Promise

by Shuua (シューア)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/6490.html)

It was a late November evening, and already wreaths hung from streetlamps and a variety of Christmas decorations adorned the window displays of shops. As if to encourage the illusion, snow was falling picturesquely in thick, fluffy flakes. A lone figure made his way through the streets, a muffled crunching under his footsteps, his breath following him like wisps of clouds. He was tall and slender, his bulky winter jacket hugged tightly around him as he steeled himself against the cold. His not-quite-blonde hair was in need of a trim, and reached a little above his shoulder. His thick glasses were wet from melted snow and continually slipped down the bridge of his nose.

The man stopped at a cross light, glancing idly at all the holiday cheer.

For Julian Keys, Christmas was never a family affair. The stockings on the mantle over a roaring fire, the large tree festooned with ornaments and glittering with tinsel, the carefully wrapped presents and handmade cards… Those were quaint things Julian saw in movies or on television. His Christmases had always been needlessly extravagant and full of people he didn’t know, but would have to pretend to be glad to see. His holiday gifts were always marvelously expensive, but they were cold and impersonal. In a way, Christmas would be spent like any other day of the year. There would be stiff formalities, sugar-coated lies, and glimpses of the people he was told were his parents.

The light turned green, and Julian crossed the road at a brisk pace. He wished, for the tenth time that night, that he had just waited for the bus. Snow always slowed down the buses, sometimes up to an hour or more, and waiting in the cold didn’t seem like a great idea at the time. He had instead opted to take the twenty-minute walk to his house. In retrospect, however, he realized that standing in the snow was probably a lot better than walking in it.

Julian lived in a roomy two-bedroom house near the edge of town. No roommates, no pets, and no plants that weren’t made of plastic. He had bought it for two reasons; one, it had an enormous studio ideal for his work, and two, it was far away from everybody else.

It would be the first time Julian spent Christmas alone this year. It would also be the first time Julian spent it in the United States. It had been nearly a year since Julian flew back to his country of origin – despite his reluctance to be caught dead admitting as such – and he was starting to yearn for home.

“Home,” in this case, was London. And while Julian’s holidays and family may have been less than perfect, he still missed it. The family had moved to London shortly after Julian was born, and he had lived there ever since. The closest he had ever got to tears was when he bid farewell to St. Joseph’s Academy for Boys on graduation day. He had made many a fond memory there – admittedly none of them involving the pursuit of education (although one could debate what constitutes “education”).

Julian never went to college. Despite St. Joseph’s upstanding reputation as one of the finest college preparatory schools in England, Julian knew from an early age that higher education would not be necessary for him to obtain a secure job. This was perhaps the single greatest cause for his complete lack of interest in academics. Of course, he could have easily gone to Oxford or Cambridge for the impressive credentials, regardless of his horrendous grades. Many universities would be happy to turn a blind eye in exchange for a new library or gymnasium. But Julian was sick of reputation, sick of names.

London is no longer your home. Stop calling it that, he reminded himself.

A car drove by Julian, speeding despite the slippery road, and a spray of wet slush spattered across his feet. He swore softly and considered flipping the bird at the quickly disappearing car, but sighed and decided it wasn’t worth the effort. He wrapped his arms around himself tighter and trudged resolutely on, the promise of a hot bath urging him forward.

There was a river that ran across the city. As the seasons passed, it changed from calm and steady, to wild and raging, to partly frozen and sluggish. Julian’s house was on the other side of the river, and every day he crossed the bridge separating him from the rest of the city. As he approached the bridge, his feet treading a now familiar path, he slowed down.

There was a person there.

The stranger was sitting on the railing of the bridge in perfect balance, hands at their sides, leaning forward ever so slightly.

It was a fifty foot drop to the frozen river below.

Julian approached carefully. As he got closer, he saw that the stranger was a man – no, a boy, rather. A streetlamp illuminated his hunched figure, creating an impromptu spotlight, the snow falling around him in white drifts.

“Hey,” Julian called out, hesitating slightly. He was standing behind the boy, just a few feet away.

The boy turned his head, and for a fleeting moment Julian saw Michelangelo’s masterpieces flash across his eyes.

“Hey,” he replied, smiling. His voice was clear and bright.

Julian walked forward cautiously, but the boy showed no signs of fear or discomfort. “What are you doing here?” he asked, trying to sound casual, but discreetly calculating the distance between them, wondering if he would be quick enough…

“I’m admiring the view,” the boy said, still smiling, as if the whole thing was a fantastic joke only he could understand. “It’s amazing. You really should see it.”

“Is it?” Julian commented absent-mindedly. He was now leaning against the railing, the boy perched precariously on the cold metal bars beside him. Convinced that the boy wasn’t going anywhere just yet, he looked, but could see only an expanse of pitch black and – if he strained his eyes – a sprinkling of lights in the distance.

“I don’t see anything,” he admitted after a long while.

“I know, isn’t it beautiful?” the boy whispered.

Julian turned to look at the boy again, and this time he saw the thick layer of snow laid down on his hair, shoulders, hands, and lap. He saw just how white the boy was, how the snowflakes had clung to his eyelashes like little jewels, how his lips had a slightly blueish tinge…

“How long have you been… admiring the view?” Julian asked.

“Oh… A while, I should think,” the boy answered, smiling again, that amused, secret smile.

“You now, it’s really cold tonight. Why don’t you go home now?” Julian said gently.

“As cliché as this is going to sound, I don’t have a home,” the boy said, laughing softly.

“You’re homeless?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“Well, listen. You can’t just sit here all night. I’ll give you some money, why don’t you go check yourself into a motel?” Julian said quickly, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.

“You don’t have to do that.” The boy’s face was suddenly somber, no trace of a smile on his lips.

“I’m not going to let you stay here,” Julian replied. But as the words were leaving his mouth a voice – his voice – asked: Why do you care so much? He’s not your responsibility.

And yet Julian couldn’t make himself walk away.

There was a moment of silence and stillness so perfect that only the falling snow gave away any indication to the passage of time.

“So you’re the knight in shining armor everyone talks about,” the boy finally said slowly, a smile returning to his face. “How nice to finally meet you.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Julian said graciously, holding out a hand. The boy took it, and Julian felt as though he was gripping ice.

The boy swiftly swung his legs over the railing and stood next to Julian, shaking off the snow from his clothes. He wore only a thin jacket over his street clothes, and was shivering slightly.

God… What were you thinking? Julian wanted to ask, overcome with a powerful urge to both smack him on the head and hug him tightly.

“There’s a place across the bridge you can stay at,” is what he said aloud.

“Can I stay at your place?” the boy asked brashly, no hint of embarrassment or fear.

Julian was taken aback for a moment. “Look… I’m not trying to pick you up or anything–”

“No, I know that. You’re doing what any Good Samaritan would do, stopping by to help a stranger, no strings attached, nothing in it for you, right? Other than knowing that you saved my life, that is, or at least that you did the best that you could do. But this isn’t you asking me to come over, I’m asking you, so it’s okay, right? You’re still the good guy. So. Can I?” The boy was talking quickly, still smiling but his eyes and voice betraying him, because there was fear in them, there was desperation.

For a while, Julian couldn’t think of anything to say. He sighed and cautiously put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, still not sure if he was crazy or not. “You really have no sense of what’s safe, do you? You don’t even know who I am. I could rob you or rape you or murder you, for crying out loud. And you’d make it very easy.”

“I know you’re not any of those things,” the boy said insistently.

“Says who?” Julian asked, incredulously.

“Well, are you?” the boy shot back. “Are you planning to rob me – although you should know I don’t have anything worth robbing – or rape me or kill me? Are you playing nice so you can gain my trust and lead me back to your lair and have your way with me?”

“No, but–”

“There. You said it yourself. You’re not going to, so why should I be worried?” the boy asked.

“Now, just because I say it…”

“Would a real rapist try to argue with me right now?”

“But…” Julian sputtered. He never sputtered, and would kick himself later for doing it. “But how do I know that you aren’t going to do anything?”

“Ohh, right, you’ve got a point there. After all, we both know how common it is for homeless boys to sit on a bridge all day in the snow and wait for a hapless victim to come by in the hopes that said victim will let the boy into their house and thus give him the opportunity to strike. Well, I can’t argue with that logic. I look pretty damn threatening, after all,” the boy said wryly.

Julian looked at him. The boy looked cold, thin, and lost. “Threatening” was the last thing that came to his mind.

He sighed. “Tell me, are you always this stubborn?”

“You give in pretty easy, actually,” the boy replied. He then smiled widely, and somehow it made Julian feel that everything was just as it should be.

Julian’s house was, for the most part, ugly. It was tucked away behind large trees and bushes, and what little could be seen of it from the main road was decidedly unattractive. Paint was peeling from the ancient walls, the glass windows were smeared and almost completely opaque, and the porch was sagging towards the middle, where snow and debris had gathered. One might consider it romantic, in an antique, deteriorating sort of way. But most people would call it a wreck.

Inside, it wasn’t much better. The lighting was poor, and the heating horrible. The only thing that made the house warmer was the lack of snow and wind – and even then only if you weren’t standing next to a window. The hallways were narrow and dark, the rooms were too large to be practical, and the cold wood floor creaked under their feet. The best thing you could say about the furniture was that it went with the house: old and falling apart.

“It’s beautiful,” the boy said as he looked around, wide-eyed.

“Thank you,” Julian said absent-mindedly, busy trying to shoulder his front door shut. He finally managed to lock it and turned to find the boy had disappeared. “Hey…!” he started, then realized he didn’t know the boy’s name.

“I’m in here,” a voice called from Julian’s bedroom.

Julian walked in warily, wondering how it was possible for someone to find his way around a stranger’s house so fast.

“Sorry, I couldn’t help looking around,” the boy said. He was sitting comfortably on the edge of Julian’s bed, and he didn’t sound the least bit sorry. He added, as an afterthought, “I’m not trying to steal anything or whatever.”

“Yeah, I know,” Julian said reflexively, but still feeling a little uneasy. It wasn’t that he never had strangers in his bedroom – or, let’s be frank, in his bed – but he couldn’t shake the feeling that this boy was… He was…

Well, damn. Julian didn’t know what to make of the boy. That was why he felt so uneasy.

“Is it okay if I take a shower?” the boy asked, as casually as if he had been living there for years.

“Sure,” Julian said, not knowing what else to say. For some reason, “No” didn’t seem like an option.

“Thanks.”

“Bathroom’s second door on your right.”

It took a minute or two for Julian to do anything after the boy left – he felt at a loss for actions just as much as words. Somehow he managed to get changed out of his clothes, his mind still a jumble of mixed thoughts, protests, and emotions. He took off his glasses, rendering himself nearly blind, and placed them on the nightstand. He then lay in bed and waited for the boy to finish using the bathroom, stretched out in his sweatpants and oversized T-shirt, listening to the muted sounds of running water.

He didn’t even know he had fallen asleep until the boy woke him. Julian found himself looking up into the other’s face, and realized after a moment or two that the boy was lying on top of him. A few seconds afterwards his mind registered that the boy was also naked.

“I’m done showering now,” the boy said simply.

“So I see,” Julian said slowly.

“I didn’t have any clothes to change into.”

“…So I see.”

“Hope you don’t mind?”

“I have some clothes you can borrow…”

“No, it’s okay, I’m fine like this.”

The boy hadn’t dried off completely, little beads of water still resting on his shoulders and dangling from the tip of his nose, his hair clinging to his face in wet curls. His cheeks were flushed from the hot water, his lips no longer blue from the cold.

And then – Julian knew it was coming – the boy leaned down and kissed him. It wasn’t a passionate kiss, but soft and chaste, the sort of kiss exchanged between two lovers who had woken up in each others arms for as long as they could remember. The sort of kiss that wasn’t demanding or lewd, but a statement, a promise of more to come, should the recipient want it.

Julian wanted it.

The boy kissed him again, and this time didn’t pull away for a long while. They paused for breath.

“We shouldn’t do this,” Julian said feebly, gasping for air.

“Mm… You’re probably right,” the boy murmured, his lips pressed against Julian’s neck and his hands, warm now, starting to move, to caress.

“This really is quite is wrong,” Julian whispered, reaching up to wrap his arms around the boy’s slender body, holding him close.

“It’s sick, is what it is,” the boy replied, a shiver running down his spine as Julian’s fingers brushed against his thighs, then reached up to stroke the curve of his ass.

“Good, as long as we both agree.” Julian was taking off his clothes now, and the boy was helping him toss them aside, pulling the covers over them, and now they were both naked and their skin was sliding against each other as they moved, and now it was so warm, it was hot and the cold was forgotten completely.

After that, all the boy could say was, “Yes, yes…”

A little over an hour later, Julian went into the bathroom to shower and brush his teeth. He didn’t waste time putting on any clothes and went back to bed.

The boy was waiting for him.

Julian lost count after the third time – he couldn’t be bothered to keep track. All he knew was the boy was soft and warm beneath his hands, and their bodies fit together perfectly, as if they were made to make love to each other, as if neither was a whole person unless they were joined like this. It was glorious, a mind-numbing pleasure that consumed every inch of them, a reckless joy that blocked away any thought, any sensation other than the touch of their skin, the feel of their lips and tongues and hands.

They would break apart after each time, gasping for breath, their hearts threatening to burst, their bodies aching. They would lie still until their sweat cooled and their breathing slowed, unable even to talk. Julian would think, desperately: No more, I’m going to die, this isn’t even possible. But then the boy would turn to him and tilt his face upwards and press his perfect lips against Julian’s, and they would do it all over again.

Somewhere amidst the fucking or the resting, or perhaps even in his dreams – he would never know exactly when, time had suddenly lost all influence – Julian whispered, “What are you doing to me?”

If the boy ever answered, Julian lost it forever during that night. All he would remember was the soft laugh, the knowing smile.

Julian woke up slowly, painfully. A ray of sunlight knifed its way through a gap in the curtains and somehow managed to land directly over his eyes. He groaned and rolled over, intent on sleeping on, when he felt a gentle shake on his shoulder. He ignored it, and it wasn’t so gentle anymore.

“Hey, wake up! Do you have any idea what time it is?” a voice asked indignantly.

“Piss off,” Julian mumbled into the pillow, waving an arm half-heartedly.

“It’s three in the afternoon!” the voice went on, insistent. Julian heard the whoosh sounds of curtains being drawn back. Even facing away from the window, with his eyes closed, he was aware of just how bright the room became.

But Julian stubbornly made no response.

The voice sighed. “I guess you’re a lot older than I thought.”

Julian sat bolt upright. “Excuse me?”

“Good morning – or rather it was, about four hours ago,” the boy said brightly. He was climbed onto the bed and sat down, naked except for a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. “Do you realize,” he went on, “that you have nothing in your refrigerator except ice cream, beer, and leftover take-out? How do you live?”

Julian didn’t answer – he wasn’t even listening. Because there, sitting on his bed, was a vision. The boy was bathed in sunlight, was positively glowing. Julian dared not breathe, lest he disappear.

“Hey, what’s wrong? You’re gaping at me like a fish,” the boy laughed.

“Don’t… Don’t move,” Julian said quickly. He reached for his glasses on the nightstand, then for his sketchpad and pencil under the bed. When he looked up again the boy was still there, much more in focus now, and looking highly amused.

“Now what’s all this?” the boy asked, obediently staying perfectly still.

“Shh, don’t talk,” Julian said absently.

“Don’t move and don’t talk? You’re really quite demanding,” the boy huffed.

“Shh…” Julian repeated.

The boy stayed quiet, looking at Julian with curious eyes. Julian, for his part, couldn’t believe that he didn’t see this the night before – just how beautiful this boy was. His face was delicate, his skin porcelain-smooth, his eyes so blue the sky seemed dull in comparison. His short, slightly curled hair was the color of autumn, a deep russet brown with reddish undertones and streaks of gold.

Julian sketched as if possessed, quickly, his hands almost shaking in their need to get this image down onto paper, to burn it into his memory forever. When he was done, just a few minutes later, he looked up as if waking from a dream.

“So, you’re an artist, I’m guessing?” the boy whispered. He still hadn’t moved.

“I’d like to think so,” Julian replied, slowly. He was still having trouble believing that, yes, this boy was real, and was sitting on his bed, and that last night really happened.

“Can I move now?”

For one ridiculous second, Julian wanted to say, No, you can’t. Stay like that, forever…

“Yes, of course. Sorry about that.”

“I don’t mind.”

Julian paused. “You wouldn’t mind if I asked you to do that again? For hours at a time, even?”

The boy shook his head. “No, but you’re going to have to feed me if you don’t want me to fade away. I mean, honestly now, how is it you’re still living, judging by the crap you keep in your kitchen?”

“I don’t cook,” Julian stated.

“Well, obviously,” the boy snorted. “But I do. Where’s the nearest grocery store?”

Several hours later, the kitchen was – for the first time since Julian moved in – filled with the comforting smells of home cooking. Julian quickly realized that when the boy said he could cook, he wasn’t kidding. In almost no time at all, he made French toast topped with strawberries, cinnamon and powdered sugar, omelets with onions, ham and cheese, and sides of bacon for good measure. Somehow he managed to slice up a fruit salad on top of all that, as well.

As they sat down to eat their late breakfast (it was close to five, now), Julian asked, “Where did you learn all that?”

“All what?”

“You know… Cooking, and buying groceries, and everything.”

The boy laughed. “You mean to tell me you don’t know how to buy groceries? And you’re how old?”

Julian ignored the latter question. “Then everyone knows how to do these things?”

“Well, I should think so…” the boy said slowly, his laugher subsiding. “To be fair, I worked at a diner for a little bit so maybe I’m better at cooking than others. But it isn’t rare for a person to know how to cook or… buy groceries.”

“I see,” Julian said simply. He took a bite of his French toast, marveled at how good it was, and then proceeded to all but inhale the rest of his food.

“Hey, slow down! You’re going to choke,” the boy said.

“It’s really, really good,” Julian said in way of an excuse, between bites.

The boy couldn’t hide a pleased smile.

Later, as they were polishing off the fruit salad, Julian finally asked, “What’s your name?”

“Ashley,” the boy replied. “And you?”

“Julian.”

“You sound British,” Ashley mused.

“I am. Sort of. Your name sounds British,” Julian countered. “Most Americans don’t name their boys ‘Ashley.'”

“Really? Maybe I am, then. Or maybe my parents were,” Ashley mused, stabbing a slice of peach with his fork.

Were, Julian thought, but didn’t say.

“How old are you?”

“Old enough,” Ashley said off-handedly.

“That’s not an answer,” Julian muttered. “I just want to make sure I haven’t committed statutory rape.”

“It really doesn’t matter, does it?” Ashley said smoothly, placing a hand over Julian’s.

“It kind of does,” Julian said, not at all convincingly. Ashley looked at him blankly with his large blue eyes. Julian sighed. “Can you at least promise me I’m not doing anything illegal, here?”

“Hey, Julian. You should know something about me,” Ashley suddenly whispered, leaning in close across the small table as if revealing a grave secret. “…I never make promises.”

“That must be convenient.”

“No, not really. It’s tough being honest all the time,” Ashley said, smiling.

Julian was already starting to fall in love with that smile.

The days turned to weeks, and Ashley had not left. December came swiftly, and Christmas just as fast. Julian wasn’t alone for the holidays after all. Before he knew it, a month had gone by, then two… And suddenly Ashley became a part of his life. One day – he wasn’t sure when, exactly, but one day – Julian realized that he couldn’t imagine waking up without the boy beside him.

Yet the boy had said, “No promises.” So Julian never asked him to make any, nor did he make any of his own. One of these days, he would wake up and Ashley would be gone – Julian kept telling himself that.

In the meantime, Ashley had assigned himself the task of cleaning up the wreck of a house. He washed, waxed and polished the floors, dusted the furniture, and swept the porch. The washing machine and dryer were running almost constantly. He even sealed the windows and convinced Julian into buying a few space heaters, and soon the house was warm and cozy – a feat Julian would not have thought possible.

“You don’t have to do this,” Julian protested, several times.

“If I don’t, who will? Certainly not you,” Ashley retorted. “I still don’t understand how you’ve managed to live like this for so long. Did you have servants picking up after you your whole life or something?”

“Yes,” Julian replied honestly.

Ashley just shook his head and laughed.

As for Julian, he spent his days drawing Ashley – Ashley sleeping, Ashley cooking, Ashley bathing… Soon he had filled close to five sketchbooks of just the boy.

“I can’t paint you if you’re moving around all the time,” Julian complained.

“I can’t stand still knowing the house is falling apart with us in it,” Ashley replied.

“Tell me, were you by any chance a maid in a former life?”

“Could be. It’d explain a lot, wouldn’t it?” Ashley reflected.

Eventually, when the house was spotless and all the sheets, towels and clothes clean and the refrigerator stocked with actual food, Julian managed to get Ashley to stay still long enough for his paintings.

And such paintings…

Julian was quickly making a name for himself in the harsh world of art. His work had been featured in galleries for nearly a year and he had just opened his own – the first of many to come. Despite the fact that, as far as the public was concerned, he had simply appeared out of thin air, Julian was gaining recognition for his unique and beautiful paintings. The problem with fine art is that, in order to be famous, the artist in most cases is going to have to be either crazy or dead, or both. Only in very rare instances was one neither but still famous. Julian was rapidly becoming a rare instance.

But Julian felt as though he had never truly painted until he painted Ashley for the first time.

He would wake up early, just as the sun was starting to rise, and silently slip out of bed to paint Ashley’s sleeping figure. Ashley found himself waking up several times to be greeted by the now familiar command: “Don’t move,” and he would sigh and lie still for another hour, sometimes two, until Julian was finished. Ashley loved to watch Julian paint him, he loved the serious, almost pained look in his eyes as they gazed over every inch of him. And so he didn’t move a muscle, until Julian was done or until he couldn’t take it any more and begged Julian to let him stretch a bit.

Or, sometimes, Julian would suddenly stop painting, and walk over to Ashley’s side and place his paint-stained hands on the boy’s face, his chest, his stomach, his arms… Would stroke every inch of him, as if Ashley was the canvas and his hands the brush, as if he was creating the boy himself, leaving behind streaks of crimson, viridian, cobalt – colors with names that sounded strange and powerful. And then, because they were empty without each other, they would seek out the other’s embrace, irresistibly and inevitably making love right where they lay.

Within three months, Julian had completed close to a dozen paintings of Ashley. Never before in his life had he made that many in such a short time, but he couldn’t help himself. It was impossible not to paint him. He would have been entirely content to starve and relinquish sleep completely if Ashley would let him.

What was it about Ashley that fascinated him so much? He asked himself that many times. Ashley was certainly beautiful, yes, but there were plenty of beautiful people out there. So why was this one special?

One afternoon in late February, the two sat next to each other in a sofa in the studio. Ashley was reading To Kill a Mockingbird (a book Julian had never managed to read through), and Julian was, as usual, sketching him between sips of tea.

“Don’t you ever get tired of drawing me?” Ashley suddenly asked, without looking up.

“Not yet,” Julian answered. “Are you getting tired of being drawn?”

Ashley looked up and smiled. “Not yet.”

“Hey, Ash?”

“Mm?” Ashley flipped a page.

“You seem kind of quiet these days… Are you feeling all right?” Julian asked casually, but in truth he was starting to worry. Ashley had grown a trifle thinner, a shade paler, his eyes just a bit duller. He talked much less than he used to, nor did he fix the house with the same enthusiasm as before (although to be fair, there wasn’t much left in the house to be fixed). No one else would have noticed, but Julian had done nothing but study Ashley for close to three months now, and he saw.

“I’m fine,” Ashley said, rather flatly. And that was that.

There was silence for a long while, broken only by the occasional sound of a page being turned and the scratch of pencil on paper.

“Hey, Julian?”

“Yes?”

“All the paintings you’ve done of me… What are you going to do with them?”

“I’m going to exhibit them.”

“Don’t.”

Julian looked up quickly. Ashley’s intent gaze met his eyes.

“Why not?” Julian asked, confused. “Not to sound conceited or anything, but I think they’re the best paintings I’ve ever done.”

“I don’t want anyone else to see them,” Ashley said quietly. “Just you and me. Please.”

“Ashley… I don’t–” Julian started, but stopped short when he saw Ashley’s eyes brim with tears. He had never seen Ashley cry before – he wouldn’t have thought it possible – and his heart broke at the sight of it. “Ash, what’s wrong?” he asked, really worried now. He threw aside his sketchbook and pulled Ashley into an embrace.

“I can’t explain it, Julian, but… I just can’t stand the thought of people seeing them. I posed for you, Julian. I let you paint me because I wanted you to see me. I didn’t care how naked I was, or how long I had to stay still, because it was you, it was all for you,” Ashley cried, burying his face into Julian’s chest.

“I promise,” Julian said gently, hugging Ashley close, stroking the boy’s hair. “I promise I won’t, so don’t cry, okay? Don’t cry…”

“Julian,” Ashley said, after a long moment.

“Yes?”

“I think I’m falling in love with you,” he stated simply.

Julian pulled back and looked at Ashley with bewilderment. “But… You don’t even know me,” he started. “I mean, we don’t know each other. Not really.” And, as crazy as that sounded (considering they had been living together for several months), it was true. Julian didn’t know a thing about Ashley, and to his memory he had never told Ashley about himself.

“Don’t know you? Are you kidding me?” Ashley asked, suddenly back to his old self. “Let’s see. I know you can’t cook or clean or buy groceries, or take care of yourself in any way. I know you hate coffee but you love tea like any proper Englishman, and apple juice like any proper American boy. I know you can eat a whole watermelon by yourself, which I’m still having trouble believing. I know you’re older than you’ll admit but still younger than you act. I know you’re obsessive and stubborn and selfish, but you also make love like a pro and can kiss better than I think should be legal.” He stopped to take a breath. “Shall I go on?”

Julian laughed, holding up his hands in a sign of surrender. “Okay, I take it back. You know me better than anyone.”

“Thank you,” Ashley said graciously. “Now, onto my next question: do you think you love me back?”

“You’ve always been direct,” Julian said.

“I told you, it’s a drawback to being so honest,” Ashley sighed, shrugging.

“I know. It’s one of the reasons why I love you so much.”

Ashley smiled.

And Julian realized then, Yes, yes I love him. More than anyone, more than anything.

At that moment, he actually felt as if a light bulb really did go off in his head, cartoon-like. That was why he couldn’t keep himself from painting Ashley. It wasn’t just that the boy was beautiful, or that he was intriguing, a living embodiment of paradoxes – innocence and wisdom, trust and suspicion, openness and secrecy. It was because Julian loved him, pure and simple, and Julian had never loved anybody before.

“I’m so glad I met you,” he said.

“I’m so glad you found me,” Ashley replied.

“Okay, here’s another one: your most embarrassing moment.”

“Oh, please. That is far too cliché,” Julian groaned.

“I don’t care, I want to know,” Ashley said stubbornly, suppressing a laugh.

The two were lying in bed, Julian reclining against the pillows and Ashley on his stomach, resting his head in his hands, looking for all the world like a little child waiting to be told a bedtime story. Ever since Julian had pointed out that, despite their love, they knew next to nothing about each other, Ashley had made it a point to ask questions at every opportunity.

“Ash, you don’t know my last name, or my birthday, or my age, or where I was born… But you want to know my most embarrassing moment?”

“Those things are just statistics. I could find that crap out about you on my own. No, I want to hear all the dirty little secrets,” Ashley giggled. “So. Out with it! And it better be good.”

“I honestly can’t think of one,” Julian sighed.

“You are a horrible liar, Julian, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

“I was caught with my pants down by a librarian at school, does that count?”

“You don’t call that embarrassing?!” Ashley yelled. “And what the hell were you doing with your pants down in the library?”

“Well, it wasn’t embarrassing because there was a teacher there with me who ended up taking most of the blame. And I wasn’t the only one with my pants down, let’s just leave it at that.”

“And exactly how old were you?” Ashley asked slowly.

“I’d say… When I was around sixteen or so?” Julian suggested. In truth, he was fifteen at the time, but he felt that it was best to round up.

“And you asked me if I was making you do anything illegal? You hypocrite!” Ashley said indignantly.

“Well, now it’s my turn and I want to know once and for all: how old are you?” Julian countered.

“Nineteen,” Ashley said quickly. Then, in a mumble: “…in two years.”

Julian groaned. “Christ, you’re twelve years younger than me.”

“Ah ha! So that’s how old you are!” Ashley said victoriously. “Only one year left before you’re thir–”

“Please don’t remind me,” Julian said flatly.

“Hey, if it’s any consolation, your physical condition – judging by your endurance and extremely demanding performances – is simply superb,” Ashley said soothingly, patting Julian’s thigh.

“I’m glad you appreciate my exertions,” Julian said wryly.

“I most certainly do. Now, next question: tell me about your family.”

“That’s not a question.”

“Let’s not be bratty about this,” Ashley said, raising an eyebrow.

“Okay, well, there’s a lot to say about my family, or nothing at all, it depends on how you look at it,” Julian said. “I’ve got a mum and dad who spoiled me to make up for the fact that they were never there, and a half-brother that hates my guts. I guess the reason why I can’t take care of myself now is because I’ve never had to, really. I wasn’t kidding about the servants. Our family is rich – not Bill Gates rich or Donald Trump rich, more like the bloody Queen herself. It’s old money. I wouldn’t be able to get rid of it even if I tried.”

“It’s just like in The Great Gatsby,” Ashley mused.

“Can’t say I’ve read that.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“I don’t read,” Julian protested.

“You don’t seem to do a lot of things,” Ashley remarked.

“Anyways,” Julian continued, clearing his throat. “I eventually got sick of it all and I ran away. I was born in the States, so I’m actually American by birth. I figured here was as good a place as any to start over. I’ve always loved to paint – I’ve been doing it since I was a kid – but I’ve never tried to do it for a living. I’ve never had to do anything for a living.”

“So you’re penniless, now?” Ashley asked, wide-eyed.

“No, not really. I have money in the bank,” Julian said absently.

“How much?” Ashley pressed on.

“Enough.”

“You’re a tease,” Ashley pouted.

“So are you, love. And now it’s your turn. Same question.”

“I don’t know a thing about my real family, and that is the truth,” Ashley said simply. “I am an honest-to-God orphan, like a modern-day Dickens character.” He paused to see if there was a hint of recognition on Julian’s part, saw none, and went on. “In any case, I’ve been shuttled to about six or seven different foster homes over the years. If I told you about all of them, we won’t get any sleep tonight. Some of them were good, some of them were bad, but none of them ever wanted me.”

“It must have been hard for you,” Julian said softly.

Ashley shrugged. “No one’s life is perfect, I suppose.”

Julian held out his arms, and Ashley crawled into them willingly. “I want you,” Julian whispered, kissing the boy’s forehead tenderly, then nestling him onto his chest. After a moment’s hesitation, Julian said, “Stay with me.”

Ashley clung to Julian tightly, not saying anything for a long time. Then, in a voice so low it could barely be heard, he breathed, “I don’t make promises.”

It had been over six months since Ashley had moved into the house. Winter was long gone now, and summer was just around the corner. Julian would never have dreamed his life could be this happy. He was almost frightened by it, this happiness. He cherished it, yet regarded it with a guarded suspicion, as well. Because Ashley had said “No promises,” and one day Julian would wake up and he would be gone. He knew it, yet as the days passed he believed it less and less.

Which was why, one morning in early June, Julian was shocked to find that Ashley was gone.

He didn’t know what it was that he had expected. That they would live together happily ever after, perhaps? That they would grow old together, him painting and Ashley taking care of the house, like a married couple? Julian almost laughed aloud.

But, damn it all, they loved each other, didn’t they? Hadn’t they told each other that? Didn’t that mean anything?

Ashley’s half of the bed was cold and empty. Julian wandered around the house aimlessly, too stunned to be devastated or angry. The hours were agonizingly slow, and by noon Julian had made up his mind to go outside. He told himself it was to get some fresh air.

Julian went to the grocery store, the post office, the shopping mall, and the park, at this point telling himself the exercise was good for him. It was late in the afternoon, and Julian was ready to go home.

The bridge.

He started off by walking, then broke into a run. Because he remembered, vividly, the night they had first met. He remembered how Ashley had been sitting there, leaning slightly forward. He remembered seeing that smile for the first time, the smile that seemed to be laughing at a secret joke. He remembered thinking, This boy is about to jump, and the relief he felt when instead the boy followed him home.

The bridge was in sight.

Please.

Before he was even halfway across it, he saw that Ashley was not there. But he ran to that spot anyway, stopping and leaning against the railing to catch his breath. His eyes were closed, and he wondered if he dared to open them and look down. But when he did he saw nothing, just the smooth, glassy surface of the river, moving steadily along its path.

The bridge was empty, the river was silent, and Ashley was gone.

Julian had never before felt lonely, had never truly grasped the concept of needing another person. But there was a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach, a sharp pain in his heart, and he felt tears well in his eyes. And he knew now that this was loneliness, this was love.

It was close to midnight. Julian was sitting on the living room couch, smoking a cigarette. Ashley had all but threatened him into quitting and thrown away every single one in the house. But now that he wasn’t here, it hardly seemed to matter whether he lit one up or not. Julian bought a couple packs on his way home from the bridge.

Suddenly, there was the sound of the front door being unlocked, then opened. Footsteps, a tired sigh, and a familiar voice…

“Julian, that better not be cigarette smoke that I’m smelling, or I’ll have to kick your ass,” Ashley called out from the hallway.

For a second, Julian wondered if he had really lost it and was starting to hear things. When Ashley walked into the room, he felt a brief moment of panic as the thought entered his mind that he was also starting to see things. But then Ashley wrinkled his face in distaste at the cigarette and swiftly snatched it out of Julian’s hand to stub it out, and proceeded to yell at him about lung disease and rat poison and yellow teeth, and Julian knew that no one in the world could imagine someone this perfect.

Without a word, Julian grabbed Ashley by the waist and hugged him tightly, his face buried in the boy’s stomach. Ashley was taken aback and, for once, didn’t know what to say. He gently placed his hands on Julian’s shoulder.

“Next time, leave a bloody note,” Julian managed to say, fighting back tears and losing.

Ashley ran a hand through Julian’s hair, his fingers idly freeing a tangle. “I’m sorry,” he finally whispered. He knelt down on the floor and tilted Julian’s face until they were eye to eye. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, and kissed Julian soundly, kissed him in earnest, as if trying to prove the sincerity of his apology. He eased the tense, guarded hurt carried behind Julian’s tightly pressed lips, soothing them until they were as soft and willing as his own.

Julian responded almost immediately, a soft moan escaping from his throat. God, it felt so good just to kiss him… He pulled Ashley closer, until the boy was trapped between his knees, his hands cupping the boy’s face as their kiss deepened. He grew painfully aware of how hard he was becoming, and it certainly didn’t help that Ashley’s body was pressed against it ever so slightly. As if reading his mind, Ashley smiled deviously into Julian’s mouth and pushed closer, stretching himself up a little to create just enough friction to drive him mad.

“You are perfectly evil, do you know that?” Julian said through grit teeth.

“Poor baby,” Ashley cooed. “Did you miss me that much?”

Before Julian could reply, Ashley slipped a hand between them and cupped his crotch, as casually as one would offer to shake hands, and suddenly Julian was in no condition to talk. Ashley took advantage of his inability to protest and started to unzip his jeans.

“Wait…” Julian managed to gasp.

Ashley didn’t wait. He pulled and tugged at Julian’s cock mercilessly until it was completely exposed, pausing only to push down the jeans and boxers until they were out of his way. With deft fingers, he stroked the hardening shaft, bending down to kiss the swollen head. Julian choked out a cry and buried his hands in Ashley’s hair, giving up trying to object. Encouraged by Julian’s reaction, Ashley grew bolder. He ran his tongue along Julian’s straining length, from base to tip, then down again. Slowly, languidly he lapped at Julian’s cock, now and again sucking parts of the skin, his mouth making indecent wet noises, but teasingly avoiding the head.

Julian growled, biting his lip to keep from begging. But his body was screaming for it. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself from tilting his hips forward, from making little thrusts. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears, his breath coming in quick, frantic gasps.

Without warning, Ashley took Julian into his mouth almost completely, sucked hard for an instant, then deliberately, torturously raised his head until only the tip remained inside. He swirled his tongue across it, flicked it, probed it, nibbled it, and finally sucked on it for all he was worth until Julian really felt he couldn’t take it anymore and screamed, “Stop, oh, fuck, stop…!”

Ashley didn’t stop. He all but swallowed Julian whole, sucking and tonguing the hot flesh relentlessly. Julian swore as he tilted his head back and came, his entire body shaking and twitching as he thrust uncontrollably into Ashley’s mouth, his hands gripping the boy’s hair tightly. Julian felt the world go white for a moment that stretched forever, but not long enough. When his orgasm subsided, Ashley slowly lifted his head and looked up at Julian with questioning eyes. There was a loud gulp as Ashley swallowed, without a hint of distaste or shame. Julian couldn’t suppress another shudder.

“You… are going to be the end of me,” Julian whispered, after he figured out how to talk again.

“There are worse ways to go,” Ashley mused, kissing Julian’s tortured cock lightly.

Julian leaned forward and kissed him deeply, tasting his own semen on the boy’s lips.

“You should have stopped when I asked you to,” he murmured. “You still haven’t–”

“No, it’s okay, Julian,” Ashley said quickly. “I don’t have to. I’m fine like this.”

“Like hell you–”

“Julian, please…” Ashley said softly. “I’m okay, I swear it. I wanted to do this for you. And besides, you’re tired, aren’t you? Were you out looking for me? I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Julian said slowly. Ashley had again changed the subject smoothly, sidestepping Julian’s protests with practiced skill.

What’s wrong? What are you hiding?

The questions died, unasked, in Julian’s throat.

The next morning, Julian woke up with a start. For a few seconds, he felt an inexplicable sense of fear, almost panic. Then he felt a soft movement beside him and he rolled over to find himself next to Ashley, curled up in his bed. The fear went away as suddenly as it came, and for a long time he lay still, perfectly happy to just watch the boy’s sleeping face. When Ashley finally opened his eyes slowly, he whispered, “Good morning.”

“Morning,” Ashley replied, yawning.

“Are you hungry?”

“Famished.”

“I’ll make breakfast.”

“I don’t know if I’m that hungry…” Ashley teased, then squealed and ducked under the covers as Julian lunged at him. He screamed with mock terror and delight as Julian tickled him mercilessly, adding a noogie for good measure. “I take it back! I take it back!” he gasped, laughing uncontrollably.

“Let that be a lesson to you,” Julian said sternly.

Half an hour later, Julian had managed to burn the toast, ruin the eggs, and destroy the bacon. None of the foods looked the way they were supposed to (the bacon, for example, looked more like a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong), and the kitchen had quickly turned into a mess.

“Well… There’s always cereal,” Ashley said helpfully as they made their way to the table. Julian dutifully ignored him.

Ashley unexpectedly hugged Julian from behind, sneaking his arms around the other’s waist and resting his head against his back.

“I love you,” the boy said softly.

Julian felt a warm glow in his heart. “I love you, too.”

There was a pause, then: “Julian… I’m dying.”

“Look, I know you’re hungry, but there’s no need for dramatics–”

“No, I mean… I’m really dying, Julian,” Ashley said quietly.

Julian felt the dread and panic from that morning return, but this time it didn’t go away. He quickly turned around and grabbed Ashley’s arms, looking hard into the boy’s face for any hint, any sign that this was all just a joke. But he saw only tears and – more frightening than anything else – a quiet resignation.

“What…?” Julian whispered, his heart sinking.

“I was at the hospital yesterday, and… Well, long story short, I have cancer, Julian. And it’s not going to get better,” Ashley said gently.

“No,” Julian said, shaking his head. “No! That’s complete bollocks! How can you say that? You can get treatment for cancer, there’s all kinds of things you can do!”

“It’s too late, Julian. And there is no cure,” Ashley said firmly. “I don’t want to waste people’s energy and money just extending the inevitable. Especially not yours.”

“That’s bullshit!” Julian yelled. “Do you think I care about my fucking money?”

“It’s not that, Julian, please, just listen…”

“I’m not going to let you die!” Julian cried, hugging Ashley tightly, fiercely. “Please… This can’t be it, Ash, it just can’t…!”

“Julian, I have colon cancer. Apparently I’ve had it for some time, since it’s spread to my liver and lungs as well. According to the doctor, I have a seven percent chance of surviving the next two years.” Ashley was talking slowly, calmly, his hands rubbing small circles on Julian’s back.

“No, no,” Julian kept denying, refusing to believe that this was happening, that this was real. He held Ashley tighter, his eyes squeezed shut, telling himself that this was a dream, and if he could just concentrate hard enough, he’d wake up and this would all be a vague memory.

“I went to the hospital because I haven’t been feeling very well lately,” Ashley went on, ignoring Julian’s desperate no’s. “I’ve been feeling tired and losing weight these days, which I’m sure you’ve noticed a little. I’ve also been throwing up and shitting blood, which I hope for your sake you haven’t noticed. They asked to do a biopsy, which was why I took so long.”

Julian felt irrationally angry. “Dammit, Ashley, why are you acting like it’s already finished? You’re not dead yet, and you’re not going to be! How can you give up so easily?”

“Because it’s no use, Julian. Chemotherapy, radical bowel resection, immunotherapy… I discussed them all, but none of them are going to work,” Ashley said insistently.

“I can’t accept that.”

“It’s not up to you to accept.”

“But why won’t you even try?” Julian pleaded, despair creeping up on him.

“Because I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” Ashley said simply. “And even if it’s short, I want it to be spent like before… Just you and me, in this house, and the world passing us by outside.”

“I don’t want to lose you,” Julian choked, a sob rising in his throat.

“Then let me stay here,” Ashley whispered.

The next few months brought the most memorable summer of Julian’s life.

It was hard, at first. Julian couldn’t bring himself to simply accept Ashley’s fate as easily as he did. But the boy was adamant, and would not be budged. He didn’t want to fight it, and that was that. Eventually, Julian realized, just as Ashley did, that there was no way of changing the inevitable. Ashley would die. One way or another, Cancer was going to win. They could fight it, and maybe even win a year or two. But they would be pain-filled years, full of surgeries and doctors and hospital stays.

And Ashley wouldn’t be happy.

He would be alive, yes… But he wouldn’t be happy.

That, in the end, was what made Julian accept the boy’s decision.

As the weeks went by – too fast, all too fast – Ashley’s condition grew worse and worse. He hid it well, and handled everything in good humor, but the pain was becoming unbearable. By late July, he had been prescribed enough painkillers to fell a horse. He was also offered marijuana, for medical purposes, which he thoroughly took advantage of. Now and again he would share a joint or two with Julian, who would always think of a “medical purpose” in urgent need of it.

Their days were bittersweet. They were happy, in their own way. The two were assured of their love for one another, and their lives had become a shared secret, held within the walls of the house that had become their world. Julian would later look back on those days as being full of warmth and sunlight, of gentle laughter and perfect peace.

In August, Julian began painting what was to be his last portrait of Ashley. He painted it lovingly, carefully, placing each brushstroke almost painstakingly. Ashley sat by the window, reading various novels to pass the time, looking up now and again to smile at the man he loved. Each time Julian met the boy’s eyes, he would feel an overwhelming urge to weep for joy, for sadness, or just for the sheer satisfaction of weeping until there is not a tear left in you. But he would just smile back and continue painting.

The day Ashley died, summer died with him.

The sky was gray and somber, the sun hidden behind thick clouds. Julian lay next to the boy’s still body for hours, crying more than he had ever before in his life – he would never cry like that again – crying as he held the boy’s cold hand and said good-bye.

It was nearly six months later when Julian found the letter.

Ashley had slipped it behind the portrait of himself, sticking a corner of the folded paper in a little pocket made by the canvas and the frame. Julian might have never have found it, had he not decided to burn it, along with all the others. The letter slipped out as he picked up the painting, his mind made up to see it destroyed.

He opened it slowly, Ashley’s neat cursive writing greeting him.

 


You told me to leave a note the next time I left, so here you go, darling.

I made you promise once to never show the paintings you did of me. Well, I take it back. Kind of. I want you to show this one. Just this one, though, okay? Because it was our last one, and because I think it’s your best, if I do say so myself. All the other ones I want you to keep to remember me by.

I wanted to thank you for everything. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have died that night. In fact, I had been planning to. Luckily for me I was too scared to take the plunge. It’s funny – I waited my whole life to die that day, but when the moment came for me to do it, I didn’t want to all of a sudden. Maybe, deep down, I had been waiting all along for you. (Sorry for being so cliché, I guess I’ll always be a romantic at heart.)

You know what’s funny? I don’t think I ever really lived until I started dying. So, in a way, I’m glad it happened. I’m glad it ended this way.

I want you to promise me to move on, okay? Don’t forget me (I’ll never forgive you!), but please move on. You’d also better start learning how to take care of the house from now on. Honestly, I’m worried you’ll starve to death, or get crushed under a pile of dirty laundry, or suffer some other hideous fate as a result of your own negligence.

I also want you to promise me you’ll find someone else to love. We’re not meant to be alone. I realized that, when I was with you.

Hmm, I seem to be demanding a lot of promises from you, aren’t I? I suppose it’s only fair I make one, too. I know I said I never make promises, but that’s only because I could never think of one I was sure I’d be able to keep.

But I promise you this, Julian: I never knew love until I met you.

– Ashley.

 

Julian read the letter again, his tears blurring the words and smearing the ink in places. He wiped his eyes, placed the painting back on its easel, and thought, maybe he wouldn’t burn it after all.

===

あとがき / Author’s Notes
If you are reading this, thank you for sitting through all of that, I know this is a lot longer than most x_x; *unable to write short stories, apparently* (In my defense, though, this is over 1,000 words shorter than the other one!) This is the prequel to The Spell, which was in October’s issue of Shousetsu Bang*Bang. It didn’t turn out quite the way I’d have liked, but then again nothing I write ever does ^^; I know there are a few things that might seem a bit off, but I promise you there are no plot holes or impossible events! (I did my research XD) I left some things out in the interests of length.

The point of this atogaki is to include the following timeline. If you are one of the five people who, like me, are always frustrated by stories that jump around in time and would like to know just what happened when and with who, then this is for you. If, however, you’re not super-dorky and anal like us, you can just ignore this ^^;

Timeline
2003
January : Julian moves to the States
November : Start of Julian and Ashley’s story
2004
September : End of Julian and Ashley’s story
2005
February : Julian finds Ashley’s letter
March : Portrait of Ashley is exhibited; Alex sees painting
August : Start of Alex and Julian’s story
October : End of Alex and Julian’s story

That’s all, folks! Thanks again, I hope you enjoyed reading these~

♥ Shuua

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