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It Ends with a Hashtag (It Begins with a Lick by Daroh remix)

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The three weeks in London are almost at an end and Bradley’s about to start packing. His wardrobe is piled up in a messy hill on the bed, and his travel bag lies on the floor with its belly split open, waiting to be filled. He’s about to reach for a wrinkled shirt when a text from an unknown number blips on his mobile screen.

“Do you still get doughnuts after footie on Sunday mornings?” it says.

It could be anyone, of course. After all, so many mates know about Bradley’s weekly habit. It could be Eoin fucking with him. But as Bradley’s stomach plummets in a sudden drop, he is sure it must be Cols.

Maybe he could pretend he hasn’t seen it. He doesn’t owe Colin a reply; if anything, Colin owes him.

Bradley sits down on the mattress, in the midst of the clothing chaos, clutching his phone until the screen goes black. He thumbs the edge to make it light up again. The message is still visible in the notifications. He tries to resist. He doesn’t want to go down that road again, not really. But when it comes to Colin? Bradley’s mind is already made up; this is a battle he lost ages ago.

“Always,” he sends.

He wonders if Cols gets the Potter reference, and if it’s better if he does or doesn’t. After all, they haven’t seen each other in ages. Maybe it’s too much.

The buzz of the intercom startles Bradley. He’s still sitting on the bed with his phone in one hand and a sock in the other—what was he even going to do with this sock in the first place? In the camera Colin looks grainy and distorted, like a criminal caught on CCTV footage. Bradley buzzes him in, not questioning how Colin knows he’s in London, never mind in his flat and not out. It’s just one of Colin’s many talents, he supposes.

He probably should do something before he greets Colin, like attempt to clean the room or maybe check if his hair’s all right. Maybe he should put down the sock, or find its matching mate. Not that it matters. Before he can decide what to do there’s a knock on the door.

Colin looks… He looks the way Colin always looks, radiant in baggy jeans and a hoodie with the hood pulled over a beanie, despite it being warm this spring. He’s carrying a cardboard box that he extends to Bradley, who just stares. He thinks for a second about offering the sock in return.

“Hullo,” Colin says, and the sound of his voice, deeper and rougher than in any of the interviews Colin does when he’s all chirpy and proper, that sound of the real Colin hits Bradley straight in the chest. He reaches over to take the box from Colin only to find he’s still holding the bloody sock.

“I was going to throw out all my socks but I got cold feet,” Bradley says, foregoing a normal greeting. It’s their thing. Or it used to be their thing.

Colin arches an eyebrow and gives Bradley an impassive stare.

“I used to have better jokes about matching socks but I’ve forgotten one.”

The ghost of a smile pulls at Colin’s lips. It’s possible he’s supressing a small chuckle, so Bradley presses on. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got one! Who asked if it was better for a sock to be or not to be?”

This time there’s definitely laughter building behind Colin’s face. Colin’s about to crack, he can tell. “Sockspeare!” he finishes with triumph, and finally Colin does laugh, full and throaty, and fuck, Bradley certainly hasn’t prepared himself for that.

“I’m glad I’m still able to make you laugh your socks off!” he finishes.

“Some things never change, James.” Colin says, still smiling. “I got the chocolate ones. I reckon you were quite fond of those.”

“Cheers.” Bradley finally takes the box and Colin steps in, taking off his hat and unzipping the hoodie.

It shouldn’t be a shock. Bradley’s known about it, of course. But the sight of Colin’s face without the tips of Colin’s ears sticking out of his hair makes Bradley want to slam something in anger. The feeling of loss is strong and sudden, as if Colin had died or lost a limb or something, which is—Christ—so fucking stupid. It’s just that Bradley used to love those ear tips. He wishes Colin hadn’t been so self-conscious about them. He wonders if someone feels the same way about his own face, too. Colin, maybe.

He excuses himself to put the box in the kitchen, but really, he’s hiding his facial expression from Colin, that unexpected grief. He hears Colin walk in behind him, stepping softly in his trainers.

“Would you like…” Bradley doesn’t know what to offer Colin, really. Should he go for tea? Coffee? Beer? “…anything to drink?”

“Water,” Colin says, and Bradley smiles because this is one of the words he’s always loved particularly in Colin’s accent, and he used to make Colin say this over and over again, way back when they were filming long hours together. He pours some water in a glass for Colin and then opens the pastry box, taking out two of the six doughnuts lined up inside and placing them on a plate. He motions to Colin to have a seat at the kitchen table.

“Are you having any this time around?” he asks. It’s not a dare; he just doesn’t know anything about Colin anymore. Perhaps he’s given up his old healthy habits and stuffs his face with pizza and ice cream these days, risking stomach pains and rashes. Or perhaps these are some of those lovely looking and vile tasting gluten-free, lactose free, soy and chia seed hipster treats that seem to have spread around London at an alarming rate.

“Better not,” Colin says.

They sit there, at the table that normally doubles as Bradley’s desk and is full of papers, with laptop open and always turned on because Bradley can’t be arsed, and because he likes to scroll through his Twitter footie news in the mornings while he’s having toast and coffee.

“I’ve seen you in that World War One movie,” he blurts out when the silence becomes a bit too much. He’s been very careful not to stumble upon anything with Colin in it, but he’d started watching the film last time he was in London and only realised it was Colin’s one when he was a good chunk in. Then he couldn’t make himself stop watching, and if he cried at the end of it, less for the characters and more for the loss of the connection he used to share with Colin—well, it’s nobody else’s business. “You were really good in it.”

“Thanks.” Colin looks uncertain but he’s never been good at accepting compliments despite being way more narcissistic than any of his fans could ever suspect him to be. “You were really good in Damien, too. I’m sorry they cancelled it.”

And when Bradley doesn’t answer—because what he’s supposed to say, really?—Colin asks, “How’s California, anyway?”

“Warm.” Because it is, in every aspect of Bradley’s life: the weather is warm, his house is warm, everything is good. Not hot maybe, but warm. Nice.

“Going back soon?”

“Yes. Tomorrow.” He wonders why Colin’s here. Why now. “Are you working on something here? New project?”

Colin shrugs.

It’s a bit out of character for Colin. Normally he’d be off telling Bradley about new ideas and films.

“You all right?” Bradley risks, and Colin doesn’t answer, just looks away, chewing at his lip.

Bradley’s never been good at understanding Colin. They might have finished each other’s sentences once, but it didn’t mean Bradley really got Colin. Perhaps no one ever did—not even Colin’s shithead of an on-and-off boyfriend.

“How’s…?” Bradley pretends not to recall the name, although how could he forget it? “How’s Chris?”

Colin shakes his head. “Dunno. Last time we spoke was a year ago when he was off for a holiday in Hawaii with his new boyfriend.”

“I’m sorry,” Bradley says, even though he’s not. Colin doesn’t seem particularly fazed by the mention of Chris. Bradley used to hate that asshole who kept luring Colin in, only to dump him again when he got bored. Or was it the other way around? Perhaps it was Colin toying with the older man? Bradley’s not sure anymore.

“It’s okay,” Colin says. “So, are you going to eat those?”

Obediently, Bradley picks up a doughnut and takes a bite. The soft, sugary dough is lush on his tongue. It’s certainly not any organic, allergen-free abomination. It’s an honest-to-God unhealthy, awesome doughnut, like the kind they used to serve in Cardiff.

“Can I have a taste?” Colin asks, when Bradley’s halfway through the first of the delicacies.

“Of course.” Bradley’s confused. “I thought you said you didn’t want any.”

Before Bradley can push the plate towards Colin, he stands up and walks over to Bradley, then bends down to lick at Bradley’s lips.

So, this is how it’s going to be this time around, Bradley thinks, when he turns his head in chase of Colin’s lips. Everyone assumes it’s Bradley who’s spoiled and self-centred, only thinking of his own needs, but it had always been Colin who took what he wanted in the end, just as he’s doing now, sucking chocolate frosting from Bradley’s lips without even asking Bradley if this is okay, if he’s ready to do this again.

But then Colin hesitates for a split second, as if actually waiting for permission, and Bradley says, “All right,” when their lips part and he catches his breath. His heart is pounding hard, as usual when he and Colin get together like this. And no matter what fantasies of resistance he’d entertained before, he won’t deny himself this. Can’t. He wants Colin like he’s never wanted anything else in his life—this won’t ever change. Colin is the endgame for Bradley, the love of his life, and he’ll take whatever Colin’s offering at the moment, no matter how much it’ll hurt later when Colin says, “Cheers,” and goes on his way.

Whatever. Bradley has survived it before, so he’ll survive it again.

He leans in for another kiss, enjoying how Colin’s lips are hard and unrelenting, not at all delicate. People think of Cols as this fragile, elfish flower, but in reality Colin is way stronger than people expect, aggressive even, especially in bed.

Bradley pushes Colin’s T-Shirt up, running his hands over the smooth skin and feeling toned muscles flex underneath his fingers. His cock jumps in his jeans at the sensation of Colin’s flat, ripped stomach.

“You’ve been working out,” he says to lighten up the moment, because blood is buzzing in his ears and he feels like he’s going to fall over any second if he doesn’t slow down. “All those muscles…”

“What, you likin’ them?” Colin bends to palm Bradley’s bulge through his jeans, smirking when he feels how hard Bradley already is. “I take it you are.” He rubs Bradley through the fabric, and when Bradley swallows hard, Colin looks at him and slowly drops to his knees.

And fuck, Bradley’s missed this sight so fucking much—Colin’s graceful body in front of him like this, Colin’s lips, full and stretched as he takes Bradley’s cock into his mouth. He’s had dreams of that tongue—of how Colin had licked that sugary topping off a doughnut years ago, and then the precome off Bradley’s cock.

When Colin’s long, elegant fingers close over his shaft, Bradley moans, embarrassed at the sound but feeling stupid with want, won over, at Colin’s mercy, as always.

He knows he won’t last, not when Colin swirls his tongue over the sensitive head of Bradley’s cock, then dips the tip of it in the slit only to press it flat on the underside and lick and suck. Colin tightens the grip of his hand because he remembers exactly how Bradley likes it.

Bradley comes all too soon, with a gasp that’s a bit choked off because he’s in despair that it’s over already. Colin’s lips are glistening with spit and come when he pulls back. Some of Bradley’s spunk is still coating Colin’s fingers, and Colin looks up into Bradley’s eyes as he brings his fingers to his mouth and licks them clean, as if it’s doughnut frosting he’s tasting instead of Bradley.

Bradley, as boneless and spent as he is, wants to reach out, chase the taste of himself on Colin’s lips, but Colin is already pulling back. He opens his fly and pushes his jeans and boxers down just enough to release his own cock, flushed red and hard just from getting Bradley off. He bites his lips as his hand flies over his cock fast. His eyes are downcast, head turned as if he doesn’t want Bradley to watch, but Bradley knows better. He remembers that one time in Cardiff when Colin leaned back against the headboard of their hotel bed, legs falling open shamelessly, and stroked himself slowly, making sure Bradley savoured every single bit of that private show.

There’s none of that overconfidence now, though—there’s just Colin, kneeling, colour high on his cheeks, trembling a bit as he comes, soundlessly, as if he’s unworthy of attention. He stays there for a while after he’s done, and Bradley wonders what a picture they must make, in the middle of Bradley’s kitchen, with Bradley’s still semi-hard cock out and Colin kneeling with cooling spunk caught in his hand and clothes pushed down his thighs.

Back when they used to do this, during the filming of the first seasons of Merlin, Cols would just stand up and go to the bathroom to clean up and then go about his business, having got what he’d wanted. It was always Bradley who felt neglected or bereft of something crucial. He’s expecting Colin to get up and go out now too, but Colin stays where he is. After a moment, he places a hand on Bradley’s thigh, smoothing it over Bradley’s skin, his fingers shaking a little, and Bradley sighs and brings his hand to Colin’s cheek to caress it, rubbing small, soothing circles with his thumb. He feels as if he’s giving something up again, as if he’s giving himself up yet again. Or as if maybe he’s never gotten all of himself back, not since that first time in Cardiff nearly ten years ago, and it’s obvious just now in this moment between them.

When he hears a low sniffle and feels a bit of moist on his skin, he knows that Colin is crying. Bradley won’t even start guessing why. Perhaps it’s regret. Perhaps it’s something Bradley has or hasn’t done. Or maybe the tears have nothing to do with Bradley; maybe it’s just Colin wishing for something else, something out of his reach.

Whatever it is, Bradley can’t take it, and he refuses to cry with Colin, so he moves his hand slightly to wipe the tears. Colin then looks up, and something inside Bradley shatters and melts again because Colin has always been such a beautiful crier, with his eyes like a navy sea on a turbulent day and lips even fuller and redder than usual.

Colin brings his hand to close over Bradley’s and then moves to kiss the inside of Bradley’s palm, as if he’s apologizing or worshipping him.

“Bed?” he asks in a whisper, because he doesn’t want to startle Colin from whatever emotional breakdown he’s having, sitting there in between Bradley’s thighs. He still anticipates Colin bolting, but Colin nods his assent, and they both get up, dropping their trousers so they won’t get tangled on the way.

Colin stops at the sight of the piles of clothing on the bed.

“Early flight,” Bradley says, pushing everything onto the floor. Fuck it, he thinks. It’s not as if he hasn’t got a whole closet full of stuff back in LA. He can live without belongings, but probably not without this moment he’s having with Colin, whatever it is.

They climb under the covers and Bradley tries to remember if they’ve ever done this—the cuddling part of sex. Surely he’d remember that, wouldn’t he? This also must be the least they’ve ever talked to each other, but as Colin settles close to Bradley, pushing his feet in between Bradley’s shins and twining their fingers together, Bradley thinks they’ve never been closer.

Still, he doesn’t ask Colin any dumb questions like “what now?” because he doesn’t want to hear the answers. Tomorrow he’ll board a plane and go back to his life in LA, and Colin—Colin will do what Colin always does, which is pretend Bradley isn’t a person who has feelings too.

For now, though, Colin is warm and relaxed, snoring lightly like a cat basking in a sunbeam. And he’s still there in the morning too, watching Bradley zip his bag with eyes half-mast and hair mussed from sleep.

“I’d see you off at the airport if it wouldn’t hit your Twitter in a matter of seconds,” Colin says. He looks up at Bradley with a strange intensity and ads, “Not that I’d mind that, but…”

Suddenly Bradley has a crazy thought. He takes his phone and snaps a selfie of his huge smile and Colin in the background all tangled in Bradley’s sheets.

“Mission complete,” he writes on his Twitter over the photo. “I found my target. My matching sock. Must not disclose who he is, though.”

He shows it to Colin, letting him see it before he deletes it, waiting for Colin to laugh.

But it’s a dare. It’s always been that, even when it hasn’t always been anything else through the years. Bradley daring to love Colin in the face of the unknown. Daring Colin to love him in return. Daring Colin to choose him over everyone and everything else.

Colin grins with mischief, taps something else on the phone, and… presses Tweet. Bradley looks at the added hashtags and lifts his eyebrows while his heart fucking dissolves.

Because underneath the caption Colin has written #oldlovedoesntdie #onceandfuture.