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The British Museum Stop

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The new Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum was not holding Ned's attention. It wasn't the museum's fault; the exhibit would have been fascinating under most circumstances. It was a small but select collection, since despite bargaining and outright pleas from Europe's finest museums, the Egyptians deigned to lend out only a few of their artifacts, and the intricate curses protecting them were a firm deterrent against theft. Ned had never seen anything like it before.

It still couldn't compete with the reason for his distraction: namely, that the British Museum was less than five minutes' walk from Julian's boarding house, and Ned was increasingly anxious to see Julian.

But it was too soon. If Ned landed on Julian's doorstep immediately after moving to London, then Julian might suspect his motives. Ned would look less as though he were interested in renewing an old friendship and more as though he were out of his depth in the city and grasping for any hint of familiarity.

So he spent his days at his chambers in the Commons--all day, as clients were slow in coming, and he'd yet to make a single house call. One or two evenings a week were whiled away at the Mercury Club, where almost any evening he chose to attend would find him in the company of a man he'd played cricket with at Oxford, or at the very least that man's brother or cousin or friend. And more than once he found himself heading to the British Museum, wasting his dwindling funds on admission to collections he barely glanced at, pacing the rooms in the thus far vain hope of encountering Julian by chance, since Ned refused to seek him out on purpose.

Two weeks earlier

Ned had optimistically thought that some of Fitzgibbons's old clients might stop by on his first day to check out Fitzgibbons's replacement, and perhaps even to hire him for a small job to test his talents. His chambers, empty all morning and well into the afternoon, belayed that optimism.

At last, Ned gave up and started opening the boxes of books and paperwork neatly stacked in the corner. If no one was coming, then he might as well get settled in. He'd just tackled his third box--oh! there was volume one of De Occulta Philosophia that he'd been looking for earlier--and was therefore sweaty and dust-grimed when a quick rap sounded on the door.

He started badly enough that he almost dropped his armful of books, stacked them hastily on the desk he'd claimed for himself, gave his clothes and hands a despairing glance and wiped the latter on the former, and answered the door.

A pretty young lady in a severe grey dress was standing on his step. In addition to her handbag, she held a large case made of mock-alligator, which Ned rather wondered at. "Good afternoon. Is this the office of Mr. Edward Mathey?"

"It is," Ned said. He didn't think she could be one of Fitzgibbons's regular clients, most of whom were closer to sixty years of age than twenty. But surely he couldn't have a new client already; that would be too lucky. "My apologies. My sign should be up later this week. Please come in."

There was a chair for visitors, and by a stroke of good fortune, it wasn't buried under a pile of books. The young lady took a seat, and Ned slid awkwardly through the narrow gap between his desk and the wall to do the same.

"My name is Cordelia Frost. I went to school with Charlotte Beecham."

"Oh, of course. I trust she's well," Ned said. He went from hoping that Miss Frost was a client to praying that she wasn't here on Miss Beecham's behalf. Miss Beecham had been one of the...friendlier young ladies of his acquaintance while at Oxford. A renewal of their friendship at this stage in his life could be a bit delicate.

"She is, thank you. Now, it's my understanding that you're just beginning your practice." Not a flicker of her eyes towards the untidy piles that Ned had stacked around the room, clear sign that he was still in the process of moving in. (Or else that he was an incorrigible slob.)

"That's correct, Miss Frost."

Perhaps she was a client after all. His very junior status in the Commons meant that he would have to command lower prices than most licensed metaphysicians. That could explain his appeal to Miss Frost, whose clothes, though very neat and proper, were not wealthy looking.

"In that case, you'll be requiring a clerk. I'm interested in the position."

Ned blinked. He opened his mouth to say...something, but before he could decide what that something should be, Miss Frost had drawn a slim sheaf of papers from her handbag and handed them to him. "You'll want my references, of course."

He cast a somewhat distracted eye over the pages. They were all from Miss Frost's tutors at Whitelands College and were excrutiatingly correct, if one ignored the very pertinent fact that the applicant was a Miss rather than a Mister. Ned couldn't possibly have a female clerk, though. Not that it was such a terrible job for a woman, if he really thought about it: regular hours, and it wasn't too physically demanding. But that hardly mattered. Ned had too many secrets to feel at all safe drawing attention to himself, as he would if he employed the Commons's first and only female clerk.

"Quite impressive," he said honestly upon handing back her references, not wanting to appear a complete brute. "I'm not certain, however, if--"

"Naturally, you'll want a practical demonstration, as well," Miss Frost said, in so genial a tone that the interruption hardly felt like an insult. It was now the mock-alligator case's turn. She opened it and took out a typewriter that she set on an open space on Ned's desk, slid in a blank sheet of paper--taken from her own handbag--and gave him an expectant look. "Have you any correspondence that needs typed?"

Beginning to feel somewhat amused, Ned passed her a letter to old Fitzgibbons that he'd just finished writing that morning. He could've sent the handwritten version easily enough, but Fitzgibbons's eyes weren't very sharp; a typewritten letter might be a kindness.

With barely a pause to familiarize herself with Ned's handwriting, Miss Frost began to type with a smooth pace that ended much sooner than Ned might have expected, not that he had much experience of typing speeds.

She passed the letter to him for inspection. It was, naturally, flawless.

Ned raised his eyes to meet Miss Frost's clear, steady gaze and realized he was quite unable to go through with his planned refusal. Her credentials were impressive, especially for someone applying to work for a metaphysician whose practice was less than a day old. Most clerks had no more than secondary schooling, while Miss Frost had gone to university and apparently done very well there. More than that, she was self-confident to an audacious degree, and Ned couldn't help but wish to reward that.

"I'm afraid your pay won't be very high, at least at first," he said. "The practice was expensive, and as of yet I haven't had a single client."

"How much would it be, then?"

Ned hesitated a moment to internally debate whether he could afford an extra shilling a day in recognition of her education, but regretfully concluded he couldn't. He named the sum.

A curious expression crossed Miss Frost's face, and he added, "Is that acceptable?"

The curious expression was replaced by a smile. "Yes, Mr. Mathey, that'll do quite well. Would you like me to start work tomorrow, or would another day be better? I could help you with your filing if there isn't yet any other work to do."

"Tomorrow would be excellent. I open my office at 9:30."

"In that case, I'll see you then." She repacked her typewriter and placed it carefully under the other desk, since there wasn't any room on top of it; he escorted her to the door; and then his new clerk was gone.

Ned returned to his chair and sat back with a sigh. That had been unexpected, and he didn't like to think what the rest of the Commons would have to say about the situation. And yet, for now at least, he found himself unable to regret it.

After a slow beginning, clients at last began to trickle in. There was nobody for over two weeks, then one client, followed several days later by another, until Ned had worked five jobs and was scheduled for a sixth, and he finally permitted himself to stop waiting. He took the omnibus to the British Museum stop--his feet almost led him to the museum out of habit--and walked to the boarding house that Julian used as both rooms and office.

Julian's housekeeper announced him, before leaving him to a surprised-looking Julian.

"Mathey?" Julian asked, a slightly disbelieving note in his voice.

Ned's heart was racing, but he forced a smile and said, "Hello, Lynes. It's been an age, hasn't it?"

He held his breath. Was Julian going to be cuttingly sarcastic about Ned's arrival on his doorstep? Ned had never been in a position to run after Julian before. When they'd been boys, they'd fallen into friendship quite naturally, and when they'd been at university, Ned had chosen to drift away rather than be made to feel the fool by Julian's friends. Would Julian follow their example, or would he be willing to go back to their old intimacy, if not immediately, then sometime in the future?

Julian smiled--one of his rare genuine ones--and Ned relaxed a little. "It's good to see you, old man! Come in. I hadn't realized you were in London. Visiting, or...?"

"I'm living here, just moved down a month ago. I'm working as a metaphysician at the Commons. It's been rather hectic, but I'm fairly well settled in now, and I thought I'd take the opportunity to look you up."

"This isn't a business call, then?"

"No, not at all. I hope I'm not intruding."

Julian shook his head. "Of course not. Have you had dinner yet?"

"Not yet." He might've, except that his stomach had felt as though it might turn itself inside out with anticipation at seeing Julian again. He'd thought it better to skip a meal than to risk its making a premature return.

"In that case, would you like to join me for dinner? We could go to--" The briefest hesitation, and then Julian continued, "I almost said my local, but the food there is barely adequate. Excellent beer, though, if you're ever interested. Have you been to Blanding's yet? It's a bit of a trek--it's close to the Commons, actually--but you won't be disappointed in their food, and we could take the omnibus."

"That sounds fine," Ned said. He hoped his relief wasn't too embarrassingly obvious. Julian was being far more amiable than Ned had dared to hope.

That easy mood extended through the brief omnibus ride and their dinner, which was indeed as good as Julian had claimed. Julian was amusing without ever turning his wit on Ned; mostly he entertained him with carefully edited stories of cases he'd solved during the past year. He also listened with apparent interest when Ned talked: about the additional year he'd done at Oxford for his MMA, and about his new practice, and about his friends in the city.

Julian did not discuss his own friends, Ned noticed with a frisson of unease, or so much as mention his and Ned's shared history. But of course Julian's friends had once been a bone of contention between them, and a lot of their history had been less than rosy. Perhaps Julian was simply making the effort to keep the conversation pleasant. And Julian was being quite charming. Ned half-wondered if Julian was going to round out their dinner by inviting Ned home with him.

But, no. Julian offered him a strong handshake when they'd left the restaurant together, obtained Ned's address, and promised to visit him soon. And then the evening was done and Ned returned to his rooms alone, feeling half-let down and half-buoyant with excitement.

"A potential new client for you this morning, Mr. Mathey," Miss Frost said as he settled at his desk. She nodded at the corner of his desk where she always put the few pieces of mail that she didn't whisk away to deal with herself. "You're free tomorrow afternoon and this Friday, if you wish to take the job."

As if Ned could afford to turn down any work. He read the letter--nothing worse than a misbehaving wardrobe, which was supposed to press clothes automatically and which had instead begun to leave them more wrinkled than when they went in. He passed it to Miss Frost. "Tomorrow will do," he said, and watched somewhat abstractedly as she began to type a response with no more instruction than that.

He hated to think of what his practice would be like without her quiet expertise in the office, and a memory that had been niggling at him for weeks rose once again to his attention. It might be counterproductive to even bring it up, but it was like a loosening tooth; in the end he couldn't help but poke at it.

"Miss Frost?" he said, and her hands stilled on her typewriter.

"Yes, Mr. Mathey."

"I may be misinterpreting, but do you recall during your job interview, when we were settling your salary? It seemed to me that something I said wasn't quite what you'd expected."

And if she did want that extra shilling a day he'd contemplated giving her, he thought he might just have to find it for her, though damned if he knew where.

Miss Frost gave him a long look, and then she shrugged. "What salary would you have offered me if I'd been a young man from Oxford or Cambridge rather than a young woman from Whitelands, Mr. Mathey?"

"About the same, I expect," he said, conscious that he was stretching the truth slightly. Oh, he would've offered the same salary--he couldn't have afforded more, especially when he hadn't yet acquired a single client--but he doubted very much that the hypothetical young man from Oxford would have accepted it. Oxford was, after all, a more prestigious institution than Whitelands, being both hundreds of years older and not a women's college.

He didn't like to point that fact out to Miss Frost, but he also couldn't deny that it had thus far worked out in his favor. Less prestigious college or not, he'd never noticed any deficiencies in Miss Frost's education.

But Miss Frost was apparently unconcerned by that particular inequity. Instead she said, her voice very even, "Female clerks generally receive a salary between one-half and two-thirds that of male clerks."

"Oh," Ned said, a little blankly. "I see." He'd always considered himself rather conservative in outlook--his romantic predilections aside--and it was a bit unsettling to discover that he'd apparently been harboring radical tendencies all along.

"As my rent is no lower than a man's, and as my mother and I do not, in fact, eat only half as much as men do, I happen to appreciate my salary very much. I hope you're not intending to cut it as a result of this conversation."

He colored faintly at the broad hint, feeling that he ought to have reassured her at once without needing one. "No, of course not, Miss Frost. Your work is worth every penny."

"Thank you, Mr. Mathey," she said primly, followed, a moment later, by the now friendly and familiar sound of her typewriter click-clacking.

"The newspapers should be interesting tomorrow morning," Julian said.

"Why do you say that?" Ned asked, already smiling. He'd invited Julian to dinner directly after work, and Julian hadn't said anything about interesting news until just now, midway through their meal. He must've seen or heard something very recently to which Ned had been entirely oblivious, and Julian did like showing off.

Julian nodded at their fellow diners. "Simpson's-in-the-Strand is crowded tonight. One or more of the newspaper offices on Fleet Street must be busier than usual. All of the conversations I can overhear are on boringly mundane topics, however, which means that they're being careful not to scoop themselves. The evening papers have already been printed, so there'd be no need for caution if the story was there. Therefore whatever it is must be in the morning news."

Ned raised his glass in acknowledgment of the argument's soundness. "In that case, I look forward to reading all about whatever it is tomorrow."

Simpson's wasn't so unprofessional as to rush them through their meal, despite the crowded tables, but their waiter was quicker to clear their plates between courses than usual, and Julian and Ned obliged by not lingering over their meal as they otherwise might have done.

"Would you care to come to back to mine for a drink?" Ned asked after they'd settled their bill and left. It was a perfectly natural offer, he told himself. Their dinner had been too short for a satisfactory conversation. Though if Julian chose to read something more into it, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

"I'd be glad to," Julian said, temporarily derailing Ned's train of thought.

Ned led the way to his boarding house, somehow managing to maintain his half of a light conversation despite his growing distraction.

It was rather a relief when his landlady met them in the front hall; she was a friendly face, and a blessedly uncomplicated presence in comparison to all the things Julian made him feel.

"Mrs. Clewett, good evening. This is my friend Julian Lynes. We were at school together. Julian, my landlady, Mrs. Clewett."

"A pleasure," Mrs. Clewett said, echoed by Julian, before turning back to Ned. "Now, Mr. Mathey, I know you had dinner out, but we had a lemon cake tonight, and it won't be half as good tomorrow. There's a slice for your friend, too, of course, if he would like."

"Thank you, Mrs. Clewett. That's very kind of you," Ned said as Julian boggled at the two of them.

"Don't mention it," Mrs. Clewett said. "I'll bring the cake straight up."

The cake arrived five minutes later accompanied by a pot of coffee, and Ned thanked her again very sincerely.

"I'm half-afraid to ask," Julian said when Mrs. Clewett had gone and Ned had served him his cake and coffee, "but is there a Mr. Clewett? Or does Mrs. Clewett show any other signs of wishing there were one?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Ned said, more amused than annoyed by the suggestion. "She's a kind woman, and I made the mistake of telling her that my mother had passed away, which apparently means that I'm in perpetual need of cosseting. I tried to tell her that I still have three older sisters, not to mention a father, brother, and assorted other relations, but it seems they don't count."

"I ought to tell my landlady that I'm an orphan," Julian said. "Perhaps then she'd be less inclined to treat me as though she wouldn't spit on me if I were on fire."

"I'm sure that's not true," Ned said, though he wouldn't be surprised at there being some animosity there. Julian was capable of surprising acts of kindness, but he didn't tend to do as well with common courtesy. Still, he'd lived at his boarding house for over a year; his landlady would've gotten rid of him by now if she'd truly hated him.

Julian frowned slightly, and then he shrugged. "She might save my life if the alternative was letting her house go up in smoke, I suppose."

Ned laughed. "See, there you are. No greater love had Damon for Pythias."

The conversation turned from Julian's domestic arrangements to work, and in particular Ned's most recent job for Scotland Yard. The Barton murder trial was headline news, of course, but there were some fascinating details concerning the metaphysics of the cursed necklace that were too esoteric for the papers to care about, but that were of great interest to Julian.

They finished their cake and coffee, and Ned offered a nightcap, which Julian readily accepted.

The Barton murder case exhausted as a conversational topic, Julian in turn told Ned what he'd learned about police procedure and the internal politics of Scotland Yard. It was more than a bit illuminating, though even looking at his involvement in the case with hindsight, Ned was relieved to discover that he hadn't put his foot in it too badly. Scotland Yard didn't pay particularly well--there was a reason they'd come to him rather than to one of the more established metaphysicians, after all--but at least they hadn't needed to be hounded for a check. And the very little bit of fame that Ned had received during the trial might bring in more clients. He wouldn't be unhappy to work for the Yard again.

It was an involving conversation, but eventually Ned couldn't help but yawn.

"It's late," Julian said in a neutral tone.

Ned nodded. "I should be getting to bed." He almost wanted to invite Julian to join him, but in the end he didn't.

If Julian had noticed Ned's silent interest, he chose to ignore it. He drained the last sip of whiskey from his tumbler and set it down. "Thanks for the drink, Mathey. And the cake. No need to come downstairs with me, I can see myself out."

So Ned walked him only as far as the door to his rooms before wishing him good night, shaking hands with him at almost the last moment because he desperately wanted a touch from Julian, and a handshake was apparently the best thing on offer. At least for now.

A couple months into their reacquaintance, Ned had dined with Julian six times--and gone back to one or the other of their rooms for drinks afterwards several of those times--lunched with him twice, and once gone with him to the British Museum. (The Egyptian exhibit had held barely more of his attention than it had the first time, but Julian's insightful and witty commentary on the exhibit was almost engraved on his mind.) Nor was it all Ned reaching out to Julian; almost half of those engagements had been proposed by Julian himself. And yet all of their interactions were as relentlessly platonic as the evenings Ned spent at the Mercury Club.

He chafed at the situation, but didn't quite know how to change it. If he were a little braver, he could simply proposition Julian; Julian's mind was as twisty as a hedge maze, but he could be remarkably practical. Ned's occasional nightmarish imaginings to the contrary, Julian was highly unlikely to be offended. But if he were offended, then Ned would lose not only a potential lover, but a friendship that was fast becoming nearly as vital to him as it had been when they were at school together.

"Another drink?" Julian asked, interrupting Ned's thoughts. "Or is it time for you to be off to bed?"

There was a strangely sardonic tone to his voice. It might be no more than a mild joke on the subject of Ned's preference for early hours and Julian's for late ones, yet Ned couldn't help but feel there was more to it than that.

"No more for me, thank you. But I don't need to go quite yet."

Let Julian answer that as he would. Ned relaxed more deliberately on Julian's sofa.

Julian hesitated over the brandy decanter, then set it down without pouring himself another glass and returned to sit beside Ned. "Do you remember our last year at Toms', when Walter Graham smuggled in a bottle of whiskey and shared it with the rest of us?"

Ned laughed a little at the memory. "I remember that you got more quiet and contemplative than ever, and that it took me the opposite way and somebody--"

"Albert Wynchombe," Julian supplied, somehow divining the direction of Ned's thoughts.

"--yes, Wynchcombe had to half-smother me with a pillow to keep me from talking loudly enough to wake the house master. That was my first time tasting whiskey, you know. I'm surprised I managed to choke enough down to embarrass myself that much."

"Of course, you were much slighter then," Julian said. "It would take a great deal more liquor to have the same effect. I think you must be nearly twice the size now."

He put a hand on the lower part of Ned's thigh, as though to measure the change.

Ned's breath caught in his throat. A moment later, Julian made to withdraw his hand, an apologetic look already crossing his face, but Ned reached over quickly to cover it with his own.

They stared at each other for a handful of seconds. Ned licked his lips. "It must be very convenient to use your parlor as your office. At the end of a long day of work, your bed's right there," he said, his voice almost steady.

"It is," Julian said, a banked fire coming to life in his eyes, and he drew Ned to his feet and led him into the other room.

"Take your coat off first," Julian said, stripping his own off as he spoke. As soon as they were both coatless, Julian pushed Ned gently towards the bed, and Ned let himself fall backwards onto it, his prick feeling obscenely obvious at this new angle.

"Shoes, too," Julian said, and Ned obeyed. A moment later Julian joined him on the bed, his long body pressed warmly against Ned's side, and he leaned down to catch Ned in a kiss that went on, and on, and on.

They hadn't kissed this much in university, Ned was certain, and he didn't know why that had changed. Perhaps Julian had gotten into the habit of it with the--likely many--lovers he'd had since then. Perhaps it was only that they'd been too young and impatient back then for gentler pleasures. Regardless, as long as Julian didn't mind, Ned was very happy to kiss him all night.

Julian's clever fingers unbuttoned Ned's waistcoat even as he continued to press soft kisses to Ned's lips. The buttons on Ned's shirt were taken care of in their turn, and then Julian spread the cloth open on either side, like wings on a bird, leaving Ned's chest exposed.

Julian traced Ned's ribs, dipping down to caress his stomach briefly--Ned's stomach quivered in response--then spread warmly upwards to rub his chest with obvious intent. Ned's nipples, drawn tight in the slight chill of the room, were tugged in a shockingly pleasant way by the wide circles described by Julian's palms. They hadn't done this in university, either.

And then Julian's mouth left his to trail kisses down the sensitive length of Ned's neck and along his chest before taking Ned's left nipple between firm lips. Julian sucked in a sweet, pulsing rhythm that made Ned's cock throb a little, before flicking the nipple with his tongue and making Ned groan aloud.

Before he quite knew what he was doing, Ned's hands were moving to tangle in Julian's soft hair and to hold Julian's head in place, should he have any misapprehension of stopping what he was doing.

"Please," Ned gasped. He felt it when Julian smiled against his skin, and then Julian pressed a quick kiss to the nipple before resuming his attentions, licking and sucking and drawing it into his mouth to flick, flick, flick with that maddeningly perfect tongue, before releasing the tingling flesh and beginning again. His left hand slid up to toy with Ned's other nipple, and Ned closed his eyes while Julian teased him for long minutes that danced the line between perfection and being unbearably short of what Ned needed.

His cock was almost aching now, it was so hard, and he could feel the spreading damp on his clothes over his leaking cockhead. He could reach down and touch himself--the thought recurred every few moments--but it wasn't what he really wanted. He wanted Julian, and whatever Julian chose to give him, even if it was this relentlessly delicious torment.

Julian lifted his head at last, and Ned sighed with mingled disappointment and relief. And then Julian did no more than to lean across him to replace the fingers on Ned's other nipple with his mouth, and Ned almost shouted with frustration, even as he shuddered with pleasure.

He bore it a minute or two more, until Ned truly couldn't help himself. "Julian, please," he begged, looking down at him. "I need more."

Julian's eyes met his, a spark of amusement dancing in them, and Ned realized belatedly that his words could be misinterpreted as meaning he wanted more of what Julian was doing at the moment. He opened his mouth for another try, but Julian had already taken pity on him. He rose up to press his mouth to Ned's in a deep kiss, even as his hands worked to unfasten Ned's trousers and underwear.

Ned expected Julian to touch him then, but instead Julian said, "Strip off your clothes." Ned hurried to obey, and once again Julian followed suit until they were both completely nude and pressed full-length against each other. Then Julian slid his hand down to where Ned wanted it most.

Julian's firm, knowing grip on his cock was--Ned thought with the small portion of his mind that wasn't overcome by sensation--not much different than it had been during their university days; they'd come to understand each other's needs well. Yet the overall experience was wholly different. Julian's other hand was busy, too, cupping Ned's balls and squeezing them gently, the tips of his fingers brushing against Ned's inner thighs and making him shiver. And all the while Julian was kissing him, no longer softly or carefully, but with long strokes of his tongue against Ned's.

Ned had technically gained more experience than this, and yet Julian's lovemaking was so skillful that it felt more obscenely sexual than buggering rent boys ever had.

He could feel Julian's hard, silky cock against his thigh. Part of him wanted to touch it desperately, but he couldn't quite make his hands stop clutching the bedcovers. It was too overwhelming after months of solitary longing, and now Julian was touching him again for real, and suddenly it all came to a head and Ned made a strangled noise and came.

Julian carefully wrung the last bits of pleasure from him with a few slow, deliberate strokes of Ned's cock, until Ned winced and he removed both his hands immediately. He didn't withdraw too far, instead lying beside Ned and throwing an arm across him to caress Ned's arm and his heaving side.

"What can I do for you?" Ned asked once the haze of pleasure had lifted and he'd caught his breath again.

Julian didn't respond right away. Rather, he fixed Ned with a somewhat disconcerting gaze, as though he were trying to see into his soul. His hand never stopped stroking Ned's side, though, so Ned pushed away his slight unease and waited for Julian's answer.

"I'd like you to suck my cock," Julian said at last; Ned took an unsteady breath. "But if you don't want to, your hand--"

Ned shook his head. "It's fine."

It was more than fine. At that moment, it was what he wanted more than almost anything. This was new to him, as well, though he'd paid for it to be done to him a few times.

He rolled Julian onto his back in preparation, but Julian pushed him away and said, "No, wait a minute." Ned waited as Julian got into a sitting position, his back against the headboard, then curled one hand around the base of his cock as though to offer it to Ned and said, "Like this, all right?"

Ned didn't bother answering beyond a quick nod, just got onto his knees and leaned down to taste a man's cock for the first time in his life. The head was already slick--unsurprising given how long Julian had denied himself while pursuing Ned's pleasure--and less salty than Ned had expected. He licked it again and felt it get wetter under his tongue.

A warm, heavy touch settled between his shoulderblades, and Ned braced himself to be guided by Julian; no doubt he was making a hash of things. But all Julian did was stroke Ned's shoulders and back with deep, lingering caresses. "That's good, Ned," he said softly, and Ned ducked his head lower to hide his sudden and absurd blush.

No matter how patient Julian was being, he couldn't put off the main event forever. The next time he put his mouth to Julian's cock, he parted his lips and slid down several inches, then back up, trying his best to use his tongue to good effect.

"Just like that," Julian said, a slight tremor running through the words.

Ned had no illusions about his skill in this particular area, but perhaps Julian was aroused enough that it didn't matter. Regardless, Ned bobbed and sucked to the best of his ability, while Julian murmured encouragement and caressed him everywhere he could reach. Ned's jaw had just begun to ache when Julian said, in a tone of sharp warning, "Ned, I'm going to--" and Ned tapped his thigh in acknowledgement and sucked him deeper, wanting to experience as much of Julian's pleasure as he could.

The pulses of semen that filled his mouth were sharper-tasting and far thicker than he'd expected, but Ned just swallowed--with a little difficulty--and then it was done. He let Julian's cock slip out of his mouth and dropped his head to rest, panting for breath, on Julian's thigh. The hand on his back rose to ruffle clumsily through his hair, and Ned smiled.

He'd have to leave soon--they couldn't risk being seen sleeping over at each other's rooms--but for now, it was enough to know that Julian was pleased.

Ned wrote up the case notes for his most recent job with unseemly haste; he'd probably have to rewrite them later. It was only four o'clock, but he couldn't bear to remain at the office any longer that day. Almost a week since he and Julian had spent that transformative evening together, and he hadn't seen Julian since.

"Miss Frost? I've remembered an errand I have to run. You may leave early today," he said, shelving his casebook and grabbing his coat.

"All right, Mr. Mathey. Good night."

"Good night," he said absently.

The pessimistic explanation for Julian's absence, of course, was that he simply didn't want to see Ned anymore. He'd been happy to resume their friendship but hadn't wanted more than that, and a momentary lapse in judgment had landed him in an uncomfortable situation. Or he'd wanted Ned up until he had him and realized how fumbling and worthless Ned was in comparison to his other lovers. Or he'd only ever wanted Ned one last time, and now that the chase was over he was done with him.

Ned shook his head sharply against that last ungracious thought. If that was all Julian had wanted, then he would've taken Ned to bed weeks ago; Ned hadn't been particularly subtle. No, Julian might have a mercurial temperament, and Ned might not be the sort of man who could hold his interest for long, but Ned had no real doubts that the past months of friendship had been genuine. Which meant that Ned still had a shot at keeping Julian in his life--in one capacity or another--and it would be pure cowardice not to try.

He walked to Coptic Street rather than take the omnibus, in a mostly successful effort to calm his nerves, and was shown up to Julian's rooms by young Digby.

"Hello, Mathey. Is it that late already?" Julian asked with a smile, turning to look at his clock.

Ned smiled back ruefully. Or perhaps Julian had simply been busy this past week, and Ned had panicked over nothing.

"No, I just felt like knocking off work early today. You're not expecting a client, are you?"

"Unfortunately, no. I should make myself available for the next hour or so anyway--for various reasons, Thursday evenings are what pass for a rush around here," Julian said, and Ned braced himself for a brush off. Then Julian continued, "But if you're amenable, I could send Harry out for hot pies. I even have an excellent claret to go with our dinner. Partial payment from a client who's gone down in the world and couldn't afford to pay his entire bill in cash."

Ned was of course more than happy to accept, and they enjoyed the pies and claret and a long conversation about non-European magical systems, Ned providing most of the knowledge of fundamentals and Julian an array of obscure trivia gleaned from his cases.

The clock chimed six, and the conversation ground to halt.

"And that's that," Julian said. "We could go to a coffee shop if you want pudding for the meal." There was a brief pause. "Or we could stay in."

Through strength of will, Ned held back a sigh of relief. For whatever reason, Julian wasn't entirely done with him yet.

"Let's just stay in," Ned said, his heart already pounding in anticipation.

Julian locked the door.