses hard enough.
“You won’t hurt me,” Joe says. “Besides, you’ve always been the clever one. You’ll figure it out.”
The bathroom is already small to begin with. Now, with both of them crowded against each other, their chests mere centimetres apart, it’s so easy to feel the warmth radiating off of Joe’s skin.
Leslie tilts Joe’s head up with a firm grasp of his chin between his thumb and index finger. Joe is suspiciously pliant under his touch, seemingly eager to obey. He goes easy, allowing Leslie the push with a hum and a smile teasing at his lips.
Leslie wants to kiss him, but the cream is in the way, so he settles for resting the blade against Joe’s throat, just above his Adam’s apple. He feels the tingle of the cold metal like Joe’s skin is his own.
“My life is in your hands now,” Joe murmurs. His words vibrate through the razor, into Leslie’s fingertips, and deep into the blood running through his veins. “Be careful with it.”
“Then stop talking,” Leslie whispers back. He traces the delicious arch of Joe’s throat, watching the cream pool onto the blade as it frees itself up and off from under Joe’s chin. The sliver of skin that follows in its wake looks softer than than it should, and Leslie forces down the urge to replace the blade with his tongue and lick a stripe up the same trail.
Joe’s head is still tilted up, but Joe is looking at him now, eyes peering through his long lashes. Even though Leslie can’t fully make out Joe’s lips amidst all the shaving cream, he knows for certain that they’re curved in smug amusement.
“Well?” Joe asks innocently. “Your job’s not done yet.”
Then, Joe closes his eyes, and it’s this sight that makes the desire flare up again in Leslie’s gut.
Instead of abandoning his post, Leslie finishes the mission. He repeats the motions from before: blade against skin, dipped at the junction between Joe’s Adam’s apple and underjaw, and moving upward, slowly shifting to different parts of Joe’s throat until all of the cream is gone. After that, he repeats the mission with a second set of motions: blade against skin, poised just below Joe’s cheekbones, and moving downward, this time under and off of Joe’s chin.
When Leslie wipes the excess cream off of Joe’s face with a towel, he breathes in the scent and immediately lets the blade go with a clunk into the sink, opting to grab hold of Joe’s jaw as he leans in and kisses him.
It would appear that he missed a spot of cream on the corner of Joe’s mouth because he tastes it when their lips meet, but even that doesn’t detract him from deepening the kiss until he forces Joe’s mouth open with a shove of tongue. Joe responds in kind with a moan and both hands wrapped around Leslie’s waist.
“That was very inconsiderate of you,” Leslie scolds when they part for air.
“Just wanted to get properly cleaned up before we leave.” Joe peers at the shower then drops his arms until his hands rest at Leslie’s hips. “What do you say?”
Leslie pauses, heartbeat frozen in place. “They’ll hear us.”
Joe runs his thumbs across the fabric of Leslie’s—Joe’s—shirt, enough for Leslie to feel the dig of his fingernails. “Not in there, they won’t.”
It’s not like they haven’t done it in the shower before, but here? In Joe’s hometown, in Joe’s boyhood room, where Joe grew up? This is much more intimate than what they’re used to. This is much more personal. This is different.
Before Leslie can string together the right words to properly convey all of this, Joe has two fingers curved into Leslie’s belt loops, pulling the two of them closer still—a feat which Leslie didn’t realise was possible until now.
It really is a small space, much too cramped for two people. If he wasn’t aware of it before, he’s certainly aware of it now, as Joe slowly, slowly unbuckles Leslie’s belt while Leslie summons all of his self-control to not just push Joe into the shower fully-clothed.
The belt finally goes, giving in to gravity after what seems like an eternity. At Joe’s impatient tap on his arm, Leslie steps out of his jeans and briefs. By the time he takes off the shirt and pushes his head free of the darkness, Joe is standing naked facing the showerhead, hair already soaked and neckline exposed to the pressure of the water.
Leslie considers sinking his teeth into the skin there and leaving a mark that Joe can’t cover up for everyone to see. It’s nearing summertime, and Joe will begin wearing those low-hanging sleeveless tanks that he’s so fond of. It’ll be nice to stamp a mark on him, to show the world what house he belongs to—like a family emblem, a family crest.
“It’s cold in here,” Joe suddenly remarks, eyes closed as he lets the water run down his face.
It’s bullshit, if the condensation already fogging up the mirror is anything to go by, but Leslie doesn’t call Joe out on it, merely steps into the tiled space and wraps his arms around Joe’s waist. He presses a kiss to the base of Joe’s neck, trails his lips over to Joe’s right shoulder, then pulls Joe flush against his chest.
Like this, skin to skin, face buried in Joe’s scent, the waft of the shaving cream still lingering, Leslie can feel Joe’s heartbeat coming through loud and clear, racing against his own, both of their tempos just slightly on the faster side of normal.
“What do you want?” Leslie asks. Murmurs, really, because his lips are still pressed to the spot from before, not wanting to relinquish the taste of Joe’s skin.
Joe turns around, his curls somehow managing to retain their natural spring despite the water attempting to weigh them down, and folds his arms around Leslie’s neck.
“You know what I want,” Joe says. He grinds forward, a gentle and playful gesture rather than a crude or suggestive one, and Leslie sees his own smile reflected on Joe’s face.
It’s different today. Leslie can’t quite pinpoint the source of the strangeness, but when he pushes Joe against the wall, being careful to avoid the shower knobs and soap tray, it feels like he’s wearing Joe’s skin—like Joe is the one pushing, and he’s the one being pushed.
Joe doesn’t talk. His body does it for him—he holds Leslie’s face in his hands, cradling it as if it were sacred or made of glass, eyes piercing deeply into Leslie’s own, lips lost in his. The message is clear: Touch me.
Leslie reaches a hand down, trailing feather-light touches that ebb and flow like the tide of the water pouring down onto Joe’s skin until he reaches between Joe’s thighs. He drinks in the look of anticipation in Joe’s eyes, but instead of pushing in, he traces his finger around the entrance, up Joe’s length and around the tip, then down to the base until he’s back where he began: fingertip dipping there, but barely breaching.
Joe shudders when Leslie stays there, rubbing a circle around his hole, just heavy enough to tease.
“Get on with it,” Joe orders, voice sprinkled with lust and irritation.
Leslie smiles, not bothering to hide his amusement as he repeats his motions—around Joe’s hole, up his length, and back down again, and again, and again, and again. It would appear that this is his third mission of the day, to see how far he can push Joe towards the edge before Joe snaps and brings them both tumbling into freefall.
“I said,” Joe bites out, snark evident in the strain of his cadence, “get on with it.”
Leslie pushes his finger in, but only up to the first knuckle. He feels Joe grinding down to meet him halfway, and Leslie pulls out, bracketing Joe’s hips firmly against the wall with his own.
“Not yet,” Leslie warns. He’s not done playing. Not yet.
Joe’s eyes flare with annoyance, heated by the haze of the water that’s still hot to the touch. “Stop feeling so good about yourself and fuck me, you arse.”
Oh, Leslie does love it when Joe drops his politeness during sex. He loves it, even more, when Joe’s irritation mixes deliciously with yearning and fondness and a beg in his throat, a plea in his eyes—like now, as Leslie allows Joe to finally take his finger, pushing until his knuckles hit flesh.
Joe bites his lip, trying to resist crying out. He’s never been one to keep quiet, so Leslie lets him try, enjoying the furrow of Joe’s eyebrows that’s oddly reminiscent of the concentration he carries during work. That’s Joseph Blake, always putting 100% of himself into everything.
Joe leans in closer to Leslie, nose pressed against his. “More.” He reaches down, grabs hold of Leslie’s middle finger, and moans as he guides it in without any pretense.
Leslie loves this too, when Joe gets all strung out like this—eager to please, but also keen to maintain possession. Control, he remembers. That’s what this is about, isn’t it? Control over mayhem. Control over all unknown third variables.
Leslie adds a third finger, and Joe’s hips buck forward, clearly not having anticipated it so soon. Leslie takes the opportunity to crook his fingers like that, briefly, just the way Joe likes it.
“You fuck, God, yes, yes, come on,” Joe says, syllables scrambling together incoherently, and that’s when Leslie knows he’s succeeded—when Joe is left a wreck with his words.
“What do you want?” Leslie repeats. He twists his fingers again, this time pushing up and up until he hits against that perfect spot. The whimper, moan, gasp that Joe lets out is filthy and tender all at the same time, and Leslie is ready to fall in love with him again from that alone.
“You—” Joe breathes out, the word caught on exhale. “You know what I—”
Leslie pushes his fingers in even deeper, even harder. “I want to hear you say it.”
The irritation falls from Joe’s entire face and body, and what replaces it is something that Leslie will never get used to, not now, not in a hundred years, not ever: pure desire.
“Please,” Joe says, murmurs, whispers with a whine that shoots straight to Leslie’s cock. “Make a mess of me.”
Don’t come yet, you prick, Leslie reprimands, though whether it’s directed at Joe or himself, it’s honestly difficult to say. He bites the inside of his cheek as his cock hardens, tasting the blood that the razor forwent earlier. If Joe knew how close he was, his cock untouched, climax driven by the sight of Joe impaled on his fingers, filled up but ready to take more, always ready to take more, Joe would never let him live it down.
Joe clenches around him as Leslie withdraws his fingers, and it takes all of his effort to not push back in and fuck Joe to release with them alone. Leslie aligns his length, wraps a hand gently behind Joe’s head to protect him from the hard tile, then keeps the other hand that was just inside Joe steady at his hip as he pushes in, a much slower tempo than either of them is used to.
When Joe grabs a fistful of Leslie’s hair, not hurting, never hurting, but soft and soothing like a remedy for every ache Leslie’s ever felt in his life, that’s when the thought comes back—it’s different today.
Leslie works up to a faster speed with every thrust of his hips, with every stroke of Joe’s cock, with every moan drawn from Joe’s chest that rumbles deeply against his own skin. He pulls out, tip barely inside, fingers ghosting lightly around the base of Joe’s cock, then watches the lust and frustration blow Joe’s pupils even wider as he pushes in for the very last time, an aching speed that his heart has long surpassed.
“Come for me,” Leslie says when he’s all the way back in again, hitting that spot that makes Joe cry out.
Joe lets out a final gasp, fingers digging deeply into Leslie’s scalp as he spills onto Leslie’s stomach, his moans etched into Leslie’s memory. The sight and sound of Joe coming apart under his touch is enough to make Leslie follow soon after, and when their eyes meet rather than dart away or roll shut as they typically do, sometimes out of reflex, often out of courtesy—it’s different.
It’s when Leslie pulls out that he finally gets it, like the final note of one his compositions falling into place, because Joe doesn’t let go—his arms remain tethered to where they’re dropped around Leslie’s neck, as if letting go would mean letting go permanently, losing him forever, never to be found again.
“I’m here,” Leslie says in between heaving breaths. He brushes Joe’s hair out of the way, the strands now wet with the heat of the water and with the salt of Joe’s sweat, revealing those eyes that contain all of the answers to his questions—questions that he never knew could be resolved until he met Joe.
A bridge has two sides. He covers Joe’s hands with his own, tangling their fingers together, and brings them down into the space between them. Then, he steadies his lungs and says again, “I’m here.”
You’re here, those eyes repeat back. Joe squeezes once, hard enough to bruise. It doesn’t hurt, and even if it did, it’d be a small price to pay to guarantee Joe’s existence.
Joe lends him a pair of old jeans and a second shirt. This one is dark crimson with alternating black and navy stripes. Leslie puts it on in front of the mirror, staring at his shoulders’ attempt to fit into the stretched-out cloth. At this rate, he’ll go back to London with a completely new wardrobe, but it’s either this, his tomato-stained long sleeve from yesterday, or the now rain-soaked shirt that Joe first lent him.
Leslie exits the bathroom to find Joe sitting on the floor, his back leaned against the bed with a towel draped across his shoulders. It’s a sight Leslie sees a lot, whether it’s at Joe and Tom’s flat or at his own—Joe has a habit of doing his deepest thinking on hardwood rather than on a chair like a normal person.
Joe didn’t bring his work with him though—at least, Leslie hopes he didn’t, so something else must be on his mind.
When Leslie sits down across from him, Joe doesn’t look up, keeps staring down at his hands that are twisting and turning, like Joe is trying to wring the nerves out of them. It reminds Leslie of Tom in the kitchen yesterday because this is what Joe does when he’s working up the courage to do the right thing, even if it’ll cost him.
“Is something the matter?” Leslie asks. Joe seemed better after their excursion up the river earlier, but he might be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Joe shakes his head. Leslie waits there, lets the seconds on their watches tick by, gives Joe the silence. Eventually, Joe takes Leslie’s hand in his and starts running a finger over his wrist, his palm, his calluses, until he lingers on the fourth finger.
It’s when Joe continues the motion, tracing a loose circle around the base of his finger, again and again, that the confusion and clarity compound simultaneously in Leslie’s mind, racing for his sole attention.
“Joe,” Leslie whispers, almost not daring to say it out loud. “What are you doing?”
Joe traces another circle, a heavier touch than before. “Joseph Leslie-Blake has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
Another circle, another heavy touch, another minute ticking by on the clock. Leslie stares down at their intertwined fingers as his ears ring with Joe’s voice. This—This couldn’t possibly—
“Ellis?” Joe asks. “Say something.”
“It’s—” Leslie’s voice falters, betraying his heart. “It’s only been half a year.” Half a year since that day at the club, half a year since—how could Joe possibly know, after only half a year—
“It’s been longer than that,” Joe says gently. “Don’t you think, love?”
Leslie can tell that Joe is trying to make a quip, to crack a joke to keep things light should he decide to retreat and shake it off like a prank, but Joe’s touch remains deliberate, remains like a burn on his skin—remains like a promise.
“You wouldn’t have to change your name,” Leslie says, and he nearly kicks himself the second those words leave his mouth. That isn’t what Joe wants to hear, at all. Why can’t he say what he really wants to say?
Joe isn’t deterred. “I want to. I want the world to know I’m yours.” He grasps at Leslie’s hand more tightly, and his shoulders hike up from the tension. “I want them to know that I’m half of you. If you’ll have me.”
“I thought—” A million things are coursing through Leslie’s mind, and he doesn’t know which one to focus on. “I thought that—”
Leslie swallows down the anxiety gathering in his throat. “How can you be so sure?”
“Mmm.” Joe begins pinching lightly all over Leslie’s hand. “The thought first came yesterday, when I saw you with Tom. Seeing you together… that was when I realised I wanted to wake up to you in the kitchen every morning. And then, I suppose I couldn’t stop thinking about it after that. I kept looking at you and only finding reasons to be sure. Am I...”
Joe meets his eyes with a hesitancy that breaks Leslie's heart. “Am I wrong?” Joe asks quietly.
Leslie closes his fingers together into a fist on reflex, then opens them again. “If you’re implying that I’ll cook for you every morning, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Joe smiles but doesn’t laugh. It might be the most tender expression that Joe’s ever worn around him.
“We have our whole life ahead of us,” Joe says. “I’m sure we can come to a compromise.”
A compromise? Far from it. If anybody’s making a compromise, it would be Joe for accepting him, for loving him, all the messy and incoherent bits, but he knows Joe would scold him if he voiced any of this, so he keeps quiet.
Leslie flips their hands and brings them closer to his chest, resting the back of Joe’s hand against his heart. Nothing’s a compromise when it comes to Joe.
Then, Leslie laughs, a sharp single-syllabic noise that cuts off because he didn’t prepare enough air for the sound. Of course, Joe would be the first to ask. Of course, he’d beat him to it.
“What’s wrong?” Joe asks, concerned. His eyes darken a fraction. “You don’t have to say yes. I know it was sudden. And you don’t have to—we don’t even have to, officially, you know, if you don’t want to—I guess I just—I guess with everything that’s happened, with everything that you know about me, the fact that you’re still here, I thought you might—”
Joe looks Leslie in the eye once more, and Leslie hears it before Joe even says it. “I thought you might be the one to stay.”
Joe has always been a steadfast ship, a light in the wind and rain, able to weather any storm, able to guide the most lost of wayfarers home. And Leslie had been lost—in fact, he didn’t even know he was lost until he was found. Maybe it’s time he returned the favour.
“That guitar over there,” Leslie says, tilting his head towards the instrument gathering dust in the corner. “Does it still work?”
Joe’s eyes glass over, then widen. “Yeah. Yeah, probably, it—it was—it was my fa—”
Leslie squeezes Joe’s hand once, carefully, as a reassurance.
Joe takes a deep breath—in and out like he always tells Leslie to whenever he’s too nervous or anxious. “It was my father’s.”
“May I borrow it?”
Joe stares at him, looking every bit as confused as Leslie had been feeling earlier, then nods wordlessly.
Leslie releases Joe’s hands, gets up, then walks five short paces over to the guitar. He nudges the worn-out pair of cleats that are leaning against it out of the way with his foot and picks the instrument up by the neck. When he hangs the strap over his shoulders, he feels the weight of the wood against his chest, sensing the presence of ghosts from memories past that still haunt the dusty sheen. He strums once, clearing the strings, clearing the shadows away. His skin slowly acclimates to the tingle of a foreign guitar in his hands, though it’s faster than it normally takes him—probably because this guitar had been in Joe’s hands before. That’s already more than enough to make the instrument familiar, the sheer fact that Leslie knows the touch of Joe’s hands on his own.
After tuning the strings until he’s satisfied with the sound, Leslie returns to his spot on the floor. He glances up, using Joe’s presence as an anchor. “It’s not finished, and I’m still tinkering with it, and I wanted to save it until...”
Leslie presses his lips together, then lets out a shallow breath before strumming out the first G chord. He takes in Joe’s teary eyes, Joe’s fingers twisted into the cuff of his jeans, and Joe’s smile that’s threatening to overtake his entire face, then prepares to bare his soul.
“You’re a lonely sailor, and your soul is made of wind and rain, doubts and blame. I’m a weary pirate, and my heart is made of dust and grain, and spoiled champagne. I’ve got troubles, I’ve got sins, I’m my worst enemy, but I’ve still got a lot to give.
“So I said, hey, don’t you wanna come, come and run away with me, hey, won’t you come, won’t you come. And say by chance, don’t you want a man, a man who fully understands a sailor’s heart, a sailor’s heart.”
He lets the last chord peter out, keeping his fingers sunken into the strings. “And that’s—that’s all I have right now, I didn’t think I’d have to show it to you so soon, or honestly at all, but—I was planning on using it to—”
If Joe’s tears on his cheeks are soft like the drizzling rain, Joe’s hands on his face are warm like the sun after a storm. His kiss to Leslie’s lips is as tender as the ache that Leslie feels in his own heart. Leslie leans further over the guitar, letting the wood dig into his chest as he presses deeper into the kiss, presses closer to home.
“Hey,” Joe says, after they part. He smirks through the tears. “I like your music.”
Well… Leslie should’ve expected this. He huffs out a laugh and surrenders—it is Joseph Blake that he fell for, after all.
“Is that right?” Leslie asks.
“Mmm,” Joe murmurs, voice barely a register above a whisper, the most quiet Leslie’s ever heard him. “I suppose that settles that, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.” Leslie covers one of Joe’s hands with his own, then turns it over and kisses the sea of Joe’s palm. “I suppose it does.”
As Joe double-checks their belongings, Leslie takes one last look around Joe’s room. With fresh eyes and a new perspective, he notices things he didn’t think too much of before. Next to the window, tucked between the bed and the desk, is a waist-high bookshelf with only two rows. The first is filled with ripped paper spines, so worn out that the colours on them are blended together beyond reprieve. Were those the adventures that Joe would immerse himself in when he needed an escape, much like Rose’s recipes were to Leslie? Did Joe bring Tom along with him sometimes by reading to him next to the fading light of the sky? Is this why Joe is able to speak of Dedham as if an artist might paint a landscape, a poet might weave a sonnet, or a musician might compose a song?
Is this why the second row of the shelf is stuffed with spiral-bound notebooks? Are those pages covered in stories of all shapes and sizes, about kingdoms and realms and otherworldly places far, far away, scrawled in that script that nobody except Joe can parse? Are these stories the reason why there are two—no, three jars worth of pencils and ink pens pushed neatly against the wall on the desk? Did Joe want to be an author? Or was it just a hobby—a mechanism, a method that allowed him to survive the especially difficult days?
“I don’t know what you’re thinking,” Joe says, “but I know that look on your face.”
Leslie turns. “What look?”
“The one that wants to ask something but doesn’t know how to ask it.”
Leslie glances at the bookshelf, then at the window, the bed, the faded wallpaper… and at the guitar that’s been returned to its place in the corner.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay an extra night?” he asks. Joe has all those vacation days saved up, and it’s a nearly four-hour trip both ways—now that they’re here, they might as well make the most of it.
When Leslie looks back, all Joe does is zip up the bag and shrug his shoulders.
“Don’t need to,” Joe says.
“But do you want to?”
“Staying with Mum is always nice, but—” Joe hauls the bag up and gives Leslie a smile. “I don’t need to.”
Those words echo in Leslie’s mind as Leslie follows Joe in a reverse journey out the room, down the stairs, down the hallway, out the door. He shakes Martha’s hand once more, then stands at a distance away, watching Joe hug Martha with double the amount of affection but none of the clinging nature from yesterday.
Leslie looks down at his phone, preparing to pull up the weather forecast when a message covers the search bar.
[LC 13:25] Look up.
Will waves as he walks over. “Hey.”
Leslie glances back down at the message. “Does this mean I’ll have to change your name now?”
“I could say the same, Lieutenant DJ. I still can’t believe you’re not a stripper.”
Just for that, Leslie considers leaving Will’s name the way it is in his contacts but ultimately decides to be the bigger man.
“There,” Leslie says, turning his phone around: WILL SCHOFIELD.
Will taps a few times at his phone before turning his own screen around: ELLIS LESLIE.
“It’s kind of a shame,” Will says, pocketing his phone. “I imagined you as this much smoother and much cooler bloke from what Joe’d been telling me about you.” He wrinkles his nose in jest. “Thought you’d be taller too, to be honest.”
Leslie narrows his eyes. “I thought Joe was ignoring you for that shit you pulled with Tom.”
“He was, mostly,” Will agrees, sounding unconcerned like he’s used to it by now. “You know him, though. Can’t shut up when it comes to things he cares about. You should’ve heard him. Ellis did this, Ellis did that. Got real tired of it.”
Leslie feels the heat creeping into his cheeks, then forces it down. “A Blake family trait, then. Thought you’d be a man worth your weight in drink, from all Tom’s said about you. Still getting pissed on one pint?”
Will laughs. “Sadly, yes. Luckily for me, Tom doesn’t mind. He drinks enough for both of us.”
“Looks like it all worked out.”
“Yeah.” Will glances back towards the front door, to where Tom is laughing with Martha and Joe. There’s a smile hanging off his lips that’s reminiscent of the one Tom had yesterday in the kitchen—the one that looks like he’s recalling a memory meant just for himself.
“Yeah,” Will repeats, louder and with a more convincing nod of the head. “It really did, didn’t it?”
Will looks back into Leslie’s eyes, and Leslie feels a shiver crawl up his spine. What’s with everyone this weekend?
“You have something to say?” Leslie asks, wary.
“No.” Will puts on a knowing smile, one that rivals Tom’s own, and—oh, if this is what Will is like when sober, then Leslie much prefers him drunk out of his mind.
“Don’t be a clever dick,” Leslie says.
“I’m not. I’m happy for you.”
There’s only one way that can be interpreted, but Leslie’s not going to ask for clarification to find out if he’s right.
“Tom’s a handful,” Leslie says, pivoting the topic back to something safer. “Surprised you managed to last this long.”
“Like you said, I reap what I sow,” Will says simply. “But, ah—I don’t know. I guess I don’t mind if it’s Tom. Or, maybe it’s because it’s Tom that I don’t mind?”
Leslie thinks about Joe: He’s got a morning temper and a tendency to snore. He’s cheeky, playful, a wiseass. He’s impatient at times, and he’s petty about the simplest things. He likes his groceries stored in very specific places and has a preferred order for laundry. He wears the full spectrum of his emotions on his sleeves, though he can cover it up if he tries hard enough. He has an incredible ability to become so wrapped up in work that he forgets to eat until a sandwich is put in his hand. He’s a son, a brother, a man with broad shoulders, an even broader smile, and a big heart. He’s kind, and he’s loving, and he’s survived the past so he can be here today.
Leslie thinks about all of that, then concedes that Will might have a point.
“That’s an interesting way of putting it,” Leslie says.
“You think so?” Will runs a hand through his hair, then rubs the back of his neck. “It doesn’t bother me, is what I’m trying to say.”
Leslie takes in Will’s ducked head, the flush hanging on his cheekbones, the thin smile growing into a large one, the way Will’s entire body vibrates with a certain energy, a certain brilliance, a certain—
“You really love him, don’t you?” Leslie asks. Blurts out, really.
Will looks surprised, flushes a slightly darker shade, but doesn’t deny it. “Yeah… turns out you were right.”
“That you’ll know.”
Leslie freezes, heart caught in his throat.
Will furrows his eyebrows. “Isn’t that what you told me once?”
Will twists his lips, looking torn between being amused and worried and settling somewhere in the middle. “I mean… don’t you feel the same way about—”
“Hey, we should probably get going,” Joe says, jogging over, then pauses when he’s a half a metre away. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Leslie says.
Joe frowns. “Then why do you look like you’re about to hit a 40-degree fever?” He touches the back of his hand to Leslie’s forehead, then his cheeks. Joe’s hand is very cold. It usually runs warm, so maybe it’s Leslie’s own skin that’s too hot?
“I’m fine,” Leslie says. He takes Joe’s bag from him before Joe can get another word out. “Let’s go.”
“Might want to see a doctor when you get back, heat stroke’s no joke!” Will yells after them. Leslie almost turns back to smack him on the head.
“Are you really fine?” Joe asks, when they’re standing at the bus stop. He hooks a finger under Leslie’s chin to turn his head. It’s such a small gesture, one that Joe has done a million times by now, but it crashes into the memory of Joe’s hand on his forehead and cheeks, of all the previous times Joe’s hands have roamed across his face, over all the days they’ve been together, and Leslie feels—he feels—
You really love him, don’t you?
Leslie considers shoving the bag back into Joe’s arms and letting Joe carry the weight, but all he does in the end is shift the straps up when they begin to slip.
“Yes,” he says.
They’re ten minutes into waiting when he realises that his answer is suitable for either question.
Joe is silent again on the way back. This time, they’re the only ones on the bus, so Leslie is left with the hum of the engine, the driver’s cheerful whistling, and the sun that’s reflecting onto Joe’s face.
He should say something. He can’t hear any of Joe’s thoughts, Joe’s mind being eerily quiet compared to yesterday when they made the same trip, but backwards.
When they get on the first of two trains at Colchester, Joe pulls on Leslie’s sleeves, using the momentum to press a kiss to Leslie’s cheek before taking his seat, once again Joe’s window to Leslie’s aisle.
Leslie touches the space that Joe’s lips once inhabited. “What was that for?”
“Nothing,” Joe says. “Everything.”
Then, Joe turns his face, and Leslie finds himself trying to puzzle the scene together.
Joe’s mind is never not racing. He’s always busy thinking about something—the bugs in his code, the time of his commute to work, the next awful joke he’s going to crack. More often, it’s the best face to put on that’ll convince everybody else that he’s okay. It’s a burden from his past, this need to keep everyone afloat even as he drowned amidst the high tide.
There’s none of that today. There’s only the expanse of the sky, the calm of the sea, and Joe’s small smile as he continues staring out at the horizon, seemingly content to sit here despite knowing there’s a world out there that’s always laid its worries on him.
Or, maybe it’s because he’s free to explore it now—now that he’s shed his troubles and transformed them from the hurricane that splinters his vessel into the wind that fills his sails.
Joe’s mind is quiet because Joe is at peace.
I’ll be the wind in your sails, Leslie thinks. I’ll be the wind that carries you faster than any other ship in the sea, the stars that ground you when you’re on the brink of losing yourself, the land that awaits you at the end of your travels.
How do you know if you’re in love? How can you be sure?
He knows. He’s sure.
Leslie laces their fingers together, then parks their hands in between their thighs—like yesterday, but so much different now that the weather has shifted in their favour.
Joe turns, confusion tickling his eyes and his nose and his mouth, and Leslie wants to kiss every centimetre of Joe’s face, map a galaxy across every part of it.
“Something the matter?” Joe asks.
“No.” Leslie drops a kiss onto Joe’s shoulder, then looks into the ocean inside Joe’s eyes. “Just thinking that I love you, is all.”
It sounds right. It doesn’t make Leslie panic to think it anymore, and saying it feels like the first truly brave thing that he’s ever done.
A burst of happiness erupts across Joe’s face. It’s like watching the sun rising even while the moon is still making its way into the sky. Like time has collapsed into a single point of reality, and that point is here, now, wrapped between their fingers.
“I love you too,” Joe says, squeezing once, gently, almost too light to register. But, Leslie feels it, as easily as he feels himself squeezing back.
And that’s all they need for the moment. Perhaps it’s all they’ll ever need for every moment that comes afterward—just the sun behind them, the universe tucked between the warmth of their palms, and the contentment to exist.
They have each other, after all.