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Now's the Time for Now

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The media and paparazzi don’t give bollocks for Arthur or his bandmates when they aren’t dropping a record or touring.  Thus Arthur can sit like he is, in his local, drinking unmolested.  Being miserable all on his lonesome.  Like he does.

You snared my soul with your cunning art, but I’m sick of your slick and twisted heart. Burned too hot too long to take

Can’t sit in a pub without hearing his own voice singing about love gone wrong, though.  Fuck, when did The Crouching Stag get satellite radio, anyway?

Arthur signals for another scotch.  He gave up on the Stella wot, two, three drinks ago? Figured he’d opt for a more honest level of pissed that requires fewer trips to the loo.

“Know ye can afford the good stuff, so that’s what yer gettin’,” the bartender, Alistair, teases, but he comes across with a couple fingers’ worth of twenty-year-old, so Arthur laughs.

“Right.  Posh drunk,” he says, with a grin as weak as his joke.

Yeah, he can afford it.  Twisted Heart was too real, too close, was meant for a deep track.  Arthur’s vanity track.  But he crafted it too catchy, and instead the label dropped it as a single.  And there he is, can buy anything he likes.  A car.  A huge fucking bed for fucking.  A proper fridge, and cases of French champagne, and as many of what Francis calls “honey blond(e)s” as he quite well pleases.  The car and the fridge full of champagne will languish unused, tonight.  The bed will drown Arthur when he crawls into it.

He’s a big-time rock star on vacation, ‘s’truth.   He and his mates’ve just finished an eight-month tour of Europe, North America and Asia and they planned these few weeks away from each other before crawling back to the studio to start their next record.  And really, after months on buses and seeing the dingy backstages of every major city worth seeing, a few weeks at home to spend with family or hang out at whatever pub they wish sounds wonderful. Problem is.  Problem.  Thingy.  Arthur is thirty-si—thirty-seven, and has no one to come home to.

Doesn’t have to be that way.  If he can rouse his aging arse from the stool, he can wander over, chat up those likely looking birds over by the unburning, empty fireplace—

“Oy.  ‘Ere comes trouble.”

Alistair sounds a wee bit alarmed.  Arthur rouses himself to turn and look.  The air already in his lungs chokes him, burns the corners of his eyes.  The original, the most precious, the absolute worst honey-blond that should never be here sidles up to stand next to him at the bar.

“Hi, Arthur,” Alfred says.

—all that’s left is a startling ache.  Grinning as pretty as you please, like it hasn’t been three fucking years.

“What—what are you doing here?”

Isn’t what Arthur means to say, wants to say, planned to say, dreamed of saying to his ex as he searched the crowds of New York and Los Angeles and Chicago and told himself at the time he wasn’t doing that at all.

“Was in the neighborhood.  Thought I’d get a drink.  Haha,” Alfred says.

“Here?”

Alfred’s shrug is exquisite in its familiarity.  “Well, it’s a haha-familiar spot in the big, old city.”

He always laughed too much when he was nervous.  And he’s rightfully fucking so to be.

“Then get one,” Arthur mutters.  He looks away, lets his scotch pull his gaze back down to safety.  In one vicious gulp, it’s gone.  Obviously he didn’t start on the good stuff early enough.

“Hey there!  What’s up?”  Alfred’s not talking to him, but to Alistair.  “Not that liquid concrete he’s having.  A beer, please.  Whatever you’ve got is great.”

Arthur plonks his empty glass onto the bar.  He peels out two fingers, sideways.  Alistair gets the message.  He pours Arthur another scotch before heading off to get Alfred’s pint.

“So.  Can I sit here?”

The chair next to Arthur rocks as Alfred tips it.

“Sit wherever you like,” Arthur says.  Can’t look at him again.  He watches the four centimetres of liquid concrete in his glass, sees it slosh a little with the tremble of his fingers.  Dammit, Alfred looks good.  Almost like when Arthur saw him last, with ruffled hair and a sheepish grin, though his denims are a little too loose and his tee-shirt a little too tight.  It’s a daft, beguiling thing, is Arthur’s longing to run his fingers under both, test the flesh for solidity and truth.

Alfred’s forearm on the counter in Arthur’s peripheral vision is tanned, the fine hairs on it sun-bleached nearly white.  Stupidly lovely arm.

“Congrats on the record.  I saw you play in February,” Alfred says.

And that, goddammit, makes Arthur look.  “Where?”

“Austin.”

Ah. So he was in Texas.  Did Arthur fuck anyone in Austin?  He sure hopes so.  And, well, at least he has something to hope for.

Alfred has a hopeful glint in his eye; his head’s cocked just so, like he does, another look that still has the power to compress Arthur’s innards to porridge.

Arthur manages to lift a porridge-hand to rub at something not really in his eye.  “So why are you really here?”

How dare you be here, you little prick?  When it was you who left me and I’ve never been able to replace you.  Truth, now.

Truth: even as he is, Arthur knows this shocking meeting is no shocking coincidence.  He’s old enough to fucking know better.  He lets the bar chair swivel, bring him face-to-face with his dream, the worst. 

‘You were looking for me, weren’t you?” he blurts. 

Is Alfred checking him out?  Up, down— looks like it.  He sips his beer and his glasses peer coyly over the top of the pint.

“Who says?  Like I told you, this is a familiar spot.”

They used to come here, now and then, when they lived in their – Arthur’s – old flat. In happier days. 

Happier for Arthur.  He lifts a numb eyebrow.

“Haha.  That old look.  You’ve hardly changed.  Tell you the truth, I wasn’t even sure I’d find you here.”

“So you were.  Looking for me.”

“I didn’t say that.”

Alfred hasn’t changed, either.  His powers of evasion are legendary.  Especially then, at the—

Alfred is still talking.  “I was in town. If you were here, thought I’d say hi.”

“Hi.”

“Hi back.”  His grin’s like sunshine.

“So why didn’t you say hi in Texas?”

“Well, you were pretty busy …”

Fuckin’ A.  “So how was the show?”

“Great!”

Riiight.  Alfred never really seemed to watch them, even then, the two years they were together.  He’d come to the gigs, of course, for ‘moral support,’ as he put it.

He sat somewhere in the back, usually.  If he could he took a table to himself and perched his laptop upon it, and tap-tappity-tapped away at some university paper or other.  Even at twenty-two he looked seventeen, all focused, a fresh-faced beacon amid the scruffy, drab-clad denizens of the clubs Arthur’s band played.  Arthur’s sprat all tucked away from the adults; his toyboy all studious with his maths, Arthur’s mates would say, taking the piss.

When each song ended Alfred would dutifully clap and whistle without even looking up from his screen.  When the show was over, he’d fold up his computer, straighten his glasses, and wander up to offer his critique.

“You guys were awesome on Ill Bill, really cohesive.  But you kinda fucked up Laments, like you all kept shifting keys or something.  Overall, pretty solid, though!”

He knew enough about music, though he was no musician.  He lived with Arthur, after all, attended plenty of their practices (Arthur’s babysitting again, they’d say).  He merely preferred R&B and hip-hop to rock or punk, when left to his own devices.

And Gilbert, whose idea the key-shifting thing had been, would snort with his teeth showing and say “like we’d take a Yank-nerd’s word for it.”  And Francis would call him a dear boy, and pat his cheek a little too hard.  And Arthur, fuck-besotted Arthur, would merely say, “Thank you, Professor.  Now pack up your kit and let’s go,” to hide how his heart would float or plummet with every praise and criticism.

Stupid.  Arthur’s scotch-numbed brain births a new truth: age has given him plenty of cynicism.

“You want to see me now that I’ve become a little more famous and rich?”

“Aw, hell no!”  That’s sincerely shocked Alfred: his (Texas-blue) eyes widen and then compress under his brows.  “I don’t give a shit about that.  I never did and you know it.  Say what you will about—about me otherwise, but I’m not—not—”

“A toady?”

“Good word.  Nope.  Groupie.  I’m not a groupie.”

“No, you’re not that,” Arthur sighs.

“But I’m happy for you.  Your success.”

“Thanks.”  Another sigh.  Now it’s happened: he’s seen Alfred again.  Arthur feels too many things about it, even six or seven drinks in, and has too much nothing he can say in the face of it.  “You look well.  Fit.  Maybe a little too skinny.” 

“You look good, too.  Maybe a little tired.” 

“Well, I’m very busy.”

“Yeah.  Me too.  I got a paid teaching fellowship at King’s College.”

“Did you really?”  Arthur’s impressed, a little.  Alfred was bridging his undergraduate/graduate studies, back when they were together.  He was a maths whiz.  A sciencey sort.  “I thought you wanted MIT?”

“Well, Jolly Olde England called me back.”

That Arthur can understand, but then, it’s his home.  Alfred moved on.  Had. Now he’s here.  Arthur stares, unable to not do it.  Hope rises in his porridge-heart like a terrible monster from its … porridge-swamp.  He can’t let Alfred see it, never ever.  Arthur’s always been good at hiding his feelings, too.

“So,” he says, a mush-brained conversational offering.  At least he looks cool, slouching in his bar chair.  He has it, cool, and he can put on when he needs to.  Thus he’s not asking.  Why did you leave me?

“So.”  Alfred is looking straight back.  He’s not telling.  So they stare.

One time, Alfred watched.  It was a quiet night in Birmingham, a crowd that was small but relaxed.  Which was fine, until they finished Arthur’s penultimate song about fighting the system, and still the crowd seemed too relaxed. 

So Arthur suggested to the lads, let’s close with Ceremony.  Francis and Gil shrugged and nodded; Francis liked it because it was a melody he could drive with the bass, and Gil started tap-tapping the fast, steady beat.  They hadn’t practiced it lately but Arthur could play the song in his sleep.  Bollocks, that, Arthur could play the song before Alfred had even been born, because he was old and had played punk and grunge and navel-gazey rubbish and this, this song, was love, pure love.

Arthur closed his eyes and hung his guitar low against his crotch and thrummed chords he can feel in his balls.  He sets his lips right onto the mic as he sings, can practically swallow it.  It’s a delightful song of loss and renewal and they kill it, murder it with transcendent devotion, and as it wanes Francis picks away close to him, dum-dun-dun-dun-dundundundun, forever, watching love grow.  And low against his belly Arthur plucks out the final sweet melody, ting-ting-ting, moaning into the mic, for-e-ever

There’s the final measure, the three-chord riff, and then an odd, crashing silence before sudden wild cheers from the small crowd, gratifying but not as gratifying as Alfred’s full attention.   He stumbled like a gape-mouthed zombie up to the stage and Arthur stared down at him.

Alfred shone back up.  “Wow.  You really love what you do, don’t you?” he says, sounding a little breathless.

There are many things Arthur can say to that, but the look of Alfred right then shakes him a little, makes him reply, “Obviously.”

Alfred grins, lopsided and adorable (adoring).

“Well, it’s making me kind of hot.”

It’s Arthur’s turn to be a mite gapey, because his music has never made Alfred hot.

“You should play more stuff like that,” Alfred continues, and pushed up his glasses (Arthur can see it, see the gesture as it happened, perfectly, in that club, at that moment, detail so minute it hurts) and became the studious student of critique once more. 

Arthur snorted and unslung his guitar.  He’d have liked a public kiss from an adoring Alfred.  “What, covers?”

“Nah.  Stuff with melody and nostalgia.”

“Wot, pop?” bitched Gil.

“Thanks anyway, luv,” Arthur said.

Arthur can also see the gapey, gaspy, shadowed, exact shape of Alfred’s mouth as it looked when they made love that night in the tiny Birmingham motel room.

“You all right?”  That’s Alistair, checking in on what probably looks like a staring contest.

“Yeah.”  Arthur shakes himself a little, makes himself dizzy.  Faced with his past, he’s too many places at once.  Alcohol’s not supposed to impart such disparate clarity, is it?  Maybe he’s going dotty.  He sighs yet again.

It seems his little twink was right, much as Arthur hates to admit it.  When his soul was broken enough to make him write music to soothe himself rather than stoke the fires of rebellion, something clicked.  They were noticed.  The crowds grew.  Their music sold.

The little shit.

Is grinning.  “Soooooo,” he says.

“So?”

“So.  I was wondering if you’d like to fuck?”

Arthur falls out of his chair and squeaks yes.  Arthur punches Alfred right in his adorable fucking face.  Arthur sports instant stonker.  Arthur tells Alfred to fuck off and die, die, die.

Arthur does none of those things, because he has cool.  Coooool.  He breathes, the only uncool the O of his mouth as he exhales, the involuntary lift of his eyebrows that he can pass off as cynicism.

It works: Alfred’s grin fades.  He shrugs.  “But maybe you’re too drunk.”

Ouch, a hit.  “Maybe I’m not interested,” Cool McKirkland counters.

“Oooh.  Maybe I deserved that.  But I guess there’s nothing more to say, then.”  Alfred downs the rest of his beer – Arthur drinks in the sight of his throat bobbing as he swallows, yes yes, yes, dear god no– and slams it back onto the bar with a wince that betrays his own play-acting.  “Uh.  Well, be seeing you?  Or not.  Bye.”

“Wait!”  Besotted McStupid calls as Alfred slips off the stool and turns to leave.  He’s not ready to say yes (yes he is) but it can’t end like this, not again—

So he pulls something he saw Gil do once.  Maybe he’s done it himself before.  He doesn’t remember because it didn’t matter.  How many one-night-honey-blond(e)s has he interviewed and rejected?

“Why don’t you … kiss me, first?” he suggests, letting slip a half-lidded gaze.

Alfred looks around the near-empty pub and nibbles his lip, adorably puzzled.  “Here?”

“Wot?  You want to fuck me, but you don’t want to kiss me?”

Alfred rolls his eyes.  Then he waggles his shoulders like working out a kink, and steps close.  He leans forward and pecks Arthur on the lips.  It’s ridiculous and soft and dear god, not nearly enough. 

“Th—that’s not very convincing,” Arthur says, almost hiding the tremor in his voice.

So Alfred presses closer, heat incoming between Arthur’s spread knees, and lays his stupidly lovely forearm on Arthur’s shoulder and kisses him like he used to and yet never did, like a tilted-head Adonis of wet tongue, so deeply he leeches the scotch from Arthur’s breath.  It’s slow and hot and primer-text pornstar stuff, with spit trails and all (or maybe Arthur’s drooling?) but there’s something else there, something Arthur can’t pinpoint or is afraid to name. Vulnerability.  Longing, maybe?

Whatever it is, it curls Arthur’s toes in his Doc Martens.

“You’re hired,” he whispers when they eventually ease apart.

“What does that even mean? Haha.”  Alfred’s breathy, nervous, and it’s so apparent this close … Maybe he knows it, for he backs away a few steps.

And that is unbearable, irresistible.  Alfred smells like green soap.  “It means yes.”

Yesyesyesyesyes

Arthur slips off the stool, noodle-kneed, and grabs his phone from the bar, avoiding Alistair’s frown.

Alfred backs away a few more paces, glancing around, remembering at last that they’re still in the pub, with some very interested people looking on.  Always so shy of PDA, he was.

“Well, I guess we should—”

“Let’s go, then.”

“I was just saying that.  Hah.”

As they leave, Alfred nips past him, trying to be first out the door, but then realizes he’s not sure where they’re headed. 

“This way,” Arthur says.  More than two, three words at a time and he’ll shatter.

“The old place?”

“New flat.”

“Oh.  Cool.”

Cool is right.  It takes all Arthur owns to saunter, not float, nor drag himself towards what is a very bad idea but one which is he going to have anyway.  Joyfully.

They’re not even holding hands.  Alfred shoves his into his jeans pockets.  “They’re fixing this area up, I see.  Looks nice.  I remember that old chip shop used to have cardboard in the window.”

“Mmm hmm.”  Now the chip shop has a shiny front with bollards and chrome chairs.  They have a five-minute walk.  Five minutes for Arthur to make better decisions, but of course he won’t.  How many nights has he burned alive in his bed, old or new, wanting-not-wanting-never-hoping to see Alfred again?

So why did you leave me?

Alfred’s still not telling.  In the hall of Arthur’s building, and in the lift, Alfred whistles.  He whistles again when they enter Arthur’s new flat.

“This is nice,” he says.

“Yeah.  It is.”  The walls are clean, spare, offer space to fall back against and drag Alfred with him.

There’s a little resistance.  “You’re angry.”

“Yeah,” Arthur says, but he’s also getting hard already.  So he pulls Alfred down, or Alfred leans down, something, for more of the pornstar stuff, but it’s not fake at all.  It’s a gasping, desperate search for the perfect position of their mouths, the perfect rhythm, trying to catch up all the years at once. 

Which is impossible.  They try regardless for a matter of some minutes.

But now Arthur knows he can touch he wants to look, look, look, see what’s the same, what time has wrought.  He pulls Alfred’s glasses off and tosses them … somewhere, and holds Alfred’s pinked cheeks so he’ll stay still.

He’s not perfectly still; he’s breathing hard.  But Arthur’s doing that, too, so it’s okay.  Alfred is smiling a little, and so is Arthur.  He wonders which of them looks more predatory.

Alfred left him … well, it wasn’t exactly out of the blue.  He began to spend more time at college, taking exams, and spent even more time … somewhere else.  He was too busy to see all the shows, sorry hon, gotta do this.  He began to make noise about a study program back in the States he might like to attend and what did Arthur think of that?

Arthur let it be known that he didn’t care.  And the more dispirited and abandoned he felt the more emphatic he was that he cared not; Alfred’s studies were tedious and Arthur had finished his literature and political schooling a dozen years ago, go to school then, child, I have Art and other Important Things to attend to.

Then—and then, one night he came home to see Alfred’s few possessions in boxes and suitcases, and the not-child himself perched atop one of them. 

“We need to end it now, Arthur,” he says, and Arthur can remember the pattern of the golden hairs sticking out above his glasses, which he perched on his head for this conversation, and can see now, in the gently trembling jut of his chin, the same resolute indecisiveness.

“What?” Arthur says.

“What?” Alfred whispers, amused breath warm against Arthur’s lips.

“Oh, Christ, nothing, I’m daft,” Arthur says and having Alfred here, in his hands, is surely the cause.  He’s willing to pay that price.  So he gets his hands on more of Alfred, his sides (his ribs), the soft skin under the waistband of his denims, and feels the truth in the flesh: Alfred is here.  His Alfred.

They didn’t even have one last goodbye fuck.  “Why?” was the first thing Arthur said, and the next was “get the bloody hell out, then,” and Alfred did exactly as he was told.  He dragged his kit to the street and someone Arthur didn’t know picked him up.

No answer to why would have sufficed, then, anyway.  It took the intervening years to make the question less redundant. Who, though, he’s always wondered.

Arthur flips their positions, puts Alfred’s back against the clean wall, and props his boot on it next to Alfred’s hip so he can untie the laces.  He can kiss Alfred with head-knocking savagery at the same time: the yoga Gil suggested he add to his pre-tour workout has paid off.

Clonk, goes his right boot onto the wooden floor.  Alfred’s already kicked off his own shoes – prat’s not even wearing socks – and has shoved his hand down the back of Arthur’s jeans.  “Impressive.  You’re not as – ah—drunk as you taste, I suppose,” he manages to say around Arthur’s tongue.

“Oh, fuck off,” Arthur says mildly, and clomps the other boot on Alfred’s other side.  He’s not drunk at all, anymore: he can feel every one of Alfred’s fingernails on his arse, can see exactly how he’s smudging his once-pristine, I’ve-got-money wall.  Clonk, goes the left boot.

“Ha ha!”

It’s not a nervous laugh, but a delighted one.  Alfred squirms out of his tee-shirt (it’s blue: blue shirt, green soap smell, and pink cheeks, has his Alfred) and he’s even skinnier than Arthur thought.  Lovely shoulders, though.

“You have a scar,” Arthur says to the ridged, white line marring one shoulder.  He sets his teeth above and below it and breathes hotly, and Alfred nearly jumps out of his skin when Arthur pairs that with a nice, solid grab of his crotch. 

“I … uh, have several.  Unnnnh…”

“Hmm.” Arthur’s still talking to Alfred’s green-soap-smelling shoulder.  “So tell me why, after all this time, you’ve sought me out for this.”

“Does it matter?”

Arthur gives him a look to tell him that it does.  Alfred’s long lashes are quivering.  “Tell me,” Arthur demands.

Alfred rolls his eyes again - he’s always done a lot of that.  At Arthur’s continued stare, he juts his chin, chewing his answer, another familiar gesture.  Then he grins.  “Maybe I haven’t been properly fucked since we broke up.”

“Good answer,” Arthur murmurs, maybe a little too admiringly.  But it’s good enough that he doesn’t even think of retorting what do you mean we?— well, perhaps he thinks it a little, but he’s too pleased to really pay himself any attention.

“Ain’t it?”

Lord, Arthur’s a fool, a dupe of the first order, but no matter; he’s so hard he wants to fuck Alfred into next week.   He maneuvers them in a crotch-grabbing, ass-grabbing, face-licking tangle down the hall to his bedroom.  He flips Alfred again (since we broke up?), shoves him face-down on to the edge of the bed, then yanks down his loose jeans and admires his bottom, which is firmly not-too-skinny. 

“Holy shit, your bed’s huge.” Alfred still manages to take up nearly a third of it, with his long arms spread out as they are.

No drowning tonight for Arthur.  He works loose the fastening to his own jeans.  The first thing he finds in his pocket is his phone: that he tosses … somewhere.  Then – yes, there’s a condom.  He keeps them now.  Time was, he’d not needed them, because nothing was casual about their relationship.  Not to Arthur, anyway. 

You broke up with me,” he says at last, and bites the package open.

“Oh, come onnn …”

“Admit it,” Arthur says, slipping the condom onto his own hot flesh, letting the backs of his fingers tease the crack of Alfred’s arse.

“Nnnnn.  Will you just go on and fuck me if I do?” Alfred moans into the yellow coverlet.

“Oh, I’ll do that no matter what you say.”  Truth.  Arthur rummages his finger through the condom packet, digging out the lube settled in the corners (extra slippery when wet, promises the package), then thrusts that finger into Alfred’s ass.  Alfred moans and his thighs fall apart.

“Y—yeah.  You’re right. I totally did.”

And there—Arthur has that.   He falls forward, pressing his palm into Alfred’s shoulder blade, directly opposite the scar that hadn’t been there before.  He has that and he has Alfred, tight around his finger.  It’s a matter of but a moment to replace it with his cock; a hard shove and then a second and he’s buried, his bad decision too late to change and further rewarded by Alfred’s sharp cry.

“Ow, J—Jeezus, Arthur!  Ah—ah—”

Arthur should feel shame. He does a little but Alfred feels better, snug and warm around him. There’s more where that came from; Arthur thrusts over and over, quick and brutal, and condom or not, it’s better than his lonely, drowned imaginings.

“Do you wa—want me to stop?”

“Unh, no.  Ah—ah—”

“Oh, good.”  Because this is good, very good.  The scorching friction of a hard fuck ignites his nerves, spreading hot bliss through his spine, his belly, his thighs, and the knowledge that it’s Alfred, here now, when he’d always thought it would be nowhere and never, makes him grab every moment for fear it might be lost.

Arthur’s fast and Alfred’s noisy for some minutes, yes, Arthur, yes punctuating the slap of their skin together.  But once the initial anger urgency has abated not going anywhere Arthur finds a rhythm, something a little more measured, something he can sustain for as long as possible.  Something he can rock into, angle into just how Alfred likes (liked) it.

Alfred feels the change, joins in rather than just taking it (is that what he’s doing?).  He props himself on his elbows and lets his knees slip further apart, pushing Arthur deeper with every thrust.  To keep ahold of him Arthur has curl an arm about his waist, get close, closer.  Arthur remembers shagging Alfred like this in a utility closet once, a club somewhere in Stratford, maybe?  Hurry, hurry up, you crazy old man, Alfred whispered, fraught with fear of discovery, amid the smell of urgent sweat and lemon cleaner.  He’s sweating under Arthur’s fingers now.

“I’ve missed this,” falls from Arthur’s lips before he can help it.

“God, I missed you, Ah-Arthur,” Alfred says.

It’s a good thing he can’t see Arthur’s face.  Arthur would not look cool at all, though it’s merely sweat stinging his eyes.  He reaches up and sinks his fingers into honey-blond hair, twists it around his knuckles even as it keeps slipping loose with every thrust.  Is this how he really wants to own these moments, these brief memories – staring at the back of Alfred’s head, a blond head that could belong to anyone?  (Not really; his fingers know the truth, spent enough time wrapped in this hair once, and spent enough time trying to find it again without ever getting it exactly right.) 

Alfred e-mailed him once.  Twice.  Arthur saw the messages were short and deleted them without reading.

He’s slowed.  His thrusts have taken on a languorous, erotic quality, and his breathing steadies even as the deep ache at the base of his spine grows.

“Alfred,” he whispers.

“Is – is everything okay?”

No, Arthur could say.  He could drop it here, like he was dropped. 

Instead he laughs.  “Yes, it’s ohh-kayy,” he enunciates.

He pulls his cock out and has to let go of Alfred’s hair to hold the goddamned condom on.  His knees wobble when he steps back.

“Arthur…” Alfred whines.

He gets a slap on the arse-cheek for that. 

“Roll over, you little prat.”

The eyeroll is unseen, if sensed nonetheless.  But it seems Alfred’s heard the fondness in Arthur’s voice, for he turns over with a grin and props himself on his elbows.  “You always did like to order me around.”

“Yes, I did.”  Arthur crawls atop him, scaling Mount Alfred, and kisses his forehead now he can see it.  “You needed it.”

“Not always.”

Is that a truth?  An answer?  Alfred’s rubbing his thigh along the outside of Arthur’s hip, the fine hairs prickling, so perhaps not.  Arthur kisses Alfred’s smug, shiny nose, now it’s here, and his lips.  They’re a little dry and chafed.

They had good times together.  Sex, obviously; that was extraordinary.  But they also made each other laugh.  He kept Alfred on track. And Alfred kept him young. 

He remembers a crazy, clandestine mission once – Alfred’s idea, and he drove, his student car that he used for some extra mini-cab money now and then, and for hauling Arthur’s guitar and amplifiers on rather more occasions. 

“This is daft,” Arthur said.

“It’s totally daft,” Anna agreed from the backseat.  She was the girl they picked up, and whom they were taking to Francis’s place, a birthday surprise for when he came home from his restaurant job.  Francis and Anna are still together.

“Are you sure he fancies me?”

“Yes! I totally heard him talking about it with Arthur.”

Arthur snort-laughed.  “That was a private conversation.”

“Not anymore!” Alfred was unrepentant.  “Sometimes people need a little help, yannow?  Finding each other.”

Alfred was the one found him back then, after all.  Sort of.  Arthur was pissed (drunk the first time they met, drunk this second-first time); he and the lads played a music festival at the college Alfred attended. They stayed for an after-party and Arthur drank too much, mortified a little to be partying with so many young people.  Alfred came up to “say hi” and congratulate him on their set, and stayed to give him a ride home — in the same car — when Francis and Gil left Arthur behind, too late to catch the train.

“Mind if I smoke?” Arthur said.

“How old are you?  You're awfully cute for a Yank,” Arthur said.

“Oy, shit, don't ball me up for that.  Didn't mean to offend or anything,” Arthur said.

Alfred laughed and glanced left at him over his glasses.  “Dude, don’t worry.  I’m so gay.”

“Brilliant,” Arthur said.

Outside Arthur's flat they swapped numbers and a little bit of spit, though Arthur doesn't remember much, like who initiated it (i.e., if he'd been some kind of drunken molester).  He remembers getting pictures and texts the next day from the attractive young person he met, and feeling his stomach flip-flop with nervousness as he invited the person to meet him and the lads later for nosh.

Alfred used to call him his "rock star boyfriend," and Arthur used to protest that he was no boy.

He feels young, however, as things heat up again in his giant fucking bed.  Alfred’s wrapped all around him, long arms and legs, just how Arthur likes (liked) it.  And Arthur re-wets Alfred’s lips for him.

The actual young person is hard again, rubbing his cock along the inside of Arthur’s thigh, and Arthur’s ready to continue his dream (not the worst).  This time he’s gentler with Alfred’s arse, letting his finger tease it, persuade it, a little more.

“Christ, you’re tight.  Have you been fucked at all, even?”

“Oh, nice.  Um.  Not much.  But I can put it in, too, yannow.”

Arthur laughs.  “I remember.”

Now’s not the time for remembering, however.  Now’s the time for now.

Still, as he cajoles Alfred’s long, encircling legs higher, over his own shoulders, and slides in, lingering and easy, he can’t help but remember being the one smiling up (like Alfred is), gasping and arching into the sensation of being filled and stretched inside (he’s doing that, too). 

Maybe tomorrow.  He’ll have to think of a way to make Alfred stay at least that long.  And that, that, will be a very foolish thing to do.

“Now this is what I’m talking about,” Alfred sighs.

Arthur laughs.  Again.  “Keep your eyes open,” he orders.

“Sure thing, sir.”

Alfred’s Texas eyes are half-lidded, amused.  Arthur can’t rip his gaze away, even though the heat is building and his spine is tight, taut, and he could be making any old face that lets slip too much.  He has to look, look some more, make sure every other moment that it’s really Alfred here. 

Arthur’s broken heart isn’t mended, but it holds up to the gradual speeding of his thrusts, to Alfred’s eyes, to the soapy, sweaty smell of sex between familiar bodies.

Alfred makes any old gape-mouthed face without shame.  He alternates stroking himself and stroking Arthur, his nipple ring, his shoulders, his face.  Arthur knows he needs a shave, but Alfred’s fascinated by his face nonetheless, won’t stop touching it.

“Don’t close your eyes,” he tells Alfred again.

Arthur takes him deep, laying claim to every spare centimeter of him that he can.  Alfred shifts, moves a leg or an arm here and there, allowing it, encouraging it, participating in his own possession.  It’s as if he can’t get enough, either.  Why he’s even here, now, doesn’t matter.

A few minutes into Shag Part Two, and Arthur’s completely built.  His belly is nearly as heavy as it can get, the heat coiled almost as tightly as it can go.  Just a little more …

You’re mine, you should always be here, should always have been here, with me.  Even though he’s a fool Arthur doesn’t say it aloud.  Perhaps it shows in his eyes, or sounds in the sharp huffs of his breath from between his clenched teeth, or perhaps Alfred’s merely sensed that Arthur’s close (either way, how can he know after all these years?), for he juts his chin and his eyes gain a glint of good, old-fashioned, American intent.

Alfred yanks Arthur’s hand from his own cheek and drags it down to hold his bouncing cock.  He wraps their fingers together and strokes himself with rough jerks, ah-ah-ahing until his chin falls back and he tenses all over, then comes, tacky-slick between their joined fingers.

His face – it’s exactly the same and yet not at the same time, and dammit if that doesn’t pull Arthur into a last few, desperate strokes, seeking that final acute friction that drags him to the aching edge and then tosses him irretrievably over edge of climax. 

Arthur’s heart falls with him.  After three fucking years, how the hell have they even come together like that?  They barely managed it once in a while, before. 

Collapsing, Arthur lets his tired, satiated body ride out the last waning spasms.  A moment or two or three later, he lets Alfred dislodge his sticky leg off his shoulder.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Alfred breathes.

“Getting old?”  Arthur murmurs from where he’s running his teeth over Alfred’s chin.  It moves under his mouth with Alfred’s answer.

“Old-er.

Yes, Arthur can see that.  Even drunk on good sex, he saw all the tells, telling.  He wonders that that means for them. Wonders if there should be a them.

“Yep, that was still good sex,” Alfred says.  And how the fuck can he still read Arthur’s mind, even? 

“Were you expecting any less?”

“Nope.”

“Hmm,” Arthur says, content, and goes back to nibbling on Alfred’s face. 

“Told you I’d seen you on stage, right?  You had on these tight-ass pants.  You were so hot.”

That makes Arthur look up again.  “You’re lying.”

“Nope,” Alfred says again.

Arthur props himself on his elbows to give Alfred the stink-eye.  “Did you even buy our record?”

Alfred’s gaze grows a mite shifty.  “Um.  Someone gave it to me for my birthday, if that ain’t ironic.  But I paid for my own ticket to the show.”

“Thank you for your contribution,” Arthur snarks.  But Alfred had said someone.  Arthur waits a few breathless moments before asking, “Who was it?”

“Who gave me the album?  It was my brother’s girlfriend.  She sent me an Amazon e-download thing.”

“No,” Arthur snaps, then sighs.  “I mean …”

Alfred stops pretending to not understand that Arthur’s talking about Back Then.

“Uh.  Toris,” he says quietly.  Arthur’s expression must give something away, for he adds, “But there was nothing!  Nothing before.  I mean.  I never cheated on you…”

“Oh.”  Arthur will think about that later.  “Where is he now?”

“Lithuania.”

Ah.  So Arthur can’t kick his arse.

“For, like, the last two years,” Alfred continues.

So Arthur really can’t kick his arse.  Hmm.  Of a sudden he really craves a cigarette, though he’s given them up (it was fucking difficult, too, thank you very much).  It’s just that a frank, post-sex talk like this requires a smoke.

But giving in to the urge for nicotine will rank among the top five bad decisions Arthur’s made this week.  So instead, he contents himself with fingertip-teasing the scar on Alfred’s shoulder and looking for the others, seeing if Alfred was being metaphorical or literal about them.

After a bit, Alfred begins to fidget.  Literally.

“Hey, lemme get up and stretch.  And pee.  I gotta pee.”

“Me, too,” Arthur sighs.

He lets Alfred go first.  In the meantime, he takes off the sopping condom and disposes of it in the can next to the bed.  He doesn’t give it a knot—he saw a show on the telly, once, that shows what happens to these things in London’s ancient sewers.  So he’s become a little responsible in his near-middle-age?

Alfred emerges from the loo and stretches, tall and lean, showing himself off even though he hasn’t cleaned and is sticky and splotched.  Still, it’s erotic and he knows it.  “I’m starved,” he says.

“You haven’t changed at all,” Arthur notes.  He takes himself to the loo.  He does wipe himself off.  If he’s got to walk around naked, at least he’ll be clean for it.

When he comes out, Alfred’s not in the bedroom.  But he’s not gone far.  Arthur hears him puttering around in the kitchen and follows the noise.

“Jesus, Arthur.  You got this huge fridge, and you still have nothin’ to eat,” Alfred’s bitching.

There are clothes piled on the floor in the hall, Arthur sees.  Blue shirt, blue jeans, black shirt, black jeans.  Boots.  He also sees that Alfred’s found his glasses, for he’s wearing them. 

“There are crisps in the cabinet.  And tea biscuits.”  Arthur opens the cabinet and pulls out the promised snacks, and incidentally grabs the tea ball and some tea.  If he’s to be deprived of nicotine, caffeine will have to make do.

“I guess I’ll survive on this junk for now.”

“We can get takeout later,” Arthur says, and shitshitshit, he didn’t mean to show that he’s hoping Alfred will hang around for any decent length of time—

But Alfred’s eyebrows lift hopefully.  “Chip shop?”

“Chip shop,” Arthur says, and smiles.  He fixes tea and watches Alfred get crumbs all over his already naked, sticky self.  Fucking adorable, Christ.  “So what are you teaching?” he asks.

Alfred raises his eyebrows again.  “Er.  Biochemical engineering.  I got hired for a research project.”

“Erudite.  Where did you study in the States?”

Alfred’s wearing a look like, you really want to know?  And yet it’s all so fucking normal at the same time.  Like, they always used to have a chat in the kitchen, in the old place, sometimes naked, and Arthur took it all for granted, wasn’t jittery at all.

“UT.  University of Texas at Austin.  You remember I wanted to go there to finish my MS?”

Arthur knows that he wanted to go somewhere far away.  He’s a little ashamed that he doesn’t remember exactly where. 

“Did you even apply at MIT?”  That he does remember.

“Kinda?  Half-assedly.  I really wanted to come back to the UK…”

“Oh,” Arthur says.

“There are, uh.  All kinds of reasons, but really, the program here is very good.”

“Oh,” Arthur says again.  After another fortifying sip of tea, he can ask.  “So.  Why?”

This time Alfred doesn’t pretend not to know which why he’s being asked to answer.  That’s new, and interesting, and a little terrifying.

“Well, I honestly … thought we’d run our course, and I thought you thought that too.  And.”  He’s eating crisps a little frantically and speaking around a mouthful of them.  “I wanted a little independence, but not too much.  Not to.  Uh.  Be ignored.”

“I did that, didn’t I?” Arthur says, and takes another sip of his hot tea.  Very hot tea.  Very fortifying for innards that are shivering like jelly, a heart all porridge-y with fear.

“Yeah.  And.  Maybe I was wrong,” Alfred says.  He crumples the bag of crisps and shoves it away, glares at it.  “But you just didn’t seem to care.  So.”

So.  Arthur breathes on his tea, just to breathe.  He knew that all along, didn’t he?  He wonders why he wondered for so many years.  But a fool can fool himself as well as anything.

“I am.  Not the best at showing that I do.  Care.  Did.”  He squeaks a little when he admits, “Er.  Do?” 

So not cool.   But Alfred smiles and lights up the already-bright kitchen with it.  “Well, I can say that I do.  Care.  I mean.  I kinda, uh, never really got over you.  Pathetic, right?”

“You little shit!” Arthur yells, making Alfred jump, and then he tackles Alfred from across the table, pulling him right off the chair and sending them both to the floor in a tangle of knees and arms and lips.  The lips became involved in this because he kisses Alfred, then brushes crumbs off his face and kisses him again.  Only when that’s done can he speak further.

“Do you really want to try again and are you serious about this because I can’t take it if you aren’t and I mean that, I’ve been bollocksed for-fucking-ever, and now I have an actual career and I’ll have to go to the studio and be on tour and you’d better make time to go with me or my heart will shrivel and die I swear it!”  Arthur says.

Something in his face makes Alfred reach out with long, gentle fingers.  He traces the outline of Arthur’s eyebrow and brushes some hair out of his eyes.  “Wow, no wonder you write such good songs.  But shit, son, I know all about having a rockstar boyfriend.  I’ve got this.”

“Truth?” Arthur squeaks.

“Yeah.  Can you deal with having a real professor boyfriend, though?”

“I reckon.”  Arthur’s grin is so real, it warms himself all over.  “Though I’m not a boy.”

“What-ever,” Alfred says, and rolls his eyes.

Arthur scowls dreadfully because he’s no longer in possession of his own heart.  Then he kisses Alfred again anyway.  He supposes his music will suffer for it, but there are worse things than being happy.