He was alone for his birthday, and he was absolutely not going to pout about it, not when Josh had tried so hard to find someone to cover for his haul, and especially not when he’d been so sweet on the phone to him that morning and talked to him while he was on the road and John had been frantically trying to get ready for class.
“So did you find it, yet?”
John stopped in confusion as he cradled the phone against his neck so he could keep it to his ear while he smeared some of the cheap, delicious, fake butter crap he had bought onto his toast. “Find what?”
“Mhm, really? I thought for sure you would discover it, my little detective.”
He couldn’t contain his sudden grin. “What? Where is it?”
“Under your pillow.”
He shoved his toast into his mouth and scrambled into his tiny bedroom, tossing his pillow off the mattress. Under it was a neatly-wrapped package, brown butcher block paper and simple twine in a perfect set of knots and a bow. It was probably the nicest wrapping he’d ever gotten. He swallowed a little at that, almost missing Josh’s teasing.
“I suppose that answers my question of if you made it to your bed last night or if you simply fell asleep on the couch, studying.”
“I have a test,” he replied offhandedly as he traced his finger over the neat twine knot. “Can I open it?”
“If it won’t make you late.”
“I’ll run,” he promised, taking the time to sit down on the bed. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten a birthday present. When his last birthday had rolled around, he had only known Josh a month or so, and he’d felt silly to even bring it up. He was going to take the proper time to enjoy this one. He untied it carefully, knowing Josh was patiently on the other end of the line listening. He peeled back the paper and slowly opened the box, peering inside and inhaling softly.
“You know, there’s not a lot of men I’d trust enough to give them a place to put their gun,” Josh teased lightly, the sweet lilt to his voice becoming a little more pronounced as his words softened. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”
John’s heart leapt a little like it always did whenever Josh used the silly little endearment, and he carefully lifted the beautiful leather holster from its box. He could faintly smell the leather and polish of it as he brushed his fingers over the smooth material.
“Thank you…” He swallowed again and was suddenly glad Josh was miles away so he could rub his hands over his eyes a little. “I love it.”
“I’m glad. You’ll have to show me how it looks on you when I get back. Now, don’t be late for your test.”
He swore and carefully packed away the present before he raced out the door, shoving his phone in his pocket, knowing Josh would only be amused at the sudden hang up.
He was pretty sure he didn’t fail the test. He’d studied hard the night before, knowing that while Josh would never berate him for flunking, John would instead get a little sigh and the feeling of a hand running through his hair.
“You know you can do so much better than that, sweetheart.”
God did that make it so much harder to fail, when someone had that kind of faith in you. He went to physical training then hit the showers, smiling at each of the happy birthday slaps on the back he got from a few of the guys he’d gotten to know more, turning down the offer of going out for birthday drinks from a couple even though he knew Josh would have encouraged it. John would rather go have a quiet drink at their favorite bar instead, though, and hope that Josh had a chance to call. Besides, he really didn’t want to have to explain fielding a call from his boyfriend and probably seeing most of those drink offers evaporate. He certainly wasn’t IN the closet, but he wasn’t exactly dumb enough to be leaping out of it while he was still in the academy.
“So, you want to go out back?”
The man sitting beside him had been, frankly, hot as hell with his cloudy blue eyes and soft brown hair; plus, he had taken the time to buy him a drink and make small talk. He had been dressed cleanly, unstained cargo pants and a military-styled black jacket wrapped around him. His accent had been charming, and frankly those small facts added up to more than enough of an excuse to offer to blow the guy in the back alley when John was having a shitty day and had a couple of drinks in him. It wasn’t like he was gay just because he liked to suck dick. Guys liked it well enough and he’d made a couple of friends through it. It was more that; in those moments when he had a guy’s pants down and he was kneeling down on that filthy concrete, he knew he was finally getting someone’s undivided attention. Fuck, he was lonely.
The man had tilted his head curiously. “And what would we find out there?”
Damn, he was cute, those soft eyes, but John had been baffled by the question. No one ever asked; everyone just knew what John was offering. Maybe he’d read the guy wrong, maybe he was just straight and friendly. He had shaken his head to himself. No guy turned down a blowjob regardless of how much they liked tits; a mouth was a mouth.
“A good time, I guess,” he had finally muttered, taking a quick drink from his glass to mask his uncertainty.
“Ah.” The man had nodded in understanding and taken another sip from his own brew. “I find I am enjoying myself in here.”
Fine. He had grabbed his drink and stood. He had been able to see he wasn’t wanted there, but he couldn’t help but feel like he’d blown it somehow.
A sturdy, graceful hand had suddenly cupped over his wrist, freezing him.
“Why are you leaving? Did I offend you? I was enjoying our conversation.”
He had warily studied the man’s face, trying to read him like he’d been able to read so many other men in the bar before him, looking for the signs of lust in his eyes, the unspoken expression that would plainly tell John that he was a slut but they’d still be happy for five minutes of his time, anyway. There had been none of that there, though, just that patient sweetness he could barely understand then, but it had loosened his tightly closed-up heart just a little, and he had sat back down on his stool, knowing he had to look like a skittish deer. That was bad, in John’s experience; a doe-eyed boy turned respectable men into predators, but there had still been no change in the man as they sat and spoke for hours.
John could not remember a single word of the conversation, but he could easily remember the man’s friendly smile and the way he couldn’t help leaning closer into his presence, smelling the man’s light cologne and the sweat from a long day’s work lingering on his body. It had been one of the best nights he’d ever had. He knew even then that he’d trade a hundred blowjobs in a filthy alley for just a few more short minutes of that conversation, and the way Josh had given him his undivided attention just for the sake of giving it, because he was actually interested in John, not just his mouth.
The bar had closed down around them far too soon, and John had been reluctant to pull back.
“Do you want to go back to my place?” he had finally offered. He’d never done that before. He knew how stupid of a risk it was, to be so quick to take a stranger back to his dingy little hole and bend over for him. It’d probably hurt like fuck and he didn’t even know if the guy was clean or not, but John knew he was a fucking mess. He knew it, and he had desperately wanted this attention to not go away.
The man had smiled at his obvious invitation, and John had closed his eyes, leaning into the sudden gentle caress of fingers across his cheek. Finally, he could show the man how good he was, show him why he should come back and talk to John again, show him how grateful he was for just a night of feeling like he was special.
“Will you be here tomorrow, sweetheart?” he had asked him breathily, still stroking his cheek.
John had sucked in a breath and nodded. He’d been called a lot of things by the guys he’d been with, but ‘sweetheart’ had certainly never been one of them.
“Then tell me your name, and I’ll see you tomorrow, hmm?”
He had blinked in shock, just barely able to mumble out a “John” before those fingers gave his cheek a quick final stroke and his hand pulled back; John’s face had still tingled from the touch.
“Josh,” he had introduced himself. “I’ll see you tomorrow, sweetheart.”
He had watched, dumbfounded, as the man smiled at him, gathered his coat, and left without another word. He went home that night and jerked his dick until it was raw, thinking of Josh’s sweet face, because he was still a fucking mess, but as he came to find out as the weeks passed and he got to know Josh, Josh didn’t mind some mess.
He hated to miss his sweet little John’s birthday, but he had tried his best, and the work simply could not wait. It was the most important thing he’d promised his brother, sworn to him that he would not allow John to be a cause for his slipping, and that he would stay true. His brother had been right to be wary, but he would give him no reason to doubt.
He could not say what had first made him notice John. No, that was perhaps a lie. He knew his blood had been calling to him from across the bar the second he saw that boy there, dressed in a grubby red t-shirt and jeans, cloaked in lonesomeness. He hadn’t been able to resist stroking a finger over one of the sharp blades carefully stitched into his coat; for emergencies only, he’d told himself when he did it. This sweet boy, though, oh God, he could almost taste how he would be for him, with his insides pouring out, his soft hair matted with blood.
He’d sat beside him and known how his brother would have to cleanse him for slipping, but then he saw those desperate lonely eyes fixate on him and his heart had ached, it had yearned for more than that boy’s spilled blood. There had been a gaping hole in him, a yawning chasm that opened up for him and he’d felt an old ache in himself, some part of his long-forgotten past creeping up on weak fingers, scrabbling across his own emptiness with a desire to fill that void.
He had returned to his brother that night, felt himself grabbed up in a punishing grip for even he knew his face was far too peaceful for his brother to believe that he had not fallen from his chosen path, but he had pleaded for a chance to speak, to explain, had shown him his clean fingers and his still-stitched blades and his brother had loosened his grip finally.
“Explain yourself then, Barsad.”
He had launched into his tale of the evening, still half confused himself over the events of the night, of the warmth he’d felt inside of what he had once thought could only be a cold pit.
“It is a risk,” his brother had finally spoken, his tone disapproving.
“I won’t speak anything to him,” Barsad had sworn, torn between his desires.
“If he makes you slip, I will be forced to rectify the situation.”
“He will not. I promise.”
“I do not like this risk.”
That had been all that had been said in the matter, and Barsad went to see his sweet John the next day, and the day after, loving how he soaked up the attention he was given, his confusion over Barsad not wishing to use and discard him. He was like a little sapling that had been left to whither, and now Barsad was so pleased to tend to him. It made him feel… normal. Like one day he might be able to just be normal with John, like one day he could actually be Josh.
For now, though, he needed the work, and the work kept him from slipping. Telling John he worked as a trucker was one of the few lies he’d told the other man, a matter of necessity. It made it plausible for him to disappear for days at a time, to need to be out of town suddenly as he was supposed to be now. The prey he was chasing, though, was proving very difficult to catch, and he found that by the evening he was once again in Gotham with little to show for it. Perhaps a break was needed, something to clear his mind; a sweetheart of his to wish a happy birthday.