Slow World In A Universe Too Fast

by Tsubaki (鍔き)
illustrated by The Winter Cynic

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/116214.html)

It’s with a smile and a tone of matter-of-fact fondness that friends say Emil and Ryan may as well have been made for each other.

The slightly cliché Golden Couple, completely adorable, eternally well-coordinated, thoughtful and romantic, involved with each other to a degree most people envy and are amazed by in turn… if not occasionally disgusted. Doesn’t familiarity breed complacency? It appears not. They have a way of cohabiting it shouldn’t have taken just a year to perfect.

Their rhythm is set in the way Emil wakes up first in the morning, energetic and enthusiastic for the day. He rolls over and ambushes Ryan, pulls the sleepy grouch into his arms and plants a multitude of noisy kisses in between singing (very off-key) and chuckling at the lame attempts to dislodge his hold until Ryan finally gets a grasp of a pillow and whacks him with it. Laughing, Emil heads to the kitchen to fill the electric water kettle and set it to boiling on its stand before heading into the shower for a quick wash.

It’s Ryan who stumbles in two minutes later not quite coherent, the sharp beep of the fancy appliance bringing him to the counter to sleepily set out the mugs and pot and make the tea, mugs cooling on the table while he wakes up enough. He doesn’t have morning showers because he had one last night just before bed and Emil sometimes mourns this because they’re not in the habit of having showers together outside of the weekend. He sits at the table knuckling his eyes and yawning, long hair in splendid disarray and defying gravity, the tea cooling just in time for when Emil comes to join him. Sometimes Emil isn’t done drying his hair and he’ll shake it at Ryan, getting droplets all over them both, eliciting a half-shout of irritation if not an outright tackle.

If Ryan weren’t awake by then, he is after that.

They curl up in the large dining table seats, large because they’re both usually too animated to plant themselves safely in regular sized chairs. Feet are propped in each other’s chairs or laps, making their tea together and stealing the spoon back and forth because laziness has translated into only bringing one out with the pot, which is fine, Emil says, because it makes Ryan smile that morning smile –fond and full of mildly irritated affection.

It’s been a new development from just a few months ago, when Ryan comes home late and wakes up less coherent, that Emil likes to take one of the cappuccino cups they got for some Christmas or other and make only one huge cup of tea. They take it the same way anyway.

Emil has gotten remarkably clingy this past year, Ryan grumbles sometimes. Only sometimes because it’s not that Ryan minds; it gives him fodder to tease his lover some more.

Much like in the way Emil makes toast and brings out the little tray of jams and spreads to go with it then whines and steals a kiss because Ryan always makes his buttered toast with Marmite which Emil hates. Ryan only rarely admits he loves this part aside from the teasing; there’s usually a morning make out session before the Marmite chases away the taste of Emil’s kisses.

They dress together, easily exchanging casual touches likely neither notices anymore because it’s been so long part of their routine that there’s nothing to think about. There are days Emil teases Ryan for being a bit of a Suit, making remarks as he picks out a tie for Ryan to wear –almost always something he’s given as a gift.

Emil walks with Ryan to the tube station, walking his fancy lightweight road bike with one hand, and in an alley by the subway they kiss goodbye. Emil will arrive at his studio a full fifteen minutes before Ryan gets to his even if Ryan’s office is technically closer, because London morning rush hour is absolute rubbish, carriages packed in with people like sardines are stuffed in a can. Emil sometimes tries to convince Ryan to get a bicycle too, but Emil would buy them a tandem if he could have his way and Ryan has vowed never to cycle in London –it’s just not his thing and the idea he can’t get out of the way of bigger vehicles should he need to just doesn’t sit well with him. London roads are too small, anyway, and he wouldn’t drive because of the traffic and why clog them up with more vehicles?

The taste of toothpaste and Emil’s goodbye kiss keeps Ryan sane enough for the trip in to work –the people traffic would be unbearable otherwise. And from there, it’s the love of his job that keeps him going. He’s a graphic artist for a corporate advertising firm. He secretly enjoys the minor work, the setting font types for the company names, designing brand labels, preparing palettes of colours and educating company representatives on what the colours subliminally suggest as proven by clinical study. He’s a businessman playing with art and visuals, and he loves it. His most favourite material to play with, however, will always be Emil’s photographs.

And that’s what Emil is, a photographer. Ryan refers work for photo shoots his clients are planning to Emil’s company, mentioning that he’s recommending Emil not just because they’re partners but because he knows Emil’s work is good.

Ryan has Emil’s work on his office walls and it’s only when a client comments on them that he even mentions Emil at all. It’s a stipulation his department manager made with him, so he doesn’t just go promoting Emil unnecessarily. It’s not cheating that he’s put some of Emil’s most personal and passionate work on his office walls, is it?

Besides, he likes to take his lunch sitting in his office couch, staring up at the captions of sharply-focused focal points in backgrounds of blurry cities, the emotions on random people’s faces, the movement and energy in the photos. They inspire him.

He knows Emil often looks at his work, too, the ones that he does on his off time, the combinations of material, of freehand and scans, into warped illustrations. One of Emil’s favourites is a piece he’s filched from Ryan’s studio, fascination by the hands that frame a screaming girl’s face, her forehead melting upward into buildings, her hair an earthen red before it becomes the green of the grass then melts away into the brown of the ground that is really the silk of her dress, and that silk melts away to her feet that are actually roots. While all around her is the chaos of London, the rubbish, the bar fights, the filth and grime and ineffective living.

It is innocence and loss of it, chaos that is life and suggestive of hope if only you know where to look for it and yet it’s also emphatic the search isn’t going to be easy at all. It’s something else, Ryan thinks, because he treated the image a lot with colours, making it almost painful to look at with its texture and contrast.

Emil loves it and it hangs on his office wall. They find it funny when one of Ryan’s clients (obviously having noticed Emil’s work to be redirected there) then comments on Ryan’s art.

After three years living together, they’ve found lots of little things to be amuse with. They take their lunches at almost the same time everyday, somewhere between one and half-one, so they can chat over the phone and let one another know how the morning has passed. This happens at least twice a week; they’re dedicated to their work and they have each other to come home to, though lately Emil’s been pushing for at least three times a week, really, the over-romantic sod.

Ryan teases his partner about that. And also about the way everyday at three o’clock, despite being only precisely half-English, Emil will have a cup of Ceylon tea. Some internal part of him needs to get away from the demands of commerciality and he goes to sit in one of the studios, sipping his drink as he watches whatever photo shoot is going on.

But then his afternoons, when the light isn’t so good for shooting anymore and there aren’t any coming up, are filled with ironing out composites and working on images with Photoshop and other such software. Emil loves this part when he gets to bring his visions to life. Ryan’s watched him spend hours on photos, taking up to seven images taken only slightly differently or split seconds after each other and turning them into amazing works. Emil looks impatient as he does this, focused and eager. So much so that most staff steer clear thinking he’s in an afternoon temper –which is fantastic because he gets a lot of work down without being disturbed.

Ryan almost gave the secret away at the last company Away Day he attended but Emil slapped a hand over his mouth just in time.

When the working day is over, they go to the gym together because neither can escape the other, each familiar with the other’s workout routine and recent slacking, the best and worst gym buddy to have. They favour the blue label Fitness First near their home, both rushing through the door at home with hello kisses and grabbing their gym bags from the laundry room to make it in before the after-work rush really sets in. Though why they still bother he doesn’t know, Ryan whines, when they tease and laugh at each other enough for an abdominal work out all on its own.

On the way home, they pass a Co-operative Food grocery shop and buy ingredients for dinner unless they already have them. And at home, sweaty and drying up a stink, they cook and eat together, radio on, chatting about their day, sharing humours anecdotes and teasing one another. The early evening post-dinner shared-shower frisky business is certainly a sweet topping to their settled domesticity any heterosexual couple out there might envy themselves green over.

They live together, obviously, have for the past three years. It’d been a huge step to purchase a house together but neither wanted to pay rent down into the black hole of someone else’s mortgage so they did this instead. It covered up, at the time, the need to hang on to each other but now they’re wise to each other’s ways. The house isn’t a house anymore, after all that, it’s a home and decorated with all the things they each like best, including a hallway filled with mismatching frames of fifty-something photographs that somehow, someway, are all the milestones of their life together.

Ryan thinks he is content. He has believed himself more content these past three years than he ever has been in his entire life and ever expected to be.

So there’s a distinct necessity to be more than a little wary when he bumps up against a tall gentleman on the train on his way to work because he gets that curl of heat in his lower stomach, a reaction rising fast a little further south of that, throat suddenly dry as he tries to move away without looking up.

He knows it’s that Suit Guy he sees sometimes on his way to work, usually on the same carriage, all fancy silk ties and sharp-cut suits Ryan recognises from the Armani catalogue he buys from only once a year. Today he now knows the man hasn’t just got honey blond hair or blue-green eyes but that, apparently, he works out and has a nicely firm chest. They’ve met eyes a few times, noticed each other as they have both probably noticed a few others who commute the same time every morning –exchanged nods but never spoken. It’s sort of normal to acknowledge people you don’t know the name of if you meet eyes enough times and have something in common, right before asking how the weather is and introducing yourself.

At least, that’s the way Ryan was raised so he has to be thankful they’ve never gotten to the part of actually exchanging words or there would be a serious problem.

He firmly tells himself there is no good in getting to know this man who is the complete opposite to him and Emil; too attractive, too tall and smelling very nice. Ryan thinks that maybe he understands it now when people say, ‘I’ve met someone’ with that tone of shock, disbelief and measure of quiet excitement.

He wonders if it’s supposed to come with this touch of nausea.

“How was your day, dear?” Emil teases, nudging Ryan playfully aside to beat him through the door.

Ryan pushes back only half-heartedly, too busy rolling his eyes because Emil makes this joke at least once a week. “Perfect, darling,” he faux dramatically replies, shutting the door and not thinking about Suit Guy on the train this morning. Simpering, he asks, “And how was yours?”

Emil swallows a laugh and deliberately goes all poof-like, flapping a suddenly limp wrist and jutting his hip out at a ridiculous angle, “Oh,” he half-squeals, “It was fabulous!

Ryan grins and shudders, humorously but semi-seriously unable to stand the visage of his gay boyfriend being extremely…well… gay. The stupidity of the contradiction isn’t lost on either of them.

Particularly on Emil, who breaks character to cling to the wall lest he crumple to the floor with his laughter, “Oh,” he gasps, “The look on your face…”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ryan grumbles, heading for the laundry room to fetch his gym clothes and bag, grabbing four bottles of Lucozade Sport for them. He hands Emil’s clothes over, sifts about for his own and right there begins to undress, ditching his clothes as he sheds them into the hampers they should go to; shirt in the whites, suit on a hanger for dry-cleaning, dress socks with the colours—

Emil grabs him, pressing close, half-clothed and obviously very interested in the way Ryan’s been disrobing if that hardness nestled into Ryan’s underwear clad ass is any indication. A touch of guilt colours Ryan’s arousal and he tenses a moment before he relaxes because it’s Emil for goodness’ sake.

Emil, who’s still gentle, pressing right up into Ryan, breathing deeply and caressing the tip of his nose over Ryan’s shoulder up along smooth skin over the neck and along the hairline to that little spot behind Ryan’s ear –which he licks.

“Hmm,” he hums, licking his lips, “You smell so good.” And his hands slide around Ryan’s waist, one down his hips, thumb pressing inside Ryan’s hip bones, the other one skimming up over his stomach to a pectoral and pressing against where Ryan’s heart has begun to thump a little more heavily. “Makes me want to stay home and have a different kind of workout.”

That awful little guilt rises again, the mention of smelling good bringing it right out, and Ryan tries to shake it away. He complies with instinct and what he wants, arching back, pressing closer. When he peeks over his shoulder, Emil’s green eyes may as well be flames for the heat in them.

Emil catches the want in Ryan’s eyes, growls and pushes so that Ryan is shoved forward and over the washing machine, cushioned by a few clean folded towels left on top, thrusting his hips forward so Ryan can feel just how turned on he is. And since Ryan’s bared for him already, he bends, nips at the skin of Ryan’s neck, bites his shoulder hard enough to make Ryan arch and gasp, and leave a mark. He licks paths between Ryan’s shoulder blades, back and forth until he starts working down the hollow of Ryan’s spine, detouring occasionally to nip at misbehaving muscles jumping in reaction. He takes a bite out of a hip, hands smoothing into Ryan’s underwear and slipping it down, then snatches another nip at one of Ryan’s ass-cheeks when he gets there, fingers tight around Ryan’s thighs.

When Emil’s had a few mouthfuls, he pushes hard, shoves Emil completely over enough to reach between Ryan’s ass.

It’s when Emil swipes his tongue over Ryan’s balls that Ryan finally gives in and lets out a low moan, already hard, attention all on his lover and that blasted guilt finally melting away. His thoughts are filled only with Emil and that tongue right there

Minutes later with Emil hard and wet pressed into the tight space between his legs, a hand reached around him and jerking him off, he feels Emil’s hand close on his hip, fingers pressing into the hollow right on the tattoo there, the blue Celtic knot symbolising their partnership. It’s a possessive gesture, hot and passionate and very familiar, and it prompts a flash of coiling fire and Ryan arches his back, surrendering to the pleasure, groaning deeply in satisfaction as he releases.

He chokes on a groan of mad frustration when he sees, in flashes behind his eyelids, not Emil’s bright blue eyes and mischievous smile but the pale green and naughty curve of someone else.

“Where are you?” Emil asks, almost shouting because it’s noisy wherever he is. He left on Friday for a business meeting out of the city.

Ryan’s too busy rolling over in bed and waking up to wonder why that question shouldn’t merit a sarcastic reply. It’s Saturday. He’s where he always is on a Saturday morning –sleeping on his home studio couch.

“Hn?” he mumbles irritably. But that’s before he spots the tablet on his bedside table where he knows, if he powers it up, he’ll find a minimised free-hand drawing program and a sketch of Suit Guy in fine detail. Careless. Anyone could walk in and peek—

Emil’s not here.

Emil, Ryan remembers suddenly as he comes more awake, has been gone two nights, which is why he’s been in here since Thursday night. The bed is too empty when there’s just him in it. Okay then. Safe.

Ryan’s reaching to push the tablet away when he sees an overnight bag by the door. “Wait… Emil, what’s…?”

“I’m at Paddington station,” Emil says loudly over the din in the background, patient because he realises he’s woken Ryan and Ryan is never sharp first thing upon waking. “You were going to meet me here for the train out to Kent to see my sister. Babe? Do you remember? I know you were busy the night before last when I reminded you. But I did mention you should spend Friday night in bed so you don’t miss your alarm ringing.” There’s an awkward pause, “Ryan? Surely you didn’t forget?”

“Um.”

If he’s less than honest with himself, it was so he could exorcise his feelings for the blasted stranger… it’s not just that he drew Suit Guy because Emil wouldn’t be here to see it and ask about it. It’s not that he went to work on Friday, finding his way around the absence of his partner with more ease than he thought, and let his eyes linger a little longer on the handsome stranger.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan murmurs, conflicted. He should have been packing up the things he’s supposed to bring to Paddington station this morning they had planned to bring to Emil’s sister, Kelly. He’s supposed to meet Emil’s train arriving from his business trip so they can board their own to head out to Kent for their visit.

He’s still on the couch.

“It’s okay. Ryan,” comes Emil’s voice, a little amused, a little exasperated. “I’ll head out on the train. Print another ticket from the online account and follow when you wake up, okay? I don’t want to miss the lunch we planned with her and I haven’t seen her in ages.”

“No, that’s fine!” Ryan blurts out, sitting up, guilty about not feeling guilty. “You go ahead, that’s alright. Shit. I’m sorry, Emil. I’ll follow right away.”

“It’s okay, babe,” Emil breathes, background noise dying, perhaps as he boards the train. “I’ll see you in a few hours. I love you.”

“I love you,” Ryan replies easily. It’s so easy.

“Who’s that?” Amy asks curiously, too bright and cheerful for a Monday morning.

Ryan’s guilty, very guilty, as he closes the freehand program without saving it.

“Oh!” she cries in dismay, glancing worriedly at him. “That was a great drawing! The effect with the blurry background on the train made the sharpness of your subject stand out— who was that guy?”

“No one,” he answers stiffly. But then he realises he should have kept his mouth shut because for all that Amy is a bit ditzy, she’s been working with him for over four years and knows him a little too well.

“Hm.” She gives him a hard look, that ‘I know you are not telling me everything’ look and then leans in closer. “You like him.”

“He’s just someone I see in the mornings into work,” Ryan protests. “He’s no one.”

“Uh huh.” Amy wrinkles her nose at him and continued to stare hard. “You noticed an awful lot of details about him for some random guy. How often have you seen him?”

Ryan’s knows the game was up before it could even begin. He has no hope; he’s a terrible liar. “…every morning.”

There’s a long pause before Amy finally asks, “You look at this guy every morning?”

Forget lying. “Yes.”

“You’re in deep shit,” she mutters to him, suddenly spinning away and marching off.

Ryan dreaded hearing that –because he’s already said it to himself.

The words dog him all day until it’s already time to go home but then he remembers as he just makes it home as Emil is hauling his bike up their front steps, it’s a gym night. Emil flashes him a big smile, just unlocking the front door and knocking it open with his front wheel, pulling back to let Ryan pass. Ryan holds the door open, of course, lets Emil wheel the lightweight bike into the hallways and to the lift, leaning over it for a quick, hard kiss hello.

“Hi, handsome,” Emil grins, the expression faltering a bit at the solemnity on Ryan’s face. “Bad day?”

“You have no idea,” Ryan sighs. But he leans in again, kisses Emil quick and hot, searching and losing himself. He doesn’t want to wonder if kissing Suit Guy feels anything as electric as this, this low hum in his belly. But it’s an inevitable thought because he already gets the low hum in his belly just standing near the guy.

He pulls away with reluctance and regret. It’s practically sacrilege to kiss Emil while thinking of someone else; there’s too much respect between them to do that. He feels like an idiot.

“Whoa,” Emil breathes, “Really bad day.” The lift doors open and he wheels the bike out, Ryan stepping forward to unlock their flat door. He hangs up his bicycle on the rack in the foyer, Ryan dumping his things and heading for the laundry room to gather their clothes.

Ryan changes quickly, before Emil can join him and catch him undressed, gathering his shoes and socks to put on in the kitchen, passing Emil as Emil goes for his own bag. He’s quiet as he ties his laces, thoughtful as he stands up, inattentive as he turns and runs into Emil.

“You okay, babe?” Emil murmurs quietly, moving in close but not too close as to cage Ryan in. He’s careful like that.

“I’m… fine,” Ryan mutters back, grateful for the space. “Just… distracted, okay?” He doesn’t even try to smile, knows Emil will see it for the grimace it is. But he does concentrate on Emil’s concerned expression and, appreciative of the concern, leans in and plants a quick, thankful kiss on Emil’s cheek. It’s a lingering kiss, Ryan pausing to nose Emil’s jaw and breathe in the familiar scent of his boyfriend.

Partner.

His partner, he berates himself as he moves away to get the rest of his gear together. When did Emil get demoted? He’s angry with himself. It’s his own fault for thinking this is anything other than the commitment it is, as though there’s a possibility that he can walk away from this. Of course there isn’t! That’s what’s got him twisted up, the thinking he has any chance at all to try something with that—

Shut up. Shutupshutupshutup!

He wants to groan aloud at the realisation that reasoning Suit Guy out of his life only makes him want the stranger more.

“Hi,” says Suit Guy.

Ryan wishes he could ignore the man. He politely inclines his head and looks away as he answers, “Hi.”

“You can’t ignore me, you know,” the stranger says. “I know you’ve watched me.” Ryan’s a bit scandalised despite the quiet tone, glancing about to check if anyone’s listening. It’s noticed, elicits a slight frown. “Oh, are you still in the closet or something?”

“Huh?” Ryan glances back up, confused because that is to the last thing he ever expected to hear.

That’s noticed as well, if the small repentant smile is anything to go by. “Or I’m wrong.”

“Yes, you’re wrong,” Ryan snaps, again glancing about to catch if anyone’s listening. No one cares one whit. He turns back and glares at the stranger for being the subject of his thoughts all damn week and for daring to speak to him now. “Go away.”

Pale blond eyebrows arch, “Hm. Hostile. I wonder why.” He leans in closer, “Particularly since you were undressing me with your eyes last Friday.”

“I have a partner,” Ryan hisses with finality, turning his back.

A mistake. The stranger steps in, slots himself into a tight fit against Ryan’s back and ass, pressing close so Ryan can feel how well they fit together. He’s six-foot tall too, Ryan thinks dizzily, because that’s Emil’s height and they fit together just as snugly, just as right, in this way that makes him want to groan. Fuck!

“Let’s try this again,” murmurs the low voice in his ear. “My name is Alan. Alan Fitzpatrick.” A hand slides around Ryan’s side to his pocket, slipping something into it. “There’s my card. Call me.”

Ryan furiously angles his head over his shoulder, instantly too aware of the way their faces are now very close together and hisses, “I’m not going to call you.”

“Of course not,” Alan breathes, nosing familiarly at Ryan’s ear, instantly finding that sensitive spot behind his ear, pressing his hips into Ryan’s rear to the rhythm of the swaying train.

The thin fabric of Ryan’s summer suit doesn’t provide any kind of protection from the heat of that arousal and he bites his lip to contain a moan.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Alan says, voice a little husky because he’s noticed he’s hit jackpot. Then the train grinds to a halt, his weight pressing up a bit harder for a long, extended moment.

Ryan does not pause in that moment, where he’s standing with Alan practically draped over him, while the train doors are sliding open. He dashed immediately off, he did. Or scurried, really, but he’s not admitting that either.

“—so she said that maybe I ought to lay off you a little,” Emil was saying.

Ryan smiles in acknowledgement, knows only that it’s something about a conversation Emil had with his sister over the weekend before he arrived to join them in the early afternoon. It’s Thursday already but he can’t forget that Tuesday exchange of words with Alan, he’s still hyper aware of the pristine little business card in his jacket.

“I told her you get like that sometimes when I’m not there with you, squirreling yourself away in your studio,” Emil smiled softly, spooning up more of his Butternut and squash soup. He reaches for his garlic bread, “I know what it’s like to get into that huge bed alone, you know?”

“Yes,” Ryan breathes, assaulted by unbidden images of climbing into the bed with someone else. “Too empty.”

“I feel like that,” Emil says quietly, eyes on his lunch, “When you’re not there.”

“We’re too used to each other.” Ryan’s sure he hadn’t meant to say it quite like that. “I mean, it’s hard to be apart after being together so long, right?”

“Yeah.” Emil’s still looking at his food.

Ryan’s a bit grateful. He’s not sure he can hide his thoughts too well, not from Emil. He spoons up more of his food, even if he’s not that hungry, because it keeps his hands occupied and his eyes lowered.

“Hey, babe,” Emil asks softly, “Is something the matter?”

And Ryan half smiles, feeling wretched, when he says, “No. Nothing at all.”

He can’t say he’s a bit frustrated Alan didn’t answer his call. He tried today, this morning, when he didn’t see Alan on the train as he was coming in to work. It was only two rings, enough to make his heart thump in his throat and his cock harden, but he’d called then cut the line. It’s exciting and shaking.

He hates it.

Hates it just as much as the knowledge this is the first time in three years that he’s told an outright lie to his partner.

After lunch, he walks back to his office and gets back to work. There are scenarios burning in his mind and he can’t help but think of fantasies he hasn’t fulfilled, excitement at the newness of a first-time lover, and the rush of new discoveries, new touches… and the hard, pounding rhythm he hasn’t had in a while now since Emil’s been too in love with him to fuck his brains out.

The beep of a phone message startles him.

Starbucks on Tavistock Square. 6pm. I’ll wait until 7.

Ryan re-reads the message six times. The number is saved as Alan’s and he gets self-conscious enough staring at that name and message that he puts the phone back in his pocket. He turns the words over in his head. How does Alan know it’s him? Is it some kind of game he always plays? There could be other interesting play things. Other encounters, other people Alan has given his card to, does it not matter who he is?

Ryan seethes a little. But the knowledge that Alan seems to know, and even if he doesn’t there’s a sense of anonymous adventure to the text message, tingles his senses. It weaves a hypnotic spell and Ryan’s not sure if that’s excitement or fear or even anger making his heart beat that hard and that fast in his chest.

He pulls his phone back out and quickly types out, Heading home later but in time to make dinner. Gym without me?

Moments later a beep; it’s from Emil: Ok. Yes to gym. I need a run.

His partner is probably not having a good day, Ryan thinks. That’s usually the only time he voluntarily runs else Ryan has to pull him onto a treadmill amidst loud protests. He’d think about that except he’s re-reading that other text message…

“Hello,” Alan drawls.

He drawls it; there’s no other way to describe that bedroom voice, pitched just right to sink down to Ryan’s lower stomach and into a tight coil. Damn but Alan looks good sans suit and now in what looks like work-out wear: a pair of black sport trousers and matching black and gray shirt, and even his shoes match the colour scheme; all by Adidas. The sunlight from the nearby window is beaming right down on his blond hair, bringing out his ivy-green eyes –a contrast to Emil’s mocha brown hair and sky blue eyes.

…thinking of Emil makes Ryan’s heart squeeze and he wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake.

But then he thinks, he is here anyway so he may as well, right?

Right.

Sort of.

“Sit down,” Alan gently suggests, tone low.

Ryan sits. He can’t help it when someone takes control –it’s attractive. He idly wonders if Alan is as commanding in bed and that makes him give a small shudder.

“You don’t even have to tell me your full name,” Alan says reassuringly, as though sensing his apprehension and conflict. “Just sit and have a drink with me.” Ryan nods. “What do you want? I’ll get it for you. You look like you need a few minutes to breathe.”

“Mocha,” Ryan says quietly. Alan flashes him a quick smile and hops up to go get it, leaving him a few minutes to regroup.

Deep breaths. He turns to peek, spots Alan’s tight ass waiting at the counter and his mouth goes dry. Repeated swallowing hasn’t remedied that even by the time Alan returns.

“So,” bright smile, “I’m glad you’re here.” Ryan has no idea what to say; he’s not certain he’s feeling so positive and saying anything else would be rude. “Don’t worry,” Alan smiles again, “I get that you’re conflicted, I came on to you pretty strong, didn’t I?” The smile widens into a grin, “It’s just that you’re one of the most gorgeous things I have ever seen. Can’t fault a man for giving in to weakness, can you?”

Ryan finds Alan’s beseeching look a little endearing. Maybe the speech is a bit smarmy and thick in the praise but it’s good humour so he smiles tentatively back. “No, of course not.”

“Good!” Alan remains grinning and takes a sip of his coffee. “So maybe for now, just think of this as the Getting To Know stage, yeah? Hell, I haven’t even asked you out on a date yet.” Ryan tenses but Alan catches it. “Look,” he holds up both hands, palms to Ryan in surrender, “I’m just saying we should meet and be friends, have coffee and get to know each other. Whatever you’re comfortable with, okay?”

“Okay,” Ryan says, and takes a bit of his drink.

Alan gives him an upward nod, “What do you do?”

“Graphic art, e-media.” This part is easy, Ryan thinks. It’s almost like getting to know a new friend. Except he’s kind of hot for this guy and he knows, judging by that bulge Alan pressed into his ass yesterday, this guy feels the same way. Pushing that aside, he heeds Alan’s prompt to tell him more and explains a little further.

“Hm,” Alan acknowledges that with a small hum. “I’m in signage myself.” Shrug, “I qualified as an engineer and I go around contracting for outdoor signage.” He indicates the street front of the Starbucks, “The big strip outside with the café logo and name? Stuff like that. My company did almost all the banks in London.”

Ryan smiles, “And people like me are the ones who designed those. Not too far from each other in industry, then.”

“No, not at all.” Alan smiles back. “I’ll send work your way if any of my clients have need of it. We’ve had to in the past and we just go to the same firm we’ve always been to but I have the feeling they’re ripping us off.”

“What firm?” Ryan asks with no particular curiosity… that is until Alan names a direct competitor. “They are ripping you off,” he says, startled. “I’ve dealt with them in the past. Did you ever meet Simon Payne?”

“I hate that asshole,” Alan grumbles, “He tried to put a consultation fee on the invoice to get in an extra two hundred fifty pounds on the invoice. Wanker.”

Ryan laughs at the disgruntlement on Alan’s face and tone. “That he is, that he is. There was this one time…”

And the story-telling goes. For some reason, Ryan has no idea that this beginning launches them into becoming almost friends. He notices later in the conversation Alan retains a lot of what he says… and uses that as a guide to answer or offer more information about himself in return.

As a result, they seem to have a lot more in common than Ryan ever would have thought.

The entire talk also lasts a bit longer than he ever would have thought.

“It’s half past eight,” Ryan gasps, accidentally getting a good look at his watch. “I have to go.” Flustered, he stands up quickly, chair scraping out behind him. He casts a helpless look at Alan, suddenly uncertain.

“I’ll take the train back with you,” Alan says calmly, also standing, “We go home the same way.”

“Right.” Flustered again, Ryan waits politely and they make their way to the door, nodding thanks to the staff they pass. On the street, the night is cool and dry.

“Thank you for coming,” Alan says as they walk. “I appreciate the last few hours. I’m glad you spent it with me; it was time spent very well.”

“Oh, well,” Ryan is nervous again; not to mention still very attracted. “You’re welcome? And I thank you as well. I hadn’t expected to enjoy myself so much.”

They are quiet most of the way home, exchanging looks and glances, keeping conscious of the other. Ryan notices Alan touches him as the carriage sways; they are standing. He notices the way Alan keeps close despite the space.

And when he and Alan disembark on the platform, Alan indicates he’s going the other way to the opposite exit. Ryan pauses, uncertain about how to say good bye. Should he offer his hand to shake?

But then Alan steps forward and quickly brushes his lips to Ryan’s.

“Good night,” Alan murmurs. He turns and walks casually away, firm ass taunting Ryan to follow and see it in the flesh.

Yes, he definitely understands it now when people say, ‘I’ve met someone’ with that tone of shock, disbelief and measure of quiet excitement.

“What do you mean you’ve met someone?” Amy is rather aghast, eyes wide and incredulous.

“I didn’t technically meet him,” Ryan knee-jerk replied.

She blatantly ignores the abominably feeble protest, “Are you crazy?”

That’s rhetoric. He doesn’t have to answer her. And he doesn’t dwell on the thought that he might have to answer to someone about this eventually.

But in the next moment, “No, wait.” She holds up a hand, eyes closing with supreme frustration, “This is the part I tell you you’re crazy and you should not, under any circumstances, ruin what wonderful thing you have going right now but I know that’s just going to set off some insane reverse psychology and it will only make you more aware of him, more interested because you can’t have him.”

“And you’d be stupid,” she glares at him. “You will be very stupid to do this but I think you should talk to him.”

Ryan stares at her in disbelief.

“Yes,” she repeats, tone going sarcastic and scolding, “Get to know him. And I hope you learn all the reasons why he’s single and ogling a taken man on the trains in the morning instead of already taken himself if he’s as delicious looking as you say he is.” Narrowing her eyes, “And then you’ll realise why you’re an idiot and go back to Emil, guilty but faithful forevermore.”

But all he can think about, more frustrated with himself than ever, is that maybe… most likely… he will not get caught.

I hope I don’t have to apologise for that kiss. I know I said I’d just be friendly but you did look very nice across that coffee table.

Ryan tried not to blush. But then the next message came in;

Would that I could see you across my coffee table at home. Really, any surface will do if you’re across it.

He refused to reply, too startled and accountable and filled with guilty pleasure and interesting mental images to get a reply straight anyway. A few hours later, there arrived another message,

I’m sorry if I’ve offended you. I happen to have a good imagination and when I think of you, it carries me away.

Ryan hits reply; Stop that. You shouldn’t be texting me such things.

Only a few moments later, Then I’ll say them to you. In your ear or against your neck. I won’t touch you but I want to say such things to you.

That’s indecent. Ryan can feel his heart rate thumping a little faster now.

You inspire these thoughts in me. I can’t help it.

Well, stop. And Ryan knows it’s like taunting a bully, you know you’re gonna get it if you talk back.

Never. The image of you bent over across a surface and me saying these things to you right into your ear are too delicious to abandon.

Ryan tucked his phone away. He refused to reply and no further messages came. But he did feel giddy and rather excited, a thick knot of arousal coiling heavily in his belly every time he walks past the coffee table or fantasizes about other similar surfaces and what getting bent across them might be like.

Helpless, he told himself. He couldn’t help having these thoughts.

All weekend he hid his phone partly in fear Emil would read the notes he couldn’t bear to delete just yet, and partly in eagerness more messages would come.

“Is there someone else?”

Ryan blinks in silent shock, scrabbling to find words to deny, to protest, to brush it off. It’s not real, has nothing to do with Emil because Emil is special and separate

“Well, that’s usually the case, isn’t it?” Emil says on a flat, dead tone. “My partner is distant, forgets things, hides his phone, seems off. There’s something he seems to be hiding and when I ask, there’s nothing wrong.” He takes a fortifying breath as though bracing for impact. “So.”

“There isn’t anyone,” Ryan mutters, trying not to sound defensive but it’s in his voice all the same. An unpleasant tightness begins to wind itself tighter and tighter in his chest, slowly squeezing the breath out and making space for awareness of his utter stupidity.

“But there’s someone interested,” Emil guesses quietly, calmly, eyes empty save for disappointment and a world of hurt and he tries to hide it by putting his face in his hands. “Whatever they’re doing and not doing, or whatever is happening and not happening, there’s someone.”

Ryan’s cornered. That wasn’t a question so it’s useless to lie because all his lies haven’t worked so he says, “Yes.”

Emil’s breath catches in his throat, an odd gasp escapes his lips. He sits for a long time, still and frozen with his face in his hands, until finally he lets his hands fall. Without looking at Ryan and with sluggish movements he gets up and walks away.

Ryan hears the footfalls down the hall and a door closes gently moments later, somehow more final than a slam. Suddenly, the room is too large, the flat too quiet. There’s a sense of emptiness and distance between him and everything and he can’t think. The quiet world he lives in is small, so small, and the world out there is too big. It’s too easy for the universe out there to rip these little things apart and wasn’t that why he latched on to Emil? Emil is the safe haven, the quirks and humour, the love and compassion.

And this silence is all wrong. Things should remain still in that silence but it seems like everything is moving too fast, too far, too shaky and unstable—

When he finally goes to shower and ready for bed, he can’t find his partner but the guest room door is locked.

Emil looks just as lost the next morning and Ryan feels the way Emil looks.

The routine is the same, sacred and unchanged, the only difference now is that they do not touch. The spoon is carefully exchanged between the cups; neither can bring themselves to fetch a second. There’s no morning make out session, Emil leaves earlier than usual and Ryan walks to the station alone for the first time in years.

There’s no goodbye kiss, Ryan thinks, pausing to stare down the alley beside the station and he wonders if Emil feels as off-balance as he.

Alan is there again. He looks handsome and cold, beautiful and a bit intimidating, and Ryan realises he doesn’t know who Alan is. He’s been intimidated by that handsomeness and tantalized by the unknown but with the memory of Emil devastated by his wandering attention, he sees now that Alan isn’t comparable at all. It’s just as Amy said; he’s an idiot.

“Hello, Ryan,” Alan smiles, eyes going hot. Ryan knows it’s because if the line of seduction is heading in the right direction then they’ll be looking to go from train to a bed somewhere and not to work at all. “You’re looking—”

“I don’t know who you are,” Ryan interrupts quietly.

Alan looks a little startled but recovers magnificently, “We can remedy that.” He steps closer.

“I don’t want to,” states Ryan, noticing for the first time that Alan is a little too smooth, too glib to be genuine. “I love someone else. I gave my life to someone else. Most importantly, I have accepted someone else’s life into mine.” The world begins to slow down again. “He’s the reason I don’t feel alone. He’s why our house is a home, why I come home at night. The why in working to live instead of living to work.” Ryan can feel it settling back into place, strength and rhythm at his fingertips, familiar as the gentle swaying of the carriage. It’s freedom and grounding at the same time. “I want his life to stay tied to mine. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what life you have.” The end equation is right there on his tongue, the undeniable truth, “I can’t want what I don’t know.”

“And yet that’s precisely what drew you to me,” Alan comments casually, softly, leaning in closer, breath fawning over Ryan’s cheek as he whispers into an ear. “Unknown, something new, isn’t a brief foray into this adventure something you need to shake out the monotony?”

“Maybe,” Ryan admits, feeling foolish at the reminder of his folly. “Maybe I thought that’s what I wanted. I thought I was bored. But he knows now. And then it wasn’t boring. I didn’t feel bored when he guessed, I felt… afraid.” He blinks up at Alan, unwittingly unguarded for a moment when he admits, “I don’t know how I feel now but I know this is wrong and I want things to go back to the way they were.” With finality and some cruelty he adds, “And I know I don’t want you.”

He walks in the front door with a firm stride, determined and focused and almost right into Emil heading out.

But it’s with a slam like drowning under an avalanche of bricks that he realises Emil has a suitcase packed, a smaller roller filled with office things, desktop things, and what is probably his laptop. The world is crumbling out from under his feet and he can’t catch his breath. Instinctively he steps forward, letting all his things drop and desperately grabs on to Emil’s shirt.

“Nothing happened,” he whispers, eyes going suddenly wide, stinging with wetness. “Nothing happened. I didn’t sleep with him. I wanted to and I thought about it but I couldn’t…!” he chokes and he really can’t breathe now but he forces out, “Don’t leave. Don’t leave me.”

Emil stands there looking lost, staring at the hand clutched tightly in his shirt. He looks up slowly and seems a bit confused, “I thought you had left me.”

“My things are all here! Where would I have gone?” He gasps and then his brain re-translates and he says, “Your things are all here, where would I go if not to where you are? Where our life is?”

“I thought… I mean, I thought you weren’t…” Emil sighs, takes a breath, “I thought you were going to leave. I didn’t want to come home to find you… all gone.”

“This is my home,” is all Ryan can think to say. “You are my home. This is our life. You can’t just… I can’t just leave it. I can’t leave you. I won’t.” He shakes his head, “Don’t want to.” He steps closer, head falling to rest on Emil’s shoulder, eyes clenching closed tight. “I don’t want our world to change. I don’t want to change, Emil, Christ, I know I was stupid for a bit there but I want us back.” And then he remembers it’s all his fault and Emil could leave anyway no matter what he says, so frantic denial sets in and he chokes, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to… I’m sorry, please Emil, I didn’t mean…”

A drowning sense of self-recrimination and worthlessness washes over him; the thought that Emil will find nothing worthy in him to stay. It could have been a one-shot chance and he’s just blown it. He’s fucked it up.

“I…” Emil can’t speak, it seems.

Ryan looks up to find Emil is tired and a bit angry. There’s something off about Emil but Ryan’s expression because if he didn’t know better he would think that there’s a touch of guilt there but really, who should be guilty but he? Then he steps away, a little surprised by the idea this inspires that he is probably being stupidly forward. He’s not good enough to try to keep Emil, is he? Fuck up that he is.

“I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. “I promise you nothing happened. We didn’t do anything.”

Emil can’t say a word, still not meeting Ryan’s gaze. He steps forward but to one side, eyes lifting to the door and Ryan wants to stand in the way, block the short path from where Emil stands and the portal to Gone.

“Don’t go.” Ryan isn’t too proud now to say it’s not begging, throat tight and stomach bottomed out.

But Emil doesn’t turn his eyes away from the door. He slowly bends and reaches for his suitcase, pausing only when Ryan lets out a sob. He rolls the luggage down the two metres to the door, opens it and walks out. The door shuts slowly, no creaking, the latch giving a soft click loud enough for Ryan to realise he’s been holding his breath.

Unlike in the movies he turns and follows, stands just a pace behind Emil on the pavement as the cab pulls up, stands close enough to declare, “Nothing happened. I didn’t do anything with him. I thought about it but I didn’t. I came home.”

Emil is standing stoic, the cabbie is flashing them uncertain looks but efficiently loading up the boot.

“I’m staying home. Here.” Ryan swipes at his eyes when he can’t see clearly, startled to realise his eyes have filled with tears. “I’ll be here if you come home, Emil. I promise.”

Movements still slow, Emil boards the cab and Ryan stands there on the curb until the taillights have disappeared. There’s a strange sort of yearning to stay right there until he comes back, that there’s nothing in the building, the flat they call home without him there. But eventually logic sinks in he isn’t coming back tonight and not for at least a few nights, so like it or not Ryan is going to have to deal with the silence and loneliness until Emil deigns to return.

And it’s all Ryan’s fault.

There’s a picture.

Ryan stares at it at three in the morning. Midnight arrived while he was in the shower, BlackBerry beeping an alert that it’s his friend Alex’s birthday today snapping him out of his daze to realise his fingers are prunes and he needs to go get some sleep.

One came when he turned over onto his right, away from Emil’s side of the bed and sees the alarm clock and its numbers lit up faintly through the darkness.

Two came when he watched the numbers count up and didn’t feel the least bit sleepy.

So now it’s three o’clock and there’s a picture. It hangs in the hallway amidst the fifty-something other mismatching frames of images that somehow, someway, are all the milestones of their life together.

It’s a picture.

He can’t think why it catches his eye as he passes on his way back from the kitchen, tea in hand. Idly he thinks the caffeine might not be good for him but he knows he’s not going to get any sleep even if his eyes are heavy because the weight on his heart is heavier and it keeps him conscious, so….

The picture that’s caught his eye has always been there, it’s something he passes each day. Like the furniture, the window treatments and tables with their dressings and runners. The leather couch, the rugs, the paintings up on the wall, the little decorative see-through wall miniature cabinets with antique pieces displayed in them, and the souvenirs or gifts here and there. Scattered liberally amidst all these things are Emil’s photographs, the moments he’s captured with his camera, all perfectly composed and candid –most of which are photographs of Ryan. All these things are the building blocks that make up their life, just like the rituals he’s been missing, the habits he’s developed and shared with his partner, built upon the foundation that is their relationship.

This picture in particular is the oldest of all on the wall, of them standing close and laughing together. Emil has his nose buried in Ryan’s hair, one arm around Ryan’s shoulders while Ryan has his forehead on Emil’s shoulder and his eyes are closed with the force of his mirth. One of Ryan’s co-workers, perhaps Grace, took it at one of the studio’s Away Days. And just as he thinks that he remembers, it’s from the first Away Day he attended.

Only a week previous to this photo, they’d been at a party where Grace had dragged Emil along to accompany her and Amy had badgered Ryan the week before that to play her escort. Essentially, the friend of a friend’s party; both had stood three degrees of separation away, total of six, and how rare a coincidence had that been?

They’d met across a crowded room, drinks in hand and both propping up a wall, meeting gazes that linger a little too long, neither inebriated enough to not notice what that meant. Within a quarter of an hour they’d converged on the tiny guest room behind the kitchen and tumbled straight into bed. They’d only managed to get semi-unclothed, had done nothing more than kiss and grope and moan and hiss before the commotion of the party, as well as a healthy fear of being caught, drove them out another quarter-hour later to the nearest residence which happened to be Emil’s –at the time, at least.

They’re not ridiculously mad about undressing. It’s fierce and passionate, yes, but there’s no crazy ripping off clothes from each other. Determined would be a better word, or awe-filled. When Emil paused to shape his hand over Ryan’s chest, bending to mouth along Ryan’s collarbone, Ryan realised Emil wants to slow things down. He complies, smiling at Emil’s startled look.

Ryan picked up on Emil’s romantic need to take time at love-making, the need to fast-forward sometimes but slow-mo some parts. The end result is a slow, hot burn of potent passion pulling out deeper moans from them both, eliciting a stronger need to press closer and explore a little more.

Impatient, the first round is a mutual jerk-off session, hands working on the other, Ryan straddling Emil’s hips and grinding his balls into Emil’s own while both watch the other’s reactions.

It’s good but nowhere close to satisfaction so, panting from exertions and laughing with delight, they kiss and stroke and explore. Not too many minutes later, they’re ready for another round.

Emil stayed on top but takes Ryan into himself, hissed when Ryan’s lube-slick fingers pressed him open because it had been a while. Emil seemed to like that, took it easy when he breached Ryan for the first time, pressing upward in little increments than making Ryan control that first entry from above. But later, after the first full bury, Emil’s strong hands gripped Ryan firmly, moved him the way Emil wanted.

Ryan took it slow to start, thinking Emil might prefer it that way. But when his strokes got shorter, muscles straining, Emil got impatient and pulled him down onto hands and knees, slid lower and planted feet and fucked upwards into his ass in long deep strokes. He had to bury a shout in Emil’s shoulder as he let Emil rock his hips into each thrust. It’s Ryan who surrendered first, reaching down to pump himself to completion when Emil’s fucking just about drove him crazy with its length and depth.

The sight, Emil swore later, was what did it for him, watching Ryan’s face pull into a grimace of pleasure and the sight of Ryan touching himself, the sounds Ryan made.

Ryan fell asleep on Emil’s chest, cuddled up like a child, still straddled. It provided relative ease for Emil, after a short rest and recovery, to press the head of his still-wet cock at Ryan’s opening in slow nudges until the head slid in and woke Ryan up.

Impressed by Emil’s stamina, Ryan moved off and away, made Emil growl and follow to the headboard where he knelt and braced his hands up against the wall. Emil practically leaped to fit himself to Ryan’s back and behind, hands roaming, cupping and stroking, mouth exploring and tasting, hips moving rhythmically all the while though he’d not moved to enter Ryan again just yet.

Unexpectedly, Emil moved away, bent to stroke his hands down Ryan’s back from shoulders to the backs of his knees, moved lower until fingertips dusted over Ryan’s ankles where Emil bent to nip his Achilles heel. Emil’s hands continued to stroke and grip and massage as that mouth moved up over calves and hamstrings, licked at Ryan’s ass cheeks, over a hip and oblique to upper back, tongue tracing a shoulder blade until they could fit together again.

This time the entry is a little harsher, only a touch of alignment before Emil shoved in to bury deeply in Ryan’s ass. Ryan hissed and moaned at the same time, the angle perfect. Emil fucked him into the wall, interspersing long minutes of jackhammer thrusts with seemingly hours of painfully slow deep pushes tipped with an up-tilted little hip action nudge at the end which felt like Emil managed to find another centimetre more in there to push into. Ryan’s entire body tensed to nearly the point of pain those times, Emil so deep inside him he swore he could feel it right in his stomach.

When Ryan came, it was with pleasure so intense it bordered on pain, and Emil near shouted when he finished. They collapsed again and fell asleep with their feet to the headboard.

Ryan woke first after that, the sky only just beginning to lighten outside the windows by then, and decided he would reciprocate that wonderful wake-up earlier. He got a hand towel from the bathroom he’d found pleasantly better kept than most bachelors he knew, wet it with warm water and cleaned them both up enough to wrap his lips around Emil’s manhood. It took some teasing to get Emil hard enough to wake up but he did it.

“Fuck me,” Emil moaned when he woke up enough. “You’ve got to be a little sore by now, lover. Fuck me.”

Ryan groaned, grabbed the lube, lifted one of Emil’s legs up over his shoulder to get his hands to where he wanted to enter. He teased Emil with his mouth and hands into moaning incoherency before he lifted the other leg and moved into place, took Emil’s earlier performance as an example to take the first go slowly. But Emil talked dirty to him the whole time, mouthing off the sexiest things with the filthiest of tones and twenty minutes later, Ryan folded Emil in half and fucked him into the mattress.

Emil came very quickly, racking up Ryan’s confidence a mile up. Ryan carefully added lube and kept going, wanting to come in Emil the way Emil had come in him… and raised his brows when he saw Emil might have released but hadn’t softened –so he slowed down, made each thrust a little longer, a little deeper, until it became clear Emil could come again. Ryan was delighted, pushed hard and deep, angled just right and this time… this time, they came together.

A perfect ending to the ‘we fucked all night’ abbreviation they would tell years later in Their Story.

The next morning, Ryan woke to the smell of sex and sunshine, a gentle hand dancing designs over his stomach –which growled.

“Hungry?” Emil asked, smiling and looking sexy, wearing not a stitch of clothing.

“Very,” Ryan murmured, not referring to food at all.

Emil grinned, “If you keep looking at me like that, we are never going to get anywhere.”

“That’s fine,” Ryan grinned back, “We can just stay in bed.”

“Chinese?” Emil asked hopefully, his own stomach making a protest.

“I prefer Emil cuisine, myself,” Ryan rolled his eyes and reached for his underwear and jeans, still rolled in together. “But Chinese will have to do.” He caught a slightly crestfallen look on Emil’s face and realised he might have just insinuated he doesn’t want to see Emil again –which was utter bullshit. “Hey,” he spoke up, pulling on his socks, “Can I have you for dessert?”

“Yeah. Sounds good.” A cheerful smile bloomed on Emil’s face and Ryan was quite sure, very sure, he wanted that dessert for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a long while to come.

Two days later, it was with trepidation Ryan let his office know he’d be an extra half hour away during lunch, bought food and drinks, and went to Emil’s office. He’d been nervous asking for Emil at reception, uncertain but determined and when Emil does answer the summons, he’s pleased to note the sudden smile on Emil’s face.

Brandishing the bags, “I brought lunch. I wasn’t sure what you felt like eating but I know you like Chinese so…”

Three years later he still remembers the way Emil smiled all through lunch, looking fantastically pleased, surprising him the next day with repayment in like kind. Ryan’s office mates, who’d never seen anyone Ryan had ever dated, went agog with curious questions and teasing remarks.

After a week of this, of dinners occasionally instead of lunches, Emil invited Ryan to his company Away Day to Brighton. It’s there on in a beach-side cafe this picture was taken, the same beach and the same day that Emil first introduced Ryan as his boyfriend.

The memories are suddenly fresh in Ryan’s head as he looks at the picture.

So is the hurt.

Two weeks later, taking a day off because he’s begun to lose functionality in the office, the quiet and broken rhythm of the house gets to him. He smashes one of the plates on the kitchen floor and the sound is fantastically cathartic. He breaks another and that drives him out of the kitchen at a dead run to the phone.

“Where is he?” he asks Grace, Emil’s assistant. It’s three in the afternoon; Emil is somewhere having his tea.

“I should hang up on you,” she tells him harshly, instantly recognising his voice.

“I didn’t do anything,” Ryan is defensive, “Nothing fucking happened! I was interested but I never acted on it so God-dammit you can cut me some slack!”

“Good,” she stated firmly, heaving a small sigh, “You’ll need that when you face him.” She surrendered the address of a bed & breakfast place near the office.

Ryan went straight there after cleaning up his mess and a few other little scattered messes here and there, the markers of how he’s not been taking good care of himself without Emil there. He settled into a chair in the lobby, thinking over what he’s going to say, temper simmering.

Emil pulls into a dead stop at the sight of him at ten-thirty when he walks in, Ryan is thankful Emil is alone instead of accompanied by someone else and maybe a little worried because Emil looks like he’s come straight from the office. Neither are good without the other, he thinks. They stare at each other for a long moment until Ryan gets up and comes over, Emil meeting him halfway.

Ryan has barely the balls to quietly ask, “You’ve been alone here, right?”

Emil blinked, “Yes. God, yes, alone. Every night, I promise.”

“Okay.” Ryan can breathe a fraction easier at that. He nods acknowledgement then politely but firmly asks, “Can I come up? I’d like to talk.”

“Yeah. Come on.” The hesitation in Emil’s tone and manner is obvious and Ryan loses a little hope.

Inside the immaculate room they sit down in the wingbacks by the window and fidget. Both are too aware of the silence between them and the filtering noises from outside traffic. It’s central London; it’s never quiet. Like them. They used to never be quiet.

“I’m sorry,” Emil says suddenly.

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Ryan refutes, “It was all my fault.”

There are lines of misery on Emil’s face that don’t’ belong there, “Could I have done something—”

“No,” Ryan cuts in quickly, “You didn’t do anything. It was just… chemistry. I reacted to him. Instinct. Lust, maybe. Who cares?” He gives a long sigh, dispelling the tension in himself because he can’t think straight otherwise. “It was nothing to do with you. I’m the one. It was my fault.”

“I thought that maybe—”

“Emil, please, it’s not—”

“Let me finish—”

“But you didn’t do anything wrong!”

“That’s really not what I’m trying to say here,” Emil states firmly, eyes flashing sapphire sparks and Ryan is amazed again that such pale eyes could exist in so dark a colouring. It’s always a startling contrast; how could he have forgotten that? “I’m just saying that if this ever happens again—don’t interrupt—I want to be clear that you can tell me. I know what lust is.”

And then Ryan realises what’s been off all this time. The recent months of extra attentiveness, the clinging romance and little sweet gestures, and the way Emil guessed –because Ryan never guessed. The avalanche of bricks is all the more painful this time around and the floor could be falling away for all he cares, “You…?”

“Yes,” Emil whispers, tortured, eyes slipping shut.

“Oh my God.” Ryan’s knees are buckling, they are, but he’s sitting down so it doesn’t show. “Did you…?”

“No,” states Emil firmly, eyes popping open, hard with finality. “But I… went further than you. We got to the hotel room and I…” He’s guilt ridden, face pinched tight.

Ryan is sure his stomach wants to hurl but there’s nothing in it, distracting him from the fact he can feel all the rest of the blood drain from his face. He knows now how Emil felt and it’s awful, how could he have ever done this to them? How could Emil? His face twists in horror and Emil reaches out,

“Ryan, I didn’t,” Emil whispers, looking anguished. “I didn’t. You didn’t.”

“What’s wrong with us?” Ryan breathes. Then he laughs, this aching, hysterical sort of laugh, and he must be losing his mind, the world is spinning too fast around them, why won’t it settle down?

“We’re normal,” Emil says quietly. “It’s temptation. But neither of us gave in. We can be happy about that, right? We didn’t… cheat. We didn’t do anything wrong.” He sighs softly, “We can get past this.”

And Ryan knows, after the torture of the past two weeks, the thoughts that Emil would never come home, the imbalance, the sense of constant loss and overwhelming silence, he knows, “We can get past this.” He sighs agreement on a breath, and a decision forms on his tongue, “I’m never riding trains again.”

With a humourless chuckle, Emil stands to pull Ryan to himself. Ryan is half way there in a heartbeat, and they fit in together the way they do in bed together while they sleep. He thinks about their heavy routine, the many ways they didn’t realise complacency had set in… but the threat of it has restored the balance, the appreciation. There’s nothing as good or as bad as what they have but it’s theirs.

“By choice,” Emil whispers, holding him tightly, face buried in Ryan’s temple.

“By choice,” Ryan reinforces, clinging just as fiercely in return.

He nervously buys lunch and brings it to Emil’s studio.

This morning had been too tender for words, both too aware of their rhythms and faithfully keeping them, including that kiss in the alley by the tube station. Last night is still raw but Ryan treasures the way Emil instantly agreed to come home with him. He wants lunch to make it all a bit better. A balm of something beautiful from their past to help heal the present.

Grace is there, smiling slightly at him, looking reassuring and pleased to see him though she doesn’t say a word.

“Hi, Ry,” he says quietly, enveloping Ryan in a quick hug, pressing a kiss to one temple. “What’s this?”

Ryan brandishes the bags. “I brought lunch. I wasn’t sure what you felt like eating but I know you like Chinese so…”

Emil stares at him, at his lips, startled and unmoving through the same words from their first meeting, the first time Ryan tracked him down and cornered him with food, has already faded away into the air and gone. He’s quiet and contemplative, and Ryan is just plain nervous, raising his left hand sheepishly to his nape. And as they stare there at each other, smiles beginning to shine in their eyes but not yet on their lips, standing too close together, there’s a flash of light from Ryan’s left.

They turn to look and find Grace wielding a Polaroid camera. She smiles as she snaps off the paper zipping out the front. Wordlessly, she hands it over and like children they hold it between them waiting for the image to appear, glancing back and forth between it and each other, those small smiles finally rising and blooming on their faces –the beginning of Okay.

When the image appears, Ryan thinks that they look too serious. They’re looking, eyes shining but not quite smiling yet. There’s tension but it’s fading, and they’re standing very close together. But they also appear invested, respectful and determined; it’s an ear-mark to their relationship, he knows.

The next time he pauses to contemplate it, heading back to the bedroom, to Emil, with tea in hand, it’s hanging in the hallway beside the picture of him on his new Vespa scooter taken three days ago, amidst the fifty-something mismatching frames of other images that somehow, someway, are all the milestones of their life together.

image by adayume and cleyra

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