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before you come to evening

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"You found the earth too great for your one life, you found your brain and sinew smaller than the hunger and desire that fed on them - but it has been this way with all men. You have stumbled on in darkness, you have been pulled in opposite directions, you have faltered, you have missed the way, but, child, this is the chronicle of the earth. And now, because you have known madness and despair, and because you will grow desperate again before you come to evening, we who have stormed the ramparts of the furious earth and been hurled back, we who have been maddened by the unknowable and bitter mystery of love, we who have hungered after fame and savored all of life, the tumult, pain, and frenzy, and now sit quietly by our windows watching all that henceforth never more shall touch us - we call upon you to take heart, for we can swear to you that these things pass.” - Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again


 

 

It fits every bloody stupid English stereotype, Andy reflects as he trudges past the gothic spires of Parliament, that it’s creeping toward the end of June but it feels like it’s been raining for a century. London’s sulked beneath the clouds since spring spluttered out, the sun a half-forgotten fantasy, and southern England feels pretty similar right now to – he imagines – a cool day in fucking Antarctica. So much for global warming; he’d been so cold last night, curled bruised and aching beneath his cheap fleece blankets, that he woke more exhausted than when he'd rolled into bed, half-suffocated from sleeping with his head beneath the pillow.

So: fuck-off-summer temperatures, check, on top of the unattractive sleep-deprived-zombie look he's sporting, check – and it really shouldn't be surprising when he plods into Westminster tube station, wearing nothing but too-loose jeans and tattered Converse, that the night guard immediately gives him the stink-eye.

The suspicion still stings. He’s just missing a shirt ; it’s not as if he’s strip-teasing by the ticket machines for fuckssake.

He made it to the station okay, for all that the weather kept on theme with his utterly shit evening. Trudging through Westminster, the clouds pressed through the smog overhead with London hunched sullen and empty beneath their oppressive ceiling; he'd had to clench his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, breath whistling with the effort. The bridge was a wide strip of emptiness as he hurried across, tarmac splashed with gleaming-orange beneath the street lights and the breeze off the river cutting into every inch of bare, rain-chilled skin. Even the flock of tourists tripping over each other to get their selfies with Big Ben had left, and any Londoner with any sense probably stayed the fuck indoors in the first place so he’d got this far unnoticed and unharrassed, curling miserably between bare, goosbumped-arms as he ducked down the station steps.

To run headfirst into the guard’s abrupt hostility, that at any second might edge into getting Andy arrested. Or worse, asking sir, are you okay? Shit, shit.

Thankfully it's late, the evening tipping towards true night outside, and Andy's expression must be sufficiently homicidal because the guy watches him swipe his Oyster through without a word. Still, the weight of a stare prickles up the bare length of his spine all the way to the escalators and the urge to flip the guard off as he heads down is- yeah okay, stupid but hard to resist, the irritation nagging under the cold that’s layered like ice beneath his skin.

Only the temptation of getting out of damp denim stops him giving the guy some attitude (it fucking chafes okay; it’s not the same as backing down). All he wants is to get home, shuck what’s left of his clothes and collapse onto his own shitty-but-familiar mattress, bury the humiliation of his night somewhere behind closed doors and at least marginally comfortable.

All that’ll vanish into a distant fantasy if he gets himself thrown in a holding cell. Again.

To give the guard some credit, if backed into a corner Andy would (grudgingly) admit that he’d stand out anywhere tonight, even if he was wrapped up fit for stupid British weather. On top of a few nights of bad-to-non-existent sleep, the shit-show that tonight’s booking turned into means he looks like the bastard offspring of a crack addict and a walking bruise right now, and probably about as respectable.

He’s constantly reminded that he’s not exactly a catwalk model at the best of times, with his face of sharp angles and dirty ginger hair that refuses to stick to a style no matter how much gel he slathers on. But now, on top of the lingering marks from the handful of bookings he’s scraped up in the last week, his too-pale skin is mottled the weird blotchy shade he goes when he's cold and he’s shivering so hard that his teeth would be chattering if he wasn’t grinding them together. Not to mention that the touch of eyeliner he'd applied hours earlier got smudged by the rain into giant, unflattering panda-eyes. He can see them staring back at him in the polished metal some idiot decided to plaster all around the escalators, his reflection all warped edges and annoyance glaring back from the scratched surface.

So, maybe it’s not just the shirtlessness. Though honestly, that's a pretty good illustration all by itself of what a fucking disaster he’s made of this evening.

It didn’t start well, what with the last-minute summons through the agency; Mr Did-I-Say-You-Could-Touch-That obviously didn’t believe in planning ahead for a fuck, (or for anything else in his life, judging by stack of unopened bills that Andy caught a glimpse of as he was hustled inside). But then he wouldn’t have to; Andy knows the type, inside and out, and that kind of ostentatious central London flat, on the rare occasions Andy gets called there instead of hotel rooms and backstreet clubs, is almost always paid for by the bank of parental indulgence.

They’re probably paying for Andy too. Occasionally when a guy pushes too hard, leaves a few too many free bruises, Andy distracts himself by mentally writing Lord and Lady Fucking Fauntleroy a note: did you know, your son is fucking away his inheritance debauching low-class hookers, with sex toys he spends his unemployed days overbidding for on eBay? All that inheritance thrown at Oxbridge tuition and he gets his kicks from second-rate shit stamped Made in China and the cheapest dick on the market. Great job there.

(Of course he never actually writes any of them – he’s never broken client confidentiality because, as much as he hates his job, he has standards – but it helps him keep his pokerface, to swallow what he’d like to say every time he gets yet another I’m paying and I don’t want to use a fucking condom whine. Just occasionally, it’s nice to pretend that he’s not the biggest fuck-up in the room.)

Tonight had basically been a shitshow from hurried start to running-out-the-door-without-his-shirt finish – he'd have been better off not bothering to leave his flat. He’d told the guy it was only chance that he was free at the last-minute, but the truth, if he'd ever admit it, is his social life is a lifeless wasteland (apart, of course, from all the fucking but he doesn’t think it counts as a party if he’s only there as the hired help). Unsociable hours and not-entirely-legal employment isn’t a winning recipe for making friends; if Kim’s working or has uni work, then he's free pretty much every night he doesn’t have a booking.

But the guy was new, not one of Andy’s regulars, and one of the few perks of his job is that truth is optional, so he didn’t have to admit he’d had nothing more exciting planned for his evening than a date with his sofa and David Attenbrough‘s latest on BBC. When his phone went he’d even been relieved beneath the annoyance at having to get ready at light-speed, already anticipating how much better his bank account would look in the morning as he kicked his shitty shower into producing at-least-lukewarm water.

He could do with the money, always, because even his rat-hole of a flat costs more in rent than Glasgow’s finest condo. If Glasgow even has fucking condos but if it did, Andy’s sure he could live in one for what a loaf of bread costs him in London.

Not that he can even afford a loaf of bread right now. In his unceremonious eviction from the flat, he’d left the envelope containing his fee along with his shirt.

Well what the fuck ever, he decides as he takes a left toward the Jubilee line. They hadn't got as far as anything worth charging for, so he’ll just count it a bonus that he's out nothing more than the Tube fare and some clothes.

Another plus; he’s nearly got the station to himself as he jogs down the last escalator, humiliation factor muted this late. He’d have stood out like a neon sign at rush hour, a tatty renegade among the harassed, suited businessmen who swarm through Westminster daily to and from their nine-to-fives. Big Ben was chiming eleven when Andy’d trudged through the turnstiles and chances are high he'll get a carriage to himself if he heads to the end of the train. All the better to pretend to himself that he doesn't look like someone who got kicked out of an illegal fuck with just enough time to spare for humiliation, but not to go back for all his clothes.

Like levelling up on the traditional walk of shame, if he hadn't already exhausted his embarrassment for that particular scenario. For hookers, it's just a daily commute.

Anyway, the humiliation he’s used to. Even if it’s usually agreed on in advance and not thrown in for free. He's running low on dignity sure but if he starts handing out discounts he might actually starve.

His luck holds just enough to get him along the platform, passing only a few late night tourists who, as usual, accept every weird thing in London as part of the general ambiance and don't give him a second glance. One guy, suit and skinny tie, expensive, probably heading home from a late work meeting, gives him a longer look that’s laced with speculation and any other night Andy might follow up – see: aforementioned rent worries and he’s got to start eating something other than Rice Crispies soon, with more than one recent customer remarking on the sharp lines of his collarbone, the edging-into-feral look he gets when he drops a few too many pounds – but with the direction of his luck tonight the guy’ll be an undercover cop.

The siren call of his own shitty mattress holds out and Andy blanks the guy’s smile with his best pokerface, striding out as if anyone has a right to be walking along through a shiny-concrete-and-glass Tube station half-naked. It must be enough because the guy doesn’t follow, and Andy makes it to the end of the platform un-arrested, thank fuck.

He leans on the safety glass bracketing the platform and the tracks, placed there to stop the harassed, suited businessmen deciding the tracks look more tempting than going back to their harassed, suited offices, and sighs. Goosebumps spring up on top of goosebumps over his wet skin at the chill press of glass, from the breeze drifting along the tunnel. Not for the first time he wonders if he’s going soft living this far south.

Then he remembers that if this was happening back home, he’d be dying of exposure on an outdoor train station that’d probably be half-submerged in torrential Scottish rain. Mentally he awards London a point on the scorecard he promised himself he’d quit keeping months ago.

Four years and he’s barely made it past Croydon. It’s well past time he accepted backpacking next year will never become this year , or ever.

He’s so cold, and so pissed off – that latter isn’t going away any time soon, no matter how many warm towels he mummifies himself in when he gets home – that the thud of the train arriving has him flinching up from his slouch, disorientated briefly by the thump of air and the clatter the tube trains bring with them, a solid wall of sound he’s still not used to. It’s as good an excuse as any for why he forgets to check the carriage before he stumbles through the doors and it’s only when he’s slumped into the nearest seat does he catch movement in the corner of his eye and think, you idiot.

There’s a guy sitting a few seats down. A guy staring openly already, and Andy groans silently as the doors slam shut. Trapped but this is London and the Tube; surely stiff British etiquette is on his side and they can make it in awkward silence until the next stop.

He fixes his eyes resolutely on his battered Chucks – black, cool without being too hipster he’d thought when he bought them – and notices there’s a hole wearing in the toe. Great, he’s passing the point of mugging victim and heading straight to tramp. No wonder he got kicked out tonight. No wonder that guy is staring.

This is hardly the most embarrassing thing he’s done, though (it’s not even close, if he were ever inclined to come up with a numbered list). But tonight’s left him a little too raw and tired, and he settles deeper into his seat, trying to dig himself into the rough fabric with his shoulder blades. The guy’ll hopefully lose interest in a minute; despite Andy’s accidental profession, he’s nothing special to look at. Weasel-faced one colleague, called him, only half-joking, and for all he splashes out on the gym when he can afford it, jogs when he can’t, his abs aren’t anything Shakespeare would write odes to or anything.

Okay, so it’s a bit odd to see a half-naked guy on the Tube but he’s nothing to merit a second glance.

Unless- he checks his chest and no, the guy from earlier was too busy getting off on his own righteous bullshit to leave a hickey. There’s just his pasty, uninteresting skin, rain and melted gel dripping on it from the sad disaster of his hair.

His skin prickles with the weight of being watched and the guy is still staring . Maybe he’s a past client, or maybe he’s smarter than the average commuter and leaped to the right assumption. Risking a glance, surreptitious through his eyelashes, Andy gets no more than an impression of branded hoodie, expensive trainers before he’s pinned by a hazel stare and feels his cheeks heat, caught.

Before he can pretend it was an accident, the corner of the guy’s mouth quirks up.

The train jerks to a halt at the next station but Andy’s staring in the deliberate unfocused way of nosy Londoners on the Tube now, sideways and pretending he just happens to be looking in the general vicinity where the guy happens to be. There’s nothing about him that screams weirdo ; he looks young for a start, younger than Andy or maybe his life just has less stress to give him worry-lines. His hoodie is soft-looking and new, his stubble a bare shadow across a thin, tanned face that’s- well yeah, he’s no Beckham, but then Andy’s grateful to at least feel a little less hopelessly outclassed.

Obviously not a Londoner with the frank appraisal he’s giving Andy instead of observing sacred Tube etiquette of Ignore and Ye Shall Be Ignored. But not obviously a tourist and, despite the tan, Andy wonders if he might be English before he spots the flag, a couple of inches square, sewn to the hoodie sleeve.

Kind of weird to be that patriotic but maybe it’s a brand thing. Maybe the guy isn’t- Andy squints to make out the emblem on the flag, risking being a bit too obvious, but he’s shit at political geography and the red-white-blue only brings to mind France. Maybe the guy’s a confused Frenchman, marvelling at the psychotic British who wander around shirtless despite their pathetic Arctic excuse for a summer.

The warning beep as the doors close catches his attention and Andy looks up just in time to see them slam shut on Green Park station. Which was his stop, if he wants to get on a line going anywhere near home. Fuck.

‘Excuse me?’

What the fuck; it’s the guy, out of his seat and hesitantly polite and okay, apparently they’re going to break the sacred barrier of Tube silence because he’s coming over. Cautious, Andy looks up and the guy is standing right there, just outside arm-length and incidentally, not holding on to anything.

Andy’s about to warn him (fucking tourists) when the train jerks forward and the guy wobbles, does something fast with his feet and steadies back to upright, all without taking his eyes off Andy. Grudgingly, Andy awards him a point for impressive balance. It’s probably trained in if the outfit is anything to judge by; the joggers and shoes are all high-end sports clothes.

Of course it all looks pretty new, so it’s just as likely he’s a show-off who counts working out as a five minute jog to the pub after work.

‘What can I do you for?’ Andy asks, on sarcasm autopilot. Only when he gets a blank look does Andy replay the original query and register the guy’s accent, heavy behind the politeness. Not English then, combination of sarcasm and Scottish proving incomprehensible. ‘Sorry. What’s up?’

Sports Guy’s brow furrows and Andy guesses there’s some mental gymnastics going on behind those pretty hazel eyes to translate the colloquialism. London and enough snide comments from public school-educated clients have weathered down the thickness of Andy’s accent but it clings on stubbornly when he’s tired, or not really trying. Getting bothered on the Tube by a potential gym-addict weirdo is definitely a not-trying situation.

‘Sorry to intrude,’ Sports says hesitantly. When he frowns, there’s crinkles around those pretty eyes that look like laugh lines; Andy doubts they’re from worry, not with the outfit and the limited edition Seiko watch on one tanned wrist. A client gifted him with a similar version once and Andy pawned it for an entire month’s rent.

Is the guy testing the waters, seeing if he’s right to assume before flat-out asking how much? Looks rich enough to throw money at something rather than working for it for free, and if he’s from out of town he wouldn’t have regulars. Could be Andy’s luck for the evening is turning, which seems unlikely. But then, it’s well past fucking time for it.

Thinking of his pathetically empty fridge and even more pathetic bank account, Andy figures hey, why not. At least if he gets arrested they might feed him if he doesn’t try to fight the arresting officer this time.

Tilting his head back, he drums up a false smile with the ease of practice and meets the guy’s stare full on, trying to look appealing and not like a half-frozen tramp, probably with mixed success.

‘Not at all,’ he says, soothing out the burr of his accent automatically. ‘Is there something I can do for you? Something you’re looking for maybe?’ Deliberately he shifts in his seat so his jeans slip, bare another half-inch of skin and notes Sports’ eyes widening. Jackpot.

‘I wonder,’ Sports says and his voice pitches up to uncertainty, ‘if you were from here? How do you say- native?’

‘Local,’ Andy corrects. Fuck, this guy’s practically gift-wrapped. It’s definitely a U-turn in luck because the pursuit is Andy’s least favourite part of his job, hating the struggle to compress his innate awkward into something smoother, more charming. It’s why he pays the agency after all, to deliver him an address and a sure thing. ‘Not originally, but I am now. I can do local if that’s what you’re looking for.’

The train brakes into the next station but neither of them look toward the doors. Andy should get off, catch a train going back to make his connection but if he can hook Sports independently then he won’t have to pay the usual third to the agency and he’ll make his rent on time, for once.

Carefully he shifts his hand from where it’s resting on his leg, sliding slow up to the dip where thigh met crotch and spreading his fingers in an overly-casual framing gesture. Making it obvious; anyone stepping on the train would know at a glance what’s going on, Sports hesitating with his mouth open on stalled words while Andy sprawls out across the seats, advertising the goods on offer as sure as any of the posters stickering the walls.

Their luck holds and the doors slam shut, enclosing them back in privacy for another few minutes. Andy tries to remember the next station, what’s the closest hotel that’ll turn a blind eye if Sports is staying somewhere too far. The important thing is to appear casually in control; he’d lost more than a few bookings through hesitation when he’d first started out, until trial and error taught him which clients liked the shy out-of-town Scottish boy act and which liked a challenge.

For all the mute hesitation, Sports definitely looks like the latter. He’s giving Andy an obvious once-over now, lingering over the sharp cut of his hips, the thin lines of bruising across his abs from one of Andy’s regulars a few days ago. Faded to almost yellow but the cane leaves a distinctive pattern and Sports is frowning at it, hands curling to fists at his sides.

‘I just wanted to ask,’ Sports says and the hoarse edge pushes Andy’s smile towards genuine because if there’s anything he knows, it’s what a guy sounds like when he’s turned on, ‘if it’s not any trouble-’

‘No trouble,’ Andy murmurs, tucking his thumb into the waistband of his jeans and experiencing a rush of satisfaction at the flush spreading across Sports’ cheeks.

‘If-’ Sports swallows. ‘If you can tell me which train to catch to Wimbledon?’

Which- oh fucking shitting hell. Well now Andy feels like a monumental tit.

He can’t help a, ‘What- seriously?’ gritted out with on an incredulous overtone and fuck, he’s blushing which means he’ll be tomato-red all the way down his chest in a minute. Way to misread a situation, Murray, he tells himself as he straightens up in his seat with mortification cramping in his stomach, cursing himself for even leaving the house tonight.

Not that he’d said anything – nothing that would’ve got him arrested if this was a set-up, but it’d been pretty obvious that he was offering himself up like a free taster before the main event. Fuck.

‘Sorry- yes,’ Sports says. He’s still frowning, tilting his head as his gaze flicks over Andy with unexpected measure despite the flush sitting high across his cheeks. ‘Is that hard?'

Andy bites his lip and Sports inhales sharp, eyes going wide. ‘Wait, I mean difficult. I did not-’

‘I know what you meant,’ Andy says to put both of them out of their misery. Which is pretty tricky when he is half-hard, too much cock-teasing without relief tonight and from the uncomfortable way Sports is shifting his weight Andy’s guessing he’s not far off either.

The thought flickers, tentative ad wistful; it would’ve been interesting, as much as he applies that concept to sex these days. Sports isn’t quite handsome but he’s fit, and someone Andy might’ve actually opted to sleep with given the choice, which would’ve been a nice change.

Would’ve been of course, if Andy wasn’t trying to will them to the next station faster so he can flee this miserable situation. Possibly running all the way to throwing himself in the Thames. Sure drowning in London’s collective sludge has downsides but he wouldn’t have to remember this anymore and that’s a big fat check under the pros column. Fuckity fuck, how did he offend the universe enough to deserve this entire evening? At least he’s almost certain now that Sports is a tourist so Andy’s never going to have to see him again once they get off this fucking Tube.

‘Wimbledon’s easy,’ he mutters, burying his mortification in gruffness. ‘You need to go back to Waterloo and catch a train. You shouldn’t have to wait too long. You should get off- I mean, you should change at the next stop.’

Sports doesn’t seem to notice the fumble this time, instead looking around to take in the carriage, the neat seats and advertising, his frown turning bewildered.

‘Is this not a train?’

‘You need an overground train.’ That gets Andy a blank look and silently he curses himself for even considering what he’s about to offer, for the clinging soft-heartedness no amount of canes and paddles seem to shift.

‘I suppose,’ he says, heavy with reluctance, ‘I could show you.’

Given the crashing idiot he’s just proved himself, it’s not surprising that Sports doesn’t immediately leap at the offer but the wariness that flashes over his expression is, in Andy’s opinion, uncalled for. He doesn’t cut a threatening figure, what with the bruises and the foot wedged firmly in his mouth, and he’s not the one bothering a ‘native’ for directions. The guy is obviously completely lost if he’s trying to find Wimbledon on the Jubilee line. So why is he looking at Andy as if he’s a potential axe murderer and not someone innocently offering help with directions?

Okay – there was the whole thing where Andy just tried to get him to pay for illegal gay sex. As introductions go, he’s probably had better.

‘Is it where you are going?’ Sports asks, tentative. ‘I do not want to bother you.’

It isn’t; it’s going to add almost an hour to Andy’s trip home just getting this guy on the right train, but it’s not as if his sofa is going to be pissed at him if he misses their date. Plus he’s offered now, and if he backs out he’ll spend the rest of the week feeling even worse about tonight than he was going to already. Sports might be rich but Andy’s rating his street smart level a notch below the squirrels that mug visitors for sandwiches in Hyde Park; who ends up not only in the wrong part of London, but doesn't have the sense to get off the obviously wrong Tube line? It figures that Sports would be staying in Wimbledon when he has money for £2000 watches, but not sense enough to pick up a map.

Not to mention (even considering that Andy is hardly qualified to pass judgment on anyone’s life choices) of the commuters in their thousands on the Tube to approach for directions, it took a spectacular lack of self-preservation to pick the topless prostitute.

So instead of explaining, he just says, ‘It’s fine,’ and offers a hand because Sports is still watching him with intent wariness. Maybe it’s that which trips him into offering his actual name, and not one of the handful of aliases he uses with clients, following some weird urge to prove to this complete stranger that he’s trustworthy after all. ‘I’m Andy.’

Sports takes the hand with overt caution but his grip is firm, palm dry and callused in a way that suggests he works with his hands somehow. ‘Novak.’

‘Novak?’ Andy asks, frowning as he thinks of the flag. ‘Is that Polish?’

He has no idea what he said right but the tension goes out of Sports’ – Novak’s – shoulders immediately.

‘Serbian,’ he replies with a grin that lights up his entire face and drops into the seat beside Andy, all long limbs and casual invasion of personal space. Maybe it wasn’t the illegal gay sex offer that freaked him out, but Andy can’t come up with a viable alternative suggestion. It’s almost like-

No, the only reason Andy would have to recognise someone, that Novak might be worried he would, is if he’d been a client, and Andy’s damn sure he’d remember fucking someone all hard, slender angles and those hazel eyes. There’s just enough tightness to the expensive jeans to suggest the muscle beneath and no, he wouldn’t forget something so beyond his usual businessmen-in-a-hurry and closeted family men fucking him in cheap hotel rooms while no one was looking. He’s never seen Novak before.

Dismissing it, he’s about to mention that they should change trains at the next stop – when every nerve comes to screaming life as an unexpected, callused fingertip traces across his chest.

Okay no, it definitely wasn’t the illegal gay sex that was the problem.

‘How did you get these?’ Novak asks, casually poking the cane marks as if Andy being shirtless amounts to an invitation. He hesitates though, fingers curling away, when Andy sucks in a startled breath. ‘Sorry! I intrude.’

‘Its fine,’ Andy says again, although the stab of sensation from the bruise jolted right down to his crotch. Trying to be surreptitious, he shifts his hips to ease the pressure of denim and silently curses the client earlier for changing his mind; if he’d already come tonight, it’d be much easier not to react to the warmth of Novak pressed up against his side. ‘It’s a secret but I guess I can tell you. I’m a member of the Queen’s royal ninja guard and we have practice every morning. This is from getting hit with Her Majesty’s training sword every day in Buckingham Palace.’

Novak opens his mouth. Shuts it again, and frowns, which is when Andy can’t hold a straight face any longer; his lips twitch, tugging up and Novak pokes him in the abs harder.

‘You are fucking with me!’ he says, accusing and Andy laughs.

‘Yeah. Had you for a minute though.’

‘Asshole,’ Novak says without rancour. An expression suspiciously close to a pout wars against a grin around his mouth, amusement fighting through a half-hearted poker-face and Andy’s hit like a fist in the ribs with an urge to kiss the petulance away completely, left breathless by a sudden ache of want that’s bittersweet.

In a realisation that blooms warm against the ache of bone-deep cold, he realises he probably would’ve enjoyed sex with Novak - realises he still wants it. Even though he knows better than most the deceptive nature of first impressions, the usual clients he gets aren’t into the kind of teasing that involves laughter.

‘You were half right anyway,’ he allows, careful because he- shit, he’s only admitted this to a total outsider once before and that only after the sole time he’d consumed his bodyweight in alcohol, but inexplicably he wants to tell Novak. Maybe it’s the same fatalistic urge that made him want to flip off the guard, lingering burn of humiliation from tonight driving him to ever-stupider life choices. For all he feels like he owes the Serb after that intensely awkward introduction, he gets a feeling too that Novak’s less stupid than he’s pretending and he’ll appreciate the honesty.

It’s not an excuse, he tells himself, too tired to make it sound believable to himself. Watching Novak’s gaze flick sideways at him, sharp and all narrow-eyed intent, he takes a deep breath. ‘I got them from fucking with people. Or letting people fuck me, more accurately.’

They’re stopping at another station – they might’ve stopped at a few honestly; Andy’s not paying attention – but neither of them move. Novak’s frowning slightly but Andy’s pretty sure it’s not in surprise or disgust, even with nerves clenching tight in his chest. If anything he’d say that Novak looks thoughtful as reaches out to trace the yellowing line of the darkest bruise with a ticklish-light touch and god, Andy’s never met anyone so confident in touching a willing stranger.

And he has sex with strangers every day.

‘This is not from fucking only,’ Novak says, edging on tentative as he taps the bruise too gently to sting. ‘This is being hit, yes?’

Andy hitches a shoulder in a non-committal maybe. Half-defensive with anxiety because this- this lack of reaction is a little weird. Even Kim had gone (loudly) wary, for a minute before settling down to sympathetic curiosity and after the evening he’s had, the last thing he needs is for this to turn into a yelling match on the Tube.

‘Yeah’ he says, cautious. ‘Sometimes, they want that. Sometimes other things. They’re the ones paying, and we agree the limits before I get there. It’s fine.’

Novak’s hand stills, fingertip pressing just below the curve of Andy’s ribs and there’s the same tension from before back in the hunch of his shoulders, the shuttered expression he’s wearing as he studies Andy’s face now, not his stomach.

‘Is it okay with you?’

‘Well- yeah.’ Andy shrugs again, aware of his heart racing but he’s not spent years play-acting for nothing and his voice comes out flatly casual, accent rounding off the edges of the words barely at all because he’s learned to hold it back even with panic lumped in his throat. His job teaches a surprising number of real-world life skills and they all get hammered home under pressure. ‘I like some parts more than others, but that’s any job. Do you like everything in yours?’

‘My job does not ask to beat me up,’ Novak says pointedly and then hesitates. ‘Not often. And not with sticks.’

Andy’s stomach drops with sudden disappointment. Closing his hands on the edge of his seat, he digs his fingers into the rough fabric for grounding but forcing his tone light takes an effort as he asks, ‘What is this – the Inquisition?’ Because, fuck. Looks like Novak’s disgusted after all, freaking out about this if not the whore thing. It was too good to be true anyway, he shouldn’t have let himself be tricked into hope and his tone dips toward hostility when he adds:

'Unless you're asking for a price to do it yourself, it's not really any of your business is it?'

Part of him - the part that isn't aching to be in his own bed and to never catch a Tube again for fear of overly-tactile Serbian tourists – quivers with the hope that Novak will ask how much. There's a mark-up for anything that leaves visible bruising and Novak looks pretty skinny beneath the bulky hoodie; Andy doubts he packs much of a forehand and he’s hot, Andy’s cock already on board with wherever this goes. It'd be worth the rent money.

Instead, alarm so heartfelt it's almost comical flashes across Novak's face.

'No, that isn't-!' He starts and breaks off, swallowing whatever he'd been about to say. 'I did not mean, is bad you know? Only I see you here, and you look unhappy and then you say you get hit, I think maybe there is connection. Sorry. I always do the stupid thing you know, jump without seeing right?’

Despite himself, Andy feels his mouth tug reluctantly towards a smile. ‘You mean look before you leap.’

‘Right.’ Novak smiles back, uncertain at the edges but already the tension is easing between them, Novak’s shoulder pushing into Andy’s as he slumps back into his seat. ‘I open my mouth always to say the wrong thing, offend wrong people. You should meet Fe- this guy I ah, work with. Every time I speak is dark looks and Novak, why are you so stupid? Novak, why you do impressions and bring shame on us, you are disgrace. No matter what I do, you know?’

‘Sounds like a right tosser,’ Andy offers, and Novak laughs. He laughs with his whole body, head thrown back and Andy looks at the slender arc of his throat, all golden tan beneath the sweep of dark stubble and has to swallow hard against the heat prickling beneath his skin. Against the unfairness of never getting what he wants.

They’re slowing into another station, rattle of the train winding down to a brief interlude of quiet, and into it he says, forcing it out quick before he loses courage when Novak looks back at him, ‘Thank you anyway I guess, for worrying. Most people don’t.’

Head still tipped back, lips parted on breathlessness, Novak slants him a sideways look. It’s thoughtful, and soft with something that only can’t be called fondness because it’s too new.

‘Then,’ he says, surprisingly sincere behind the half-smile, ‘people are stupid.’

Flushing, Andy looks away. This is too much too soon, the give and take between them deceptively easy and he knows he should stop this before it turns into another regret boxed away like a weight in his chest. He’ll show Novak to Waterloo and he’ll go home, back to his tiny studio flat with the constant smell of soy sauce from the Chinese takeaway across the street, and the embarrassingly-sagging couch he dragged home from a charity shop. In a week he’ll have forgotten the particular shade of Novak’s eyes, in a month the softly-tempting curl of his mouth. Nothing in his life up until this point would suggest chance encounters on trains lead to anything other than half-remembered what-ifs that are always better than the reality.

They still need to change trains anyway and he opens his mouth to suggest they move, when the doors close on yet another platform. Shit. They’re going to end up in the depot at this rate.

‘So what parts do you like?’

Startled out of bitterness, Andy looks back at Novak who’s watching him still with that not-quite-there smile, as if he’s spent time trying to learn to look serious but it didn’t quite take.

‘What?’ he asks, suddenly wary. ‘We don’t kiss and tell you know.’

‘This is not anyone private though? Just you. Tell me,’ Novak coaxes as if they’re already old friends sharing confidences, curiosity glittering bright and sharp beneath his attempt to keep a straight face. ‘Your favourite thing.’

I don’t have a favourite, Andy thinks but it’s not true, not really; he prides himself on the parts of his job he’s actually good at on a purely technical level, but there are a few things that coil arousal a little tighter, burn a little hotter. He’s only human.

He’s just not sure he can offer that knowledge up to an almost-stranger, even one this charming. Not when tonight’s already stripped him to the skin metaphorically and literally. He was just thinking about how miserable it’ll be to watch Novak walk away; how stupid then, to give them both more reasons to regret things they can't have.

Hesitating, he meets Novak’s eyes – and sees them darken, pupils wide. With fresh interest he notes the colour warming the Serb’s cheeks, the way he catches his lip between his teeth, worries it puffy and flushed as he frowns. Still turned on and if Andy’s wary of offering up affection, then lust –well, that he knows exactly how to work with.

Reaching out in a deliberate movement, he rests his hand on Novak’s thigh. It’s warm through denim, hard with muscle and Andy watches Novak’s eyes flutter, down and back, throat bobbing as he swallows something not quite a sound.

‘There is one thing in particular,’ Andy says and slides his fingers up another inch, digging in to feel Novak’s shiver. ‘But I’m pretty shit with words. I could show you, if you’re up for it?’

'I don't-' Novak's eyes go wide suddenly, uncertainty caught in the corners of his mouth curling down. 'Here?'

Andy grins, makes it frank and uncomplicated despite the quiver of anxiety sitting in his stomach. He's fucked bare-assed against apartment windows, over antiques in back rooms at packed auction houses, and, memorably, come into a client's hand under the table during a business dinner at Sheekeys. In comparison this is private, entire carriage to themselves and minimal chance of anyone getting on at the few stations left on the line. If he's quick, it'll be over before Novak has time to shout.

Still, the little voice that he mostly ignores, the one that tries to reason him out of stupid decisions on a daily basis, is pointing out that he's only being this reckless because he wants to taste Novak before they part ways. He might forget how the Serb looks, or sounds, but he never forgets how people feel; once they’re in, they’re written in body-memory and half-fragments of dreams for years after. He wants to keep Novak burned across his fingertips, hoard this weird spark between them like a miser, long after obviously rich-and-successful Novak has forgotten the odd Scottish boy on the Tube.

'It'll be fine,' he says, hand pushing further and Novak inhales with a shocked little sound when Andy gropes him through his jeans. He's hard, hot even through the concealing denim and the way his hips push up is all the confirmation Andy needs; Novak wants this as much as he does.

Not enough to hold back a protest though, gritted out with obvious reluctance as he rocks into Andy’s hand, his head thrown back and mouth wide on a gasp, tongue a tantalising flash of red as he wets his lips.

‘Andy, Andy you don’t understand- we can’t. If someone sees, so much trouble. For me, for you. Is bad idea.’

‘Bad is relative,’ Andy says, glancing up at the Tube map stickered along the top of the carriage. Four stations left so he’ll have to be quick. ‘No one will see. It’s late and we’re at the arse end of the line, no one’s getting on.’ Taking a chance, he curls his fingers tight and leans in as Novak hisses, presses an open-mouthed kiss to the warm, vulnerable line of his throat.

‘Trust me,’ he murmurs against damp skin, rough with evening stubble, feeling the throb of Novak’s pulse against the slick edge of his tongue. ‘It’ll be worth it.’

The sound Novak makes is incoherent, twisted around his gasps for air but a jerky nod is agreement enough.

Okay then, Andy thinks, and tries not to think of all the ways this could backfire. Cautious – his track record is decidedly ah, pathetic, when neither party is getting paid so he can’t let himself trust he’ll get this right yet – he fumbles blindly with the ease of practice, waiting all the time for the no that doesn’t come. Pops the button on Novak’s jeans and when his fingertips brush skin, both of them shiver.

‘Take your hoodie off,’ Andy whispers, thinking it through. Novak doesn’t follow if the confused face he makes is any indication, but he obediently unzips his hoodie with hands that aren’t quite steady, letting Andy tug it down his arms and oh.

Andy silently retracts every uncharitable thought about Novak wearing sports gear to look cool because those are some nice muscles. Tanned here too, rich gold dusted with sun-bleached hair and Andy may have to rethink his vague impression of Serbia as a cold, snowy misery if it can produce this. The sleeves of Novak’s t-shirt – which is fire-truck red, Andy admiring the contrast against Novak’s skin, the complement to his flushed-raw mouth – reveal just a hint of tan lines so he guesses the colour’s earned honestly outdoors rather than from a sunbed addiction.

Andy grins his approval as he meets Novak’s lazy smile when he catches the stare, cocksure in his own skin.

That wavers when Andy tugs down the zipper of his jeans, pushing them aside to bare black briefs and he enjoys the choked sound Novak makes when he rubs a thumb over the damp cotton so much that he does it again, pressing over the swell of Novak’s dick. Hard now, straining at the fabric and Andy takes a final look at Novak’s flushed cheeks, his pupils blown wide with arousal, before he says:

‘If anyone gets on, pretend I’m just sleeping,’ and he shrugs the hoodie around his shoulders as he ducks down, tugs the hood over his head so to anyone not sitting directly next to them it’ll look like nothing more than him sleeping with his head in Novak’s lap.

Whatever protest Novak makes is muffled by the hood, although he grips Andy’s shoulder tight beneath it and Andy has a startled second to panic before he realises Novak’s not pushing him away. Just holding him steady, awkward to balance on the narrow seats and Andy hums appreciation with his mouth hot on the cotton separating him from bare skin. Novak smells of heat and musk, a faint tang of the soap he must use beneath and Andy can’t wait – they’re on a time limit, fast running out of remaining stops – so he pulls the briefs aside, easing Novak free in the shadows as he leans in close, breathes warm air over hard, flushed skin.

The rewarding twitch, head to toe, from Novak is delicious. Andy feels like his every move is telegraphed in the quiver of Novak beneath his fingertips, in the half-choked quiet gasps.

Andy,’ Novak says, voice ragged with permission and Andy doesn’t hesitate. Lick to the head as a warning, salt wet slick sharp on his tongue, and then he swallows Novak in one, smooth motion, all the way to the thatch of dark hair at the base.

Sucking dick for a living has its perks.

He has to give Novak credit for self-control; despite the tension quivering beneath Andy’s hands and mouth the Serb doesn’t jerk up into him like far too many clients, holding still with his grip flexing on Andy’s shoulder. Relaxing his throat, Andy gives him everything in return, heat and wet, tight suction even as salt-bitter precome drips out the seal of his lips, slicking his chin.

He wasn’t lying to Novak when he said he loves this best. Loves that no one expects him to talk with his mouth full of dick, loves that he’s excellent at it, knowing that without needing to be told because Novak’s practically shaking apart against him. Pulling back far enough to use his tongue, alternating pointed tip and flat, soft circles, he distantly registers the braking of the train into the next station and ticks it off a mental list. Three to go, hurry up, hurry up, and he deep throats Novak again, feeling the lack of oxygen start to blur the world to dizziness.

Which is when Novak’s hand on his shoulder goes abruptly tight, sharp pain of bruising that means Andy’ll wear the imprint of it tomorrow, fuck.

Tears start behind his eyelids, hot with unexpected hurt, and it’s all Andy can do to keep his teeth from scraping sensitive skin. Almost chokes, throat sore when he lifts up slightly and the grip holding him down, tension too tight for arousal, is clue enough for him to get it, tamp down the flare of worry that Novak likes bruises after all. Because the way he’s trembling is fear, not pleasure, and there’s only one thing that could be.

Someone got on the train. Meaning, someone is in the carriage with them and Andy’s here, mouth full of an indecent exposure charge waiting to happen.

Blinded by the hoodie, Andy can’t look; he’d give them away instantly, mouth worn red, pre-come and spit slick down his chin even if he managed to cover up Novak’s complete lack of being fit for public consumption. Can’t move either, almost shaking with the effort of holding still, Novak hard and heavy on his tongue, so close to the edge. The thigh muscles beneath his hand are knotted, Novak strung out tense as piano wire with panic and if he snaps, if he makes a sound, it’s game over. Arrested before they make it through the ticket barriers.

Unless-

- its got to be just one person, this late. Minimal chance it’s a police officer, and better than fair chance they’re wearing headphones, given that it’s the favoured method for Tube commuters to isolate themselves from the miserably public parts of public transport; they won’t be able (or want) to hear anything around them.

There’s just a chance they could get away with it. With this.

Weighing the odds with pre-come leaking bitter all over his tongue might be skewing his judgement but Andy’s one marketable factor, according to his boss, is his unflinching ability to take whatever shit gets thrown his way and ride with it. It’s why he gets given to the difficult clients, the ones who get whip-happy or want the weird shit no one likes to describe aloud over the phone. It’s why the other men at the agency smile at him even as they edge away, make excuses and avoid meeting his eyes.

Andy knows he isn’t particularly attractive, or charming, but he can do this. Be tough enough to look whatever the universe hits him with straight in the eye and not give a fuck. After four years he’s so good at it that it’s even true, most of the time.

So instead of sliding back, giving Novak the space to wind down and breathe, Andy tightens his lips and sucks.

He feels the shout Novak swallows in the way the muscles of his stomach quiver, pressed to Andy’s cheek. The hand on his shoulder clenches with an unbelievable grip, hard enough that Andy makes an involuntary hum of protest and he feels the effort it takes Novak to relax, the stutter of his fingertips as he trembles. In answer Andy works his throat in appreciation, driving the other man to the edge as hard and fast as he knows how.

He wishes he could see Novak’s face, see if the firework bursts of bliss every time Andy swirls his tongue are written across his mouth and eyes as clear as they are in his entire body, hot and pliable beneath Andy’s hands. He’s seen so many people come and it’s never dignified, the instant in which they tip over and the crash of pleasure overwhelms self-control – but he thinks Novak might be beautiful in the loss.

If he was an optimist he might let himself think, next time , but he abandoned any delusions of happily ever after a long time ago. It’s enough, anyway, that he has this, Novak silk-slick and hot against his tongue, the careful way he’s pressing his palm flat to Andy’s shoulder without gripping again even as he shakes apart. It’s all heat and airless darkness beneath the hoodie, Andy’s chest tight with breathlessness now but there’s salt-bitterness in his mouth and Novak’s hips jerk, desperate, and the abrupt release of tension warns Andy in time to pull back, just enough.

Novak comes silent, body arcing as he barely jerks on the rush of it. Andy swallows, used to the taste and writing off air as a secondary consideration to drawing out the pleasure of working Novak through the shakes, until he goes limp, relaxing into his seat with a sigh Andy feels, ghost-breath over his shoulder where the hoodie’s slipped to bare skin.

Sitting up immediately would be too obvious, spelling out their public indecency for whoever’s on the train. Andy keeps still instead, Novak’s softening dick slipping from his mouth. Resting his head on warm denim-clad thigh he breathes, slow and deep, until the world stops spinning.

He’s too tired to be surprised when Novak’s hand comes to curl at the back of his neck beneath the concealing hoodie, affection disproportionate to what this is, to what Andy expected. His callused fingertips trace circles through the tendrils of hair stuck to sweat-damp skin, careful as if Andy’s liable to break. They stay like that until the train rocks into another station, Andy feeling the press of braking and the cool breeze from the doors. Can’t hear footsteps over the thump of his own heartbeat but Novak’s hand vanishes from the back of his neck and suddenly the hoodie is tugged back.

‘Andy.’ Novak sounds like he’s been eating sand, voice rasped to shreds with being swallowed into silence. ‘They’re gone, it’s okay.’

Andy takes a minute to lever himself upright, feeling the awkward position in every aching joint and so hard his vision blurs at the friction from his jeans. Sparing a clumsy hand to tuck Novak back into his briefs, they both hiss as the contact and Andy’s about to mumble an apology when Novak’s hand curves along his chin, careful as he pushes up and then his mouth is soft on Andy’s.

It’s not an ideal kiss, Andy’s lips raw and there’s a sting of copper from Novak’s where he’s bitten them, probably trying to stay quiet. For all that it’s easy, fit of their mouths together almost instinctive and Andy leans into Novak with a quiet sound caught between them. Novak’s free hand skates over his shoulder with a warm, bold touch, traces the line of his spine and scratches lightly over the dip where his jeans have slid down, fingertips sliding beneath the waistband, unsteady touch that’s all question rather than demand.

Andy breaks the kiss as the hand slips around to where he’s hard, panting out, ‘You don’t have to- we don’t have much time.’

‘Let me,’ Novak murmurs, pleading note beneath the rasp and Andy’s not really inclined to argue. Keeps the kiss going as Novak pops the button on his jeans, as the hand wriggles in- and stops, pressing hard into bare skin instead of underwear.

Novak pulls back to give him a startled look.

‘They’re in the same place as my shirt,’ Andy mutters, knowing his cheeks are flushing warm because, god he’s such a mess. ‘Long story.’

Novak hums an amused sound and leans forward again, kisses the hard line of Andy’s cheekbone where his blush sits, mouth soft and cool against the heated skin.

‘Mmm,’ he murmurs, softly affectionate,’ a story you must tell me I think, another time. Now-’

He twists his wrist and wraps slender fingers over Andy’s dick, catching Andy’s gasp with his mouth. Pressing forward, Novak kisses him wet and enthusiastic as he works his hand, tongue licking in to open up Andy’s mouth until it’s all he can do to gasp in air against Novak’s lips, close his eyes and push up into the drag of callused fingers. Already wet with pre-come, slicking the friction into something delicious and Andy tries to focus long enough to guess if Novak’s done this before, if the roughness of his grip is orgasm-clumsiness or inexperience, but his thoughts are scattering like confetti in the breeze, pleasure sparking glittering lights behind his eyelids as he rides the edge, and he loses focus on anything other than the steady rhythm of Novak’s hand.

There’s a brush of warmth against his mouth, Novak murmuring something but Andy’s too far gone to parse even what language it’s in. Novak doesn’t seem to want a response anyway, a soft litany breathed over his cheek, the dip of his temple, the reassuring rise and fall of nonsense sound as Andy curls forward to rest his forehead on Novak’s shoulder and comes so hard he makes an inadvertent whimper of sound, leaning into the other man’s steady warmth as the world blurs.

For a long minute all he can do is breathe through it, fractured little pants pressed into the curve of Novak’s shoulder. Lasts until the rush eases down to the bone-deep exhaustion of the best sex and he realises he’s slumped boneless into the Serb, one hand tangled loosely in his shirt and shivering with aftershocks from public sex in the middle of a Tube train.

Fuck, he’s supposed to be the professional here. How the hell did he let himself get into this situation?

He tries to straighten up, pull away from Novak to regain some shreds of dignity but every muscle stages a revolt and he sways back down. Rendered useless by a single orgasm; if the sex trade was the kind of industry to award employee of the month, he’d be getting whatever sits at the opposite end of the scale. Epic embarrassment to whores everywhere of the month perhaps. He’d even nominate himself.

Novak drops a kiss on his forehead, light brush of lips, and in answer something soft flutters in the pit of Andy’s stomach, alongside a startled thread of dismay. No, no , he insists to himself with abrupt panic, he’s not going to fall in love with an almost-stranger on the Tube, not when it’s just orgasm delusion and adrenaline. He’s not that much of an idiot.

(You’re totally that much of an idiot, his common sense-voice points out. Andy’s pretty good at ignoring it by now though.)

‘I can’t believe we got away with it,’ he mutters to fill the silence. Novak makes an incoherent sound like a chicken being strangled and suddenly Andy’s pushed upright with Novak gripping his shoulders, eyes wide.

‘Wait. You have not done that before? You didn’t know it could be done?’

‘Er,’ Andy says, eloquently, and Novak drops his face into his hands, sprawling back into his seat with what sounds like a Serbian curse.

‘I will be locked up for rest of my career,’ he says, despair muffled into his palms. ‘This was me to prove I am responsible. That I am to be trusted. Instead, I am lost, probably to be arrested by army of angry English police for- for accidental fucking. I am disgrace to everything.’

Right, Andy thinks. He tries to ignore the sinking feeling running rampant where the fluttery softness had sat in his stomach just a moment ago and focuses on carefully rearranging himself back in his jeans – ruined, come soaked in streaks and wow, he’s blitzing through the Ten Ways to Humiliate Yourself bucket list tonight. Without looking at Novak he edges back in his seat, clumsily reassembling the lines he’d almost crossed between them. It was nice, it’ll make a great anecdote one day but back to reality, make strategic retreat before Novak remembers whose idea this entire thing was-

Which is when he realises the train is quiet, sitting in a station with the doors open. End of the line and fuck fuck, someone will be coming to check the carriages any minute.

‘Hey,’ he says, swallowing against the traitorous way his voice wants to bend out of shape around the words, ‘sorry but we need to go. I can point you towards Wimbledon if you still- if you want.’

Novak looks up sharp and bewildered, staring at Andy as if he’s grown a second head. There’s still a flush over his cheeks, lips kiss-puffy and Andy experiences a pang of regret so fierce it steals his breath away. God, it’s not fair.

‘What?’ Novak sounds honestly confused, maybe edged with a flicker of hurt. ‘You are not going? After-’ He gestures between them, the come splatters and both of them obviously rumpled but Andy knows he means everything else too, the pull toward each other like magnetism, like the sharp relief of finding something you hadn’t realised was lost. ‘I thought-’

He stops, shoulders curling in on himself with a sharp inhale. ‘I mean, it is fine if you don’t want. Sorry.’

Tentative, not letting his voice tilt into anything like hopeful because optimism is just another way of asking for a kick in the stomach, Andy lets himself voice the question. ‘What?’

‘I thought-’ Novak frowns, and straightens up with the air of bracing himself even as he looks Andy direct in the eye.

‘Come home with me?’ he asks. ‘Please? I am perhaps not in London long and I cannot escape to ride your Tube all night in hope I meet you again, probably not ever, and I would like to meet you again, I like you although I have just met you and you- you must hear this always, I’m sorry. Always I say the wrong thing.’

‘No,’ Andy says and has to pause to take a breath, steady himself against the hope shivering fragile in his chest, ‘No that sounds like the right thing this time.’

And he's definitely an idiot, because he'd willingly humiliate himself a thousand times for the smile that lights up Novak’s face.

It’s not until they’re off the train and walking toward the corridor between platforms that it occurs to him to wonder, exactly what Novak thinks he just asked. If it was nothing more than asking come home with me to a stranger who offered help and a blowjob on the Tube, inviting Andy for an honest one night stand or something more, something like a promise in the shy curve of his mouth as he said I like you.

Or if he thinks he just hired himself a prostitute for the night.

Andy doesn’t like complicated. It’s made selling himself for money that much easier, the urge to sidle away when people get too close, too interested, that’s been ingrained in every fibre of him as long as he can remember. A long time ago maybe, he indulged in the occasional leap of faith but it’s simpler, he’s found, to go into situations expecting the worst. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised occasionally than live constantly with the gut-wrench of disappointment.

So he doesn’t waste time fooling himself. Slanting a sideways look at Novak, chattering happily beside him as they walk up the platform, Andy lets the knowledge settle into the pit of his stomach that this is a business transaction, nothing more. Professional, he’s a professional god damn it, and ruthlessly he squashes the flicker of wishful thinking before it has time to take root. Novak’s obviously rich, obviously up for it, and Andy’s caught his eye like a piece of shiny on a shelf somewhere, to be picked up like his expensive accessories. This is nothing more than the universe gifting Andy his rent cheque for a month.

Mid-expansive gesture as he details the events of his night that led him to the Tube, Novak turns to flash him a smile and Andy quirks his mouth up to grin before he can stop himself. Idiot.

‘You okay?’ Novak queries, doesn’t wait for Andy to respond before he glances down at Andy’s bare chest, and pulls an exasperated face. ‘You’re cold, I am an idiot. Here.’ And he shakes out the hoodie he’d balled beneath his arm when Andy half-dragged him off the train, pausing mid-stride to hold it up as if Andy’s five years old.

Despite the close warmth of the Underground, Andy hasn’t quite shaken the damp ache that sank into his bones as he shivered his way through Westminster. After a startled pause, he steps in to slide into the hoodie with a half-turn to get his arm through the sleeve and lets Novak settle it onto his shoulders, lean in close and brush his mouth over the back of Andy’s neck in a not-quite kiss.

‘Not that I did not ah, appreciate the view,’ he murmurs, soft-edged with teasing and Andy swallows hard. They could be just another couple heading home after a late night, caught in a moment of unguarded affection; anyone walking onto the quiet, empty stretch of platform would assume exactly that.

His voice comes out rusty with effort, staring down at his ripped Chucks. ‘Aren’t you afraid I’ll steal it?’

‘Why?’ Novak says, mouth dipping to kiss the base of Andy’s neck with a light, ticklish huff of amusement. ‘Are you a thief also? I think not, because then you would not let someone steal your shirt. Which, I should ask since you have heard my night – how did you lose it?’

Andy hasn’t heard a word of Novak’s chatter about his night beyond the words brother and dare , but he’s loathe to drag up the humiliation of his own evening to cover his distraction. Then again, this doesn’t matter, not as if he’ll see Novak again after tonight to have to keep his story straight and he opens his mouth to stumble out something dismissive.

One syllable in, he’s interrupted by the clatter of heavy footsteps from the stairs at the end of the platform. Not a big deal; they’re both clothed perfectly acceptably now and he’s about to dismiss his evening with a careful lie when Novak yanks away, sharp and with the echo of a panicked gasp lost between them.

When Andy twists round, the Serb is a metre away and staring intently at the floor. His carefully blank expression is belied by the flush colouring his cheeks but he doesn’t look up, almost tucking his face into his chest.

‘Oi.’ The voice comes from over by the stairs, from the owner of the heavy feet, and Andy’s glance finds a TFL employee giving them tourist-weary Londoner’s glare from beneath bushy eyebrows. ‘This train isn’t in service. You’ll have to leave the platform.’

‘Alright, we’re just going,’ Andy soothes but the guy doesn’t move until Andy reaches out, grabs Novak’s hand and tows him along to the stairs. Novak goes willingly but without lifting his head, turning away slightly as they pass the glaring man.

As if he’s afraid to be recognised, Andy allows himself to acknowledge with a sinking sensation as they cross the corridor to the other platform in silence that’s turned suddenly uncomfortable. There’s a nagging feeling, worrying at his certainty that this is nothing but a simple trick, one night with a rich tourist who’s too stupid to book a hotel in central London. Maybe Novak’s an actor, just famous enough to be recognised but not enough that Andy’s heard of him. Maybe he’s a business mogul. Maybe he doesn’t have a fucking ticket. Anything, except the possibility Andy’s refusing to let himself consider.

‘You didn’t stop me,’ he says before engaging his brain-to-mouth filter. Kicks himself as Novak looks up, wide-eyed, but he’s already dropped himself in it; he’s committed now, may as well salt the earth before he lets himself sink roots. ‘On the train, when someone got on. If you were bothered about being recognised, you’d have stopped me.’

‘I wasn’t-’ Whatever Novak’s about to lie gets cut off at Andy’s frown, the Serb taking a breath and blowing it out in defeat.

‘Okay,’ he admits, ducking his head with a bashful air that looks at least half-faked to mask genuine nerves, ‘I am worried I will be noticed. On the train it was just a girl on her phone, she never look up and I was- hm, distracted, but if a journalist, or someone I know, sees we may have big problem.’

They’ve ground to a halt halfway between platforms, stairs up to the ticket barriers and exit to one side. There’s still no one around and the TFL guy didn’t follow them - so there’s no one to acknowledge Andy taking a cowardly step backwards.

No one except himself and the flicker of dismay twisting the joy from Novak’s smile.

‘Andy?’ he says, pitched too high as the nerves get the upper hand and in that second he sounds as young as Andy first thought he was, flashy clothes and accessories all false confidence as he stumbles over English in his explanation. ‘This isn’t a problem, no? I’m not even famous, not like I am George Clooney you know, but it is Wimbledon and more people are watching us than usual so I must be careful. Your journalists would love to catch one of us out, make a fuss for two weeks. It isn’t- isn't a big deal, to be careful?'

‘Wimbledon.’ Andy hears his own voice as if from far away, detached from the sound by the descending numbness. Just for a minute there, he’d believed in luck and forgotten that the universe doesn’t believe in it for him in return, just in setting him up for the inevitable gut-punch of hurt every time. Because he keeps falling for it, for the hope of this time, maybe. Disappointment in himself is a familiar bitterness, clawing at his chest until it’s hard to breathe.

Obviously at a loss for how they went from tactile flirting to staring at each other arms-length apart, Novak half-lifts his hand as if to reach out, and freezes when Andy’s shoulders hunch defensively.

‘Andy?’ he says again as if it’s the magic word that might decode the situation, tone coaxing. Still half-amused behind the anxiety, as if he thinks he's being teased. ‘What’s the matter? I’m only a tennis player.’

The broken sound that jerks from Andy’s throat is involuntary, exhaled out through clenched teeth and Novak’s expression wipes to alarm. When he reaches out in earnest this time Andy stumbles back across the corridor, catching himself on the cold metal handrail by the stairs.

‘I’m sorry,’ he croaks, winded by the sheer rush of misery, by the hurt in Novak’s wide eyes, ‘I- I can’t. I’m so sorry. It’s not you, it’s- I have to go.’

Before he lets himself be persuaded out of it by the stubborn way Novak’s squaring his shoulders for the argument, he turns and sprints up the stairs.

Andy!

There’s footsteps on the tiles behind him but he’s got a head start and an adrenaline-fuelled disregard for safety, taking four steps at a time and cracking his elbow on the wall when he takes the corner at the top too sharp, gasping at the dizzy wash of pain. Fumbles his Oyster free of his jeans one-handed and he’s through the barriers and out, catching a blinding face-full of rain as he legs it down the street.

Behind him, Novak’s voice raises in argument with someone. He probably tried to go through the turnstiles without his ticket and the guard pulled him up. That or he’s yelling insults at Andy’s retreating back.

No matter, it’s delay enough for Andy to set his numb feet into a steady sprint, taking him away from Novak and all the temptation he almost fell for. Running away for the second time tonight, he thinks bitterly, because it’s the only thing he’s ever been any good at.

This will be better for everyone, anyway. Even if he was stupid enough to fall for Novak, it’s not as if the Serb thought of him as anything more than a whore to be bought for the night, something he needed to be careful to keep hidden.

Better to cut all ties now before it gets complicated.