The late afternoon sun was streaking through the half-open window, casting the low kitchen table and the straight ladder backs of the chairs around it in a pellucid, impossibly golden light, which lay on the worn-smooth surfaces like a coat of honey. It softened the edges of everything in the kitchen, turned the comfortable domesticity of the day into something gilded and precious to be kept forever.
Dinner was cooking at the stove, a cast-iron pot bubbling softly away; the good scents of herbs and spices were filling the air, perfuming it with a homey warmth that Barnabas had begun to associate with safety, with the steady sure comfort of Jonathan and this little slice of the world they had carved out for themselves, just the two of them. It did not have to be large or wide, as long as it had enough space for them it was enough. As long as Barnabas could edge past Jonathan in the hall, or Jonathan could reach over him through the kitchen window to the planter-box that burgeoned with fresh herbs, it was plenty for them to share.
Barnabas’ chair was tipped back onto two legs, and his hands were set at the edge of the chair seat between his own legs as he watched Jonathan with lowered lashes, rocking the chair softly back and forth. In silhouette, Jonathan at the kitchen window was a fine and elegant figure of a man. He stood in rolled up shirtsleeves, forearms bared to show the fine-boned sleekness of wrists and of long-fingered hands, sharpening a straight razor with the soft whisht, whisht rasp of steel on stropping leather. In this light, Barnabas could admire the fine glint of sun-gold that slanted through Jonathan’s spectacles and sparkled caught in the blond tips of his dark lashes; a light that brushed his fine, composed features with exotic gold, burnished him into something like a serene god, benevolent, tender. If so, Jonathan was the kind of god that could be worshiped with one’s self intact. He did not demand, he did not insist, he did not take ; he cared, he nurtured, he healed. He pruned away the dead growth and bared the quick, brought the fresh and living tissue to the surface where time and light could coax it upwards into leaf and flower.
Perhaps he had once considered Jonah to be a god, too, but how painful it had been to put the lie to those lessons; he could recall how hard and heavy the yoke of Jonah’s ambition had been over the thin and sharp-edged padding that passed for Jonah’s love. It was not so far distant that he could not recall the constant pull and twist at the finite edges of him, the demand that Barnabas fit Jonah’s needs even if there was not enough of him, the loneliness behind the smiling mask of affability he wore. How hollow he had felt, the yearning void behind his breastbone yawning open endlessly wide in a cry for affection that did not carve away bleeding bits of him as recompense.
No, Jonathan was steady, like the sun; he was a constant by which Barnabas could set his watch, the surety on which he could swear, though he had never asked. He was the hearth at which Barnabas could sit, fortified against the bite of winter, and the fire with which he could chase away the ghosts and nightmares that remained.
He was lifted out of his musings by Jonathan turning to him, a curious smile on his handsome dark face, and he let the legs of the chair thump soft back down to the floor. He carried with him a mug and brush, a small amber-glass bottle, and the folded razor tucked in the arch of thumb and forefinger; a damp towel was slung across one shoulder. “You look like you’ve been contemplating the deep mysteries of the universe,” came Jonathan’s voice, and the smile in it was as plain as the one on his face. “Come back down to earth, my bonny boy.” Barnabas smiled irresistibly in response, a gap-toothed puppy grin.
“I am here,” he protested, his laugh breaking the golden stillness as Jonathan set up the shaving implements on the kitchen table. The mug held in its cradle a cake of soap, and Barnabas knew the scent of it before it was even wet: a warm and mellow sandalwood, softly masculine, as comforting as a blanket to wrap around his shoulders. “I never left.”
After all the time that had passed since the deep and chilling fog of the Lonely, it still gave him pause to say so. Had he not left, after all? Had he not been gone, and thought himself lost forever, when the good doctor had come for him with eyes that burned with resolve and fury to lead him out of the forsaken? He could still remember those first days after his rescue, drifting like a frightened ghost through the halls of Jonathan’s city home at all hours of the day and night, weeping at half-grasped fragments of memory. He could recall jumping each time he was touched like he was afraid Mordechai’s big hands might come down upon him and cast him back out into the soul-chilling cold that had sapped away so much of him, for it to finish the job.
It was in that time that this ritual had first started, and it was the same every time, the scents and sounds and sensations familiar, predictable; it was a comfort, a reminder that no matter how distressed Barnabas got, Jonathan was there with his calm voice and comforting hands. He knew him, every hair and dimple, and yet each time Barnabas felt the clear, careful focus, as if he were all that mattered. Jonathan would sit him down at the kitchen table, wash the tears from his bewildered face, shave the whiskers from his cheeks and trim the new silver from his hair with ruthless precision. Even now there were stubborn streaks and strands of white that glimmered like moonlight in the dark waves of Barnabas’ hair, and he wondered how much of his life had been stolen from him in ways that Jonathan could not repair.
Still, it was a comfort as Jonathan’s fingers slid under his chin, tipping his head up. The warm, wet towel was applied to his cheeks, fabric rasping against his whiskers as Jonathan worked with gentle methodical purpose. The water for it had been boiled in a kettle and the fabric was still steamy-warm, softening the bristly hairs. Barnabas gave a deep and wistful sigh of contentment.
“Too warm?” Jonathan asked in comfortable, companionable quiet, and Barnabas hummed a negation, raising one hand to cup Jonathan’s where it was running the cloth across his skin. “All right, all right, I won’t stop. Hands off.”
Barnabas laughed as he put his hands back into his lap, folding them comfortably around each other, as Jonathan plied the cloth, folding it in neat pleats under chin, up over Barnabas’ mouth and under his nose. The serious brown face was inches from his, the clever fingers angling him, hooking around his jaw and turning it so he could massage the warm wet towel into cheeks and chin and upper lip, then more gently stroking it over brows and temples in a soothing caress; Jonathan’s fingers swept back through Barnabas’ hair to brush it artlessly back from his forehead, and the dense, fluffy waves held their shape but for a soft curve with a wide stripe of silver threads near the center of it, root to tip carved out bright against the dark. The pale hairs were not the same texture as the rest, and they stubbornly curled, making new and fantastical shapes that made Jonathan sigh in exasperation as he reached for the bottle of oil, tipping some into his palm.
His fingers were warm and gentle on Barnabas’ cheeks as he lifted away the towel to let the cooler air rush in against the warm wet skin, and he preferred the touch of them without the cloth between them. For a man who was -- and always would be, though Barnabas did not know if he mourned it or not -- beardless, Jonathan had a skilled, light touch at this. His slender, clever hands were slicked now, and though the hairs on Barnabas’ face were not long, he could feel the tender catch and rasp of fingerprint ridges in the fine stubble as he worked the oil into skin and hair, lifting them in a gentle massage so they would stand on end for the razor. “Doing all right?” Jonathan asked softly after a time, and Barnabas let out a soft laugh.
“You still ask me that after all this time,” Barnabas replied, head tipped back, his body relaxed and comfortable, utterly vulnerable; the long line of his fair throat, speckled softly with tiny glints of dark hair, was bared to Jonathan, and it was not in him to worry. “I’m fine. Better than fine.” His smile was open and easy and calm, and he squinted one soft, honey-brown eye open to watch Jonathan wipe the oil from his fingers onto the towel, and then scoop up the mug that held the soap and brush.
“Habit,” Jonathan admitted with a soft chuckle, and then set to working the brush in the mug in tight, swirling little motions. The shallow ivory handle fit neatly in the curve of his fingers and the flat of his palm, and the soft badger bristles were invisible below the rim of the mug. As he worked, that familiar fragrance of sandalwood and comfort rose up from inside, drifting like a dream.
Barnabas could not have said for certain when things had changed, when the rhythm of their relationship had turned from Jonathan as the pillar on which he leaned for comfort and sanity, to Jonathan as the one person he could no more have lived without than he could have sworn off breathing. He did not know when need had turned into love, into the hopeless desire for domesticity and intimacy, but he could not help and was not aware of the tender, dreaming look he pinned on Jonathan, the open and unguarded expression on his face that made Jonathan laugh softly, a low and amused sound.
“You look like I’ve just given you your heart’s desire,” he murmured as he raised the brush to begin soaping Barnabas’ cheeks, as always starting on the left side. The bristles carried the warm fragrant foam, stroking it over his skin like a painter with a masterwork.
“You have,” Barnabas said, and closed his eyes as Jonathan smoothed soap and froth over his skin, “and you do, always.”
His hand reached out unbidden, long-fingered and short-nailed, to curve around Jonathan’s hip, and laid his palm at the small of Jonathan’s back, cupping the warmth of him there. He focused on the feel of fabric and skin above the organic clockwork of his body, the fine bones of him below, and he hummed when Jonathan did not dislodge him, but stepped closer by a fraction. He gave, and Barnabas took, the space as easily as breathing, like roots curling and coiling to fill the soil within a flowerpot, without thought or question. “You’re my heart’s desire,” said Barnabas, after a long moment, looking up at Jonathan with his cheeks and jaw lathered, a dimple in his chin from a smile.
“You have me,” Jonathan chided softly, and could not resist dabbing the tip of Barnabas’ nose with the brush, spoiling Barnabas’ calf-eyed adoration by making him laugh, which irresistibly drew an unselfconscious grin from Jonathan in answer. Still, when Barnabas had finished laughing, Jonathan was watching him with unmistakable fondness in his dark eyes.
“I meant that, Barnabas,” he murmured before Barnabas could respond, more abrupt than he’d intended, and smoothed the sharpness with a more conciliatory tone. “All of me is yours.”
Barnabas considered this while Jonathan turned away, awkward in his sincerity, and his hand slid down back into his lap; the mug was returned to the table, the brush set on its end with lather dripping down the handle to puddle on the clean-scrubbed surface.
“I know that,” he said after a time, when he was sure Jonathan’s nerves had eased enough to hear it. “I do. You are mine, and I am yours.” His smile softened, a little daffy with affection, and he said slowly, “it’s almost like being married.”
“It is,” Jonathan agreed. The soft whisper of the razor opening came, and Barnabas knew it was time to be still. He closed his mouth and his eyes. They did not need to be open now, anyway, with the close and intimate warmth of Jonathan like the sinking sun, the feel of his presence like sitting before a fire. He felt him considering, the weight of his gaze easy, and then the familiar fingers tipping his chin up as the razor began its work. It slid, cool and sharp, through the warm lather at an angle, the precision bringing the keen edge of it against his tender skin, and he was not afraid. The first time he had been afraid, but this many months later, he had no fear of Jonathan cutting him. The implement was sharp and dependable, and Jonathan wielded it as if it were a part of himself. They were so similar that perhaps it was.
It settled into a comfortable rhythm -- the soft smooth slide of razor against skin, and then the pause to wipe lather and cut hairs onto the towel Jonathan had slung over one shoulder, and then it came again. Barnabas submitted quietly as Jonathan angled his head this way and that, a thumb gentle under his jawline, or the curve of fingers against his cheek. They did not speak, and in the silence their words were clear enough. Trust , they said, and then, some time later, adoration , like a whisper, and then as the longer slides turned into delicate fluttering strokes in the awkward angles and planes of his face and the feel of Jonathan’s breath more clearly against freshly-shorn skin, love . So it had gone with them. It was like marriage, starting rooted in convenience and some mutual decision to share their lives, and ending in this, the golden hour between afternoon and evening, a warm and full maturity of emotion that did not cry out for more or less, but was ripe within itself and in its own time.
“I would marry you if I could,” said Barnabas, presently.
When he opened his eyes the gold of the afternoon light had lost its edge, the sky wheeling on with slow and inexorable sweetness toward the deepening blues and violets of evening. Jonathan was using a clean towel to wipe away the last of the lather from his cheeks and jaw, and he smiled, the soft curve of lips that Barnabas suddenly ached to kiss, the light angled across his tender expression as if the sun himself favored Jonathan. He wondered, mute and dazed with the helpless, boundless depth of his own feeling, whether the world saw the good doctor this way, painted in such lucidity that the flaws and imperfections of him only served to enhance the greater whole. Did they see the rare sweet laughs and the blade-bright smiles in the worry-lines at the corners of Jonathan’s eyes, too? “I would. Let them read our names out in church, yours and mine, while you and I squabbled over which to take on forever, and then wed you on a sunny Sunday morning in June in our best clothes.” There was a longing in his voice, a tenderness, that Jonathan did not look away from. “I should be proud to be Doctor and Mister Fanshawe with you.”
“So would I,” Jonathan said, with a softness in his voice that spoke of regret, of things that might have been, of things that they could not have; of dreams, however sweet, that must be placed on a high shelf, too fragile to touch often, which could only be admired from the solidness of ground with feet firmly planted on the earth. He bent to place a kiss on Barnabas’ mouth, and it was chaste, filled with a wistful sweetness that held all of his love, and Barnabas drank deeply of it while it flowed, raising a hand to cup behind Jonathan’s neck and hold him close for a long moment, before it broke as all things must.
Still, for the little that was bitter, it was overbalanced with sweet, with the soft and tuneless whistling that Jonathan took up shortly after as he puttered his way out to the garden, with the supper that Barnabas turned hands and mind toward, and the deep and comforting dark of the night that stretched ahead, in which neither left the other’s side.