Actions

Work Header

Drawing Closer

Work Text:

 

 

Chapter One

The final moments of the final lesson. Charles glanced around the cramped room as he wound up his farewell speech, wondering how much of what he'd said over the last ten weeks had sunk in, how much they'd retain.

Because they were at the community center voluntarily and had paid for the privilege of being taught by him, they'd tried to come to grips with the life and times of Shakespeare, and, in the last three weeks of the course, Romeo and Juliet. Eight o'clock on a Friday night wasn't the ideal time to schedule a course aimed at people with jobs and families, though. Three people had dropped out after the first two weeks to Charles’s dismay citing timing conflicts.

Those that were left were, for the most part, older than him, their schooldays a distant memory. At thirty-two, in his day job at Suffolk County College, he lectured children turning to adults as he watched. Students young enough to be awed or disrespectful, depending on how the freedom of being away from home for the first time took them. He dealt easily with both attitudes, quelling an unruly class with a few words or a well-timed silence.

His current job security was more than he'd expected when he'd left England six years earlier. He'd emigrated in a hurry and arrived clutching a suitcase and a reference from his former university that missed out a lot to be helpfully enthusiastic. His heart hadn’t been broken in England, but it had certainly been hardened.

He'd been lucky. Lucky to get a job when his blank face and snarled admission to his prospective employers that he was gay should have closed doors, not opened them; lucky to have made friends, a few at least. Lucky to have found a house that needed work, lots of it, so he fell asleep tired in body as well as mind, and forgot to dream.

Fortunate to have rediscovered his gift for writing, so the packed bookshelves in his house held four books with his name on the spine.

And if he hadn't done more than date and—sometimes—end up in bed with someone whose name he could barely recall a week later, and whose face was a blur, well, it was enough. It was all he wanted.

After Alan, it was plenty.

Teaching this course was a way of paying back some of his luck. Peter Matthews, the man in charge of the community college, had been his first friend in a strange country. He'd given Charles a place to stay, although his children—three of them, all under the age of six—had made it less of a refuge than a stopgap, and introduced him to the Dean of the local university. Who had, amazingly, heard of Dr. Charles Stanway, because he was a Shakespeare-obsessed Anglophile, and was more than willing to flaunt his liberal credentials by employing someone who was gay.

“You can’t get involved with a student though.” The Dean had blinked so fast Charles’s eyes ached watching him. “That’s out of the question.”

Charles had assumed that was the case for every member of staff, though he’d settled for a tight smile and a muttered assurance. The fresh-faced students weren’t at all tempting, and he'd had enough experience teaching to deflect the wide-eyed crushes and the blatant come-ons even if they had been.

Yes, he owed Peter, and teaching this course had been good for him. In tailoring his theories to an audience he had, in some cases, underestimated, he'd discovered new subtleties in the text. It had been humbling and educational, and although he wouldn't want to do this often, he gave serious consideration to doing it again. Maybe.

The classroom cleared quickly. His former students were going out for a celebratory drink at a nearby bar with a Happy Hour that lasted from seven to midnight on Friday. He’d been invited—pressed to come, in fact—but he'd refused with a smile, pleading work.

It was a lie, but a polite one. The truth was that he wanted to—

"Dr. Stanway? Do you have a moment?"

Oh God. The last to leave, as usual.

"Well, not really, Gray. As I said, I have—"

"Work to do. Yes." Dark blue eyes widened, mocking him, but not unkindly.

"I really do," he said crisply.

Gray ran a slim, tanned hand back through the thick, dark hair that had never, in ten weeks, been anything but tousled, his eyes appealing now. "It won't take long."

It hadn't taken long for Gray to become the focus of Charles’s attention either. He'd walked into the classroom that first warm, late May evening, glanced around a room filled with people—ordinary, average people—and Gray, who, to Charles’s eyes at least, was anything but.

Gray had been in the middle row, in the exact spot Charles’s gaze naturally fell on when he was addressing a class, his expression one of polite interest, no more, hands folded on his desk.

Hands Charles had imagined on him so often in the following weeks that looking at them now made him shiver, made him feel ghost-touches against his face, his back, his—

He jerked away from his inappropriate fantasies. He needed to get laid. A crude solution, but effective. Bury lust and longing in anonymous flesh and wipe Gray from his mind. For God’s sake, the man was nothing special. Ridiculous to be in the throes of infatuation at his age. "Very well. But if it's about your grade, you know that isn't the way this class works." He smiled to show he was joking. In any other class, he'd have been wary of Gray's intentions, but not this one. The students had walked off chuckling over a fake diploma he'd printed for them, but there was no grade to fix, no chance to fail.

"If it was, would I have gotten an 'A'?" Gray tilted his head, running the tip of his tongue across his lower lip, a bright-eyed puppy waiting for a treat.

A warning throb in his cock left Charles retreating, escaping into formality. What the hell. He was English. He could get away with talking like someone off a period drama here in the US, playing into every stereotype. "Your work was satisfactory."

Gray pouted, that well-shaped mouth of his twisting into a delicious new shape, meant for kissing. "Yeah? Better than nothing.” He stepped closer. "I'd hate to think I'd left you unsatisfied…sir."

Sweet Jesus, not that word. Not from Gray. Torment. Charles wished he had a desk between them, but he didn't. The edge of the table he’d used in class dug into the back of his legs though, painful enough for him to realize the futility of backing away. He straightened and drew himself up. He was a good two inches taller than Gray. Didn’t need to be, but it helped. Annoyance steadied him. His class, his student, and he was in control. Time to act like it. "If we're descending to clichés, I'll borrow from Juliet," he replied, sounding surprisingly, gratifyingly calm, given that his heart was racing. "'What satisfaction can'st thou have tonight?'"

Too late, he remembered how Romeo had replied to that, and waited, cringing inwardly, not for Gray to cap his quotation with, 'Th'exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine', but to say something cutting, worse yet, laugh.

"I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed this class." Gray spoke with an earnest sincerity, ignoring an opportunity to engage in a verbal duel with Charles for the first time since they'd met. "Really. It was a pleasure."

There was a lingering emphasis on the final word that told Charles that his reprieve was over.

"Well, that's kind of you. I found it an interesting experience myself. Thank you for your contributions to the discussions and the papers you turned in. You have an original set of ideas and you express them well."

Charles smiled at him in dismissal and turned away to gather his papers. Note-perfect; friendly and yet distant. Good job, Charles.

"I wanted to thank you." If Charles hadn't known, because he'd checked, that Gray was twenty-three, he'd have thought him much younger with that quiver in his voice. Nerves? Gray Collins? They didn't go together.

"Well, you have," Charles said softly, not turning back. "And I appreciate it. Is that all?"

There was a frustrated sigh, bitten-off and heartfelt. "No. No, it isn't. Charles—"

That brought his head around. He'd encouraged an informal atmosphere in the classroom, but somehow they'd all continued to call him by his title. Hearing his first name spoken by Gray was new and unexpected.

"What?" He didn't sound so calm now, did he? Hoarse and desperate as he turned fully to face the man he'd been dreaming about—lusting over—for weeks. Ten of them.

"Oh, fuck it—" Gray stepped forward, took hold of Charles’s shirt in a tight grip and kissed him.

It was sudden, but Charles had chance to dodge it, time to avert his face. He didn't. Instead he took what was offered and let the force of the kiss part his lips, let his tongue stroke deeply inside Gray's mouth, seeking out the taste of him, because he wanted to know—

"God." Gray broke the kiss but didn't step back, his hands still gripping Charles’s shirt. His knuckles dug in, tiny points of contact. "I knew it," he whispered. "Knew you'd kiss me back." There was no triumph in his voice, only relief.

"Let go of me," Charles said evenly, watching the certainty in the blue eyes shatter. "Right now, please."

Gray clutched harder, then released the crumpled fabric. "Don't tell me, let me guess." Heavy sarcasm weighed down his words. Charles was used to Gray's delicately merciless dissection of his words in class. He’d relished their duels. There was no disrespect involved, only a young man with enough arrogance to make him unwilling to admit his views were sometimes flawed, sometimes limited by ignorance. "It ends here, let's not embarrass ourselves by admitting the truth. Is that it? Is that what you were going to say?"

"What truth? That you're a student in my class and ten years younger than me?"

Gray's face darkened and his hand shot out, stronger than Charles had expected, locking around his wrist. "This truth, Charles." He brought Charles’s hand to the swell of his cock, hard under the thin, soft cotton of his pants. "Right here."

God. The heat of Gray's erection soaked into Charles’s palm, water into dry earth, its hardness promising, enticing, tempting. He wanted to run his hand along that rigidity, pull the fabric tight across it, see the blatant thrust of it outlined clearly. Wanted to kneel and mouth it through the material that covered it until they were both panting for more and the rasp of a zipper would be the sweetest sound in the world.

Instead, he snatched his hand back, making a fist, more to trap the heat burning across his palm than in a threat of violence.

Gray bit his lip. "You know why I'm always the last to leave your class?" he asked. "It's because I'm hard like this. Before you even walk in the room, I'm hard. I sit there watching you, listening to you, talking to you, and all the time, all this fucking time, Charles, I'm hard." He glanced down, but Charles didn't know which of them he was looking at. It didn't matter. If the kiss hadn't left his cock eager and aching, Gray's words would've done the trick, and he was sure his arousal was evident.

He wasn't sure what to do about it. Gray wanted him. Shared his hunger. That didn’t solve his problem, but it added to it, weighing him down until thought and action seemed equally challenging. He needed space, time alone to think this through.

The clank of a cleaning cart trundled along the corridor, the janitor whistling a mournful tune, broke the tension.

"Christ, this is impossible," Charles muttered. "Gray, I'm flattered. I'm not—no, I am interested. Okay? I'll give you that much. I am. But taking this further won’t happen, for many reasons, so please forget this happened. The class is over."

Gray's eyes met his, angry and hurt. "And so are we? God, why did you let me kiss you?”

“Because I’m a fool.” Honesty. He could give Gray that, at least. “It made it worse, I know. Look, I’m sorry. You have to leave.” He rearranged the words. I’m sorry you have to leave. Split them. I’m sorry and you have to leave. So what was he sorry for? That he’d deepened his longing to sheer torment? Hurt Gray with a rejection? Been too weak to turn his head when Gray kissed him? All of them and more.

Anger made Gray sound bitter when Charles had only gotten sweetness. “Leave? I can do that. Can't promise I won’t think about you, though. Especially when I take care of this." He tapped the prisoned flesh Charles wanted to see, touch, taste. "You ever come thinking about me? Or is that more than you'll admit to?"

Charles took refuge in ambiguity. "Yes. Good night, Gray."

He turned away as he spoke, sparing himself the sight of Gray leaving. The door slammed, leaving the room empty and Charles emptier.

 

 

Chapter Two

By the next day, Charles had stopped thinking about Gray. Mostly. The town was large enough that he'd never seen him before the class, so it wasn't likely their paths would cross again now it was over.

And it was over. An infatuation based on nothing more than a shared attraction, the kind that flared up and, without more than lust to fuel it, died down as quickly, satisfied or not.

With a single-minded concentration that he'd developed over the years, because otherwise he wouldn't have been able to cope with anything more taxing than the crossword in the local paper, he got to work on the outline of an article. He managed to lose himself in Tudor England without more than a slight detour to recall the happy little whimper Gray had given when their kiss ended.

He rejoined the world at about the same time that Rudegar stretched, yawned and padded over to give him an insistent nudge with his hard head. Stroking the cat's black fur, Charles did some yawning and stretching of his own. He saved his work and went to feed the cat before Rudegar clawed at the computer chair, already showing signs of wear although it was three months old.

After forking some sloppy cat food into a bowl and shuddering at the smell, Charles went to fix himself something to eat, finding enough in the fridge to satisfy his stomach, if not his taste buds. He sat on the couch with a whisky that he'd been promising himself all day and let his mind concentrate on analyzing the aroma and taste. The review he’d read spoke of peat and smoke, yes, they were there, but banana? Wet sheep? He couldn’t taste them and he didn’t want to.

Two sips in, and the doorbell rang.

He didn't get many visitors. It was most likely a child selling something to support something else and he never had the heart to turn them down, although he was probably head of the neighborhood list of suckers. Charles sighed and went to open the door, attaching a polite smile on his face out of habit.

Finding Gray on the other side, a small backpack slung over his shoulder, was more of a shock than it should've been. Had he really expected Gray to give up easily? With a flash of honesty, Charles admitted he envied Gray's determination and lack of self-consciousness. Charles couldn't imagine doing anything remotely similar. Rejection was too painful to seek out deliberately.

Gray let the silence between them build, staring down at the step, his shoulders tense, before looking up with a challenge in his eyes.

Oh God. So much hurt and bewilderment in that look. Charles stepped back, a mute signal short of an invitation, and watched Gray walk into his house. He closed the door with a sense of committing to a path he knew led to quicksand.

"Last night I had something for you," Gray said, his voice tight, not bothering with anything as mundane as saying hello.

"Besides a kiss?" Charles asked, a little unkindly perhaps.

"Yeah." Gray's head came up higher. "Besides that. Do you want it?" His lips curled in a tight smile. "And you're not getting another kiss until you beg for it."

Defiance and a challenge Charles could deal with. "Pity. Begging isn’t a skill of mine." He raised an eyebrow. "What did you want to give me?"

"You are so fucking full of shit, you know that?"

Gray didn't sound angry, despite his words, and Charles shrugged agreeably. "Maybe. Better keep your distance, hadn't you?"

Gray grinned at that, his eyes sparkling, and Charles realized he'd said too much already and lost control of the conversation by allowing it to begin. "That won’t happen. And you know, with that accent of yours, it's really hard for me to take offense no matter what you say, because you sound so damn cute."

"I most certainly do not.” The novelty of having his accent gushed over had worn off in the first month after he'd arrived.

"Yeah, you do." Gray was close in the narrow hallway and Charles regretted his lack of hospitability. In a chair, drink in hand, Gray might have been more controllable. A warm hand slid around his neck and Charles swallowed.

Maybe not.

"Don't worry." Gray's breath was soft against Charles’s face. "Told you: no kissing."

"What do you call this?"

"Touching isn't kissing."

"One could argue they're closely related." Hard to debate semantics with Gray stroking the back of his neck, while his other hand—"Stop that."

The request emerged as a snarled order, and Gray snatched his hand away from the third button of Charles’s shirt, with his fingers crooked and teasing at the skin he could reach. Gray took a deep, shaky breath. "This is all weird and mixed-up.”

"I'd agree with that," Charles said fervently. "Look, come into the living room. I want to find out what the hell is going through your head and you're making it hard for me to think."

"I am?"

Gray looked pleased at that and Charles rolled his eyes. "Yes, you are. But it wasn't a compliment. What do you want to drink?"

It was easier once they were sitting, Charles in an armchair, glass of whisky warming in his hand and Gray drinking a beer in long, slow swallows on the couch, his gaze traveling around the room.

At least he knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Gray wouldn't ask him if he'd read all of the books that crowded the shelves around them, as most visitors did with the air of being the first to do so.

"You've got a lot of books." Close enough. Charles groaned silently, feeling disappointed, but Gray hadn't finished. "Want one more?" He took book-shaped package out of the backpack and balanced it on his knee.

"What is it?" Charles asked. Gray smiled, his message clear.

Come over here, and find out.

Charles stood, crossed the room, and held out his hand. Gray squinted up at him, the soft shadows of twilight filling the room, making his expression difficult to read, and gave him the package.

Carefully, warily, Charles slid the book out of its wrapping and read the title.

He’d dreamed of holding it. Woken to loss. Now he held it, the scent of old paper teasing his nostrils, faint, familiar, and fought to control his joy. "My God."

"You said you'd been looking for it for years. Said you couldn't find a copy, except for one that was too expensive, and by the time you'd raised the cash anyway, it'd already been sold."

"I did, but I can't—Gray, I couldn't possibly accept this," Charles protested, even as his fingers itched to open the book. "If you allowed me to borrow it for a short time, I'd promise to take the utmost care of it, but it's far too valuable to give away."

"It's valuable to me because you want it," Gray said. "I've read it. I remember it. I don't need to own it to have it." He smiled at Charles’s look of surprise. "Good memory," he explained. "Not eidetic, but close enough. Handy for exams and phone numbers."

"I'm sure it is." Another trait to envy. It wasn't as if Gray learned facts parrot-style either; he was intelligent and capable of using the data he soaked up effortlessly. Charles sat beside him, book resting on his lap. "I wish you hadn't given me this."

"Why? You wanted it." Oh Christ, he was pouting again. Charles wasn't sure why that puzzled, resentful expression affected him so profoundly, but it did.

"I did, yes." Charles hesitated, running a finger over the author’s name, splashed across a dustjacket that was close to mint. "Do you want to know why?"

Gray nodded, his face expectant now.

"It was written by my great-uncle. You'd think that would mean I'd find it easy to get a copy, but it was such a limited printing, and when he died, his sister descended on the house." Charles grimaced. "She spring-cleaned. Everything was burned, given away, or sold. All his papers, his entire library went. God, I can't think about it without wanting to hit something."

Gray gaped at him. "She threw away his work? His books?" His voice went bat-squeak high with outrage and Charles nodded, appreciating the shared horror, although for him it was far more personal than the loss of the irreplaceable. John Cavendish had died when he was seven and they'd never met. Charles had grown up knowing his great-uncle was recognized as an authority on the Shakespearian sonnets. It wasn't until he was about Gray's age he'd felt the urge to follow in his footsteps.

In more ways than one, of course, as Uncle John had died three weeks after his lover; a man whom his sister had persisted in calling his secretary, deliberately blind to the relationship they'd shared. She'd taken out a lifetime of resentment and prejudice in two days, purging the house she'd inherited of everything belonging to its previous owner.

"Yes. She did." Charles picked up the book, weighing it in his hand. "How did you get this?" he asked curiously. "I wasn't exaggerating when I said that it was practically impossible to find a copy."

Gray pushed his hair out of his face, managing to mess it up even more in the process, and settled back, his body adapting to the deep couch with the same elegant ease Rudegar showed every time he fitted his ample bulk into a patch of sun-lit carpet.

"That isn't what you wanted to talk about."

"No," Charles admitted, giving Gray a rueful smile. "I'm sorry. Books are my passion, if that doesn't sound too pretentious. You managed to distract me rather thoroughly, I'm afraid."

"Damn." Gray shook his head. "That wasn't what I had in mind." He grinned and reached out. "Give it back."

"Really?" Charles asked, sure of the answer.

"Noooo." Gray sighed. "You know I don't mean it, but I'd appreciate your attention being on me, if it isn't too much to ask?"

Charles looked at him. "I can't think of any moment when we've been in the same room and you haven't had most, sometimes all, of my attention."

"Then why—?" Gray shook his head. "No. I know why. At least I know what you'll say. Ten years older—"

"Nine, if we’re being accurate," Charles corrected. "And yes, that's part of it."

"I'm not a kid!" Gray protested. "And I'm sure as hell not a virgin, so why the fuck is it a problem? I know you're not seeing anyone else."

Charles’s defenses slammed down. "Oh? How?"

Gray flexed his shoulders, uneasy, but not backing down. "Oh, come on. You think I'm some kind of stalker? Nah. I know the same way I know you have a black cat with a taste for robins and you like shortbread." His eyebrows arched, and he was clearly waiting for Charles to put the pieces together.

"Oh, my God. You're Beatrice's grandson." Charles wished he hadn't left his drink on the other side of the room. He needed it.

"Wow. You're good." Gray grinned at him. "But I knew that already."

"And you wonder why you're off limits?" Charles asked incredulously. "Gray, your grandmother's terrifying. I dread to think what her reaction would be if she knew you were here."

"She is, yes," Gray agreed. "I'm the only one in the family she's halfway nice to, because I don't scare easily, but still… " He tilted his head, a gesture Charles had seen him do a dozen times in class. "You like her, though, don't you?"

Charles considered his impression of Beatrice. She lived three houses away from him and Rudegar considered her bird-filled garden his personal pantry. Tart of tongue she might be, but she wasn't without her kinder side. Since he'd moved in, she'd been a good neighbor, even if their paths didn't cross that often. He knew she was estranged from her family, but she'd mentioned her grandson once or twice, and her pleasure that he'd moved back to town had been plain.

"You're an artist," Charles said slowly, dredging up details. "You've been in Europe."

Gray nodded. "That's right. Six months over there. I got back before Christmas. I've got a studio on the north side of town with an apartment attached. Tiny, but I don't need much living space. Only room to paint and a good light."

"I'd like to see your work," Charles said without thinking.

"Got an exhibition coming up soon," Gray said off-handedly, his pride poorly concealed. "At the Florence Gallery."

Charles nodded, wondering how the conversation had slipped into something so civilized. “I’ve been in it once or twice.”

"But you wanted to know stuff," Gray went on. "How I got that book, right?" He smirked and ran his hand over his chest and down. "You could say I sold my body for it."

"And I could say you're pulling my leg.”

Gray stroked Charles’s thigh stopping at his knee. "It's tempting." There was a faint smudge of oil paint at the base of his thumb, in a deep, rich shade of blue. "The book belonged to my grandmother."

"You can't be serious?" Charles blurted out. He'd only been inside Beatrice's house a few times, and he recalled seeing a library, but he'd been too polite to ask to look at it on his first visit and never gotten around to it on later visits. She'd given no indication that she shared his interests so he'd assumed her shelves held nothing he'd want to read. He winced. He was a snob when it came to books and this was his punishment.

"She's as much a packrat as you are when it comes to books."

"But—" Charles was floundering. "You saw it and asked her for it? Gray, it's worth a good deal of money."

"Not to her. She paid a dollar for it in a thrift store years ago and she's read it once." Gray moved, and before Charles could stop him, he tugged up his T-shirt and turned, exposing the long line of his back. "See that scratch?"

Charles reached out and traced it with his fingertips, no more able to help touching the tanned, smooth skin than he could help breathing. Which he was doing a lot of, because he felt dizzy and more oxygen seemed to be called for. The scratch was deep and long, slashed in scarlet across Gray's shoulder blade, but it was scabbed over and healing well.

"Paid for that book in blood." Gray sounded solemn, but he was grinning as he turned his head to look at Charles. The grin faded, probably because Charles couldn't hide his reaction to having Gray this close, half-naked. "I—I worked in her garden. For three weekends. The roses—Charles, fuck, don't look at me like that if you aren't going to do anything."

"What do you want me to do?" Charles asked, watching Gray's lip whiten where his teeth dug in to it. "Gray, I don't know what you want."

Gray twisted around and Charles glanced at a flat stomach, the line of dark hair beneath the navel asking to be licked darker, before the T-shirt fell back into place.

"Yes, you do." Charles looked up. Gray's eyes were blazing. "You fucking do know."

"Gray, please, tell me—"

"No." Gray shook his head, a lock of hair falling across his face. He brushed it away impatiently. "You don't get to have this made easy for you."

"I don't? Why?" It seemed like a reasonable question, and Christ, he wanted to kiss that sullen, resentful look right off Gray's face, biting down on that fucking tempting lower lip that was jutting out.

"Because you don't, that's why."

Charles gave a small chuckle. "You weren't that illogical in class."

"No?" Gray's eyes narrowed. "We're not in class, sir."

A jolt of arousal left Charles with nothing to do but ride it out, his breathing shallow now.

"I'm waiting for an answer, Mr. Collins." His voice fell easily into the bored drawl he used to tame a recalcitrant student. "So you've spent ten weeks building up a head of steam, and now—"

"No." Gray rubbed a hand across his face. "Not ten weeks. Longer than that. Since the first time I saw you." He blinked. "Fuck, maybe I am stalking you."

"What?"

Gray sighed. "Put it this way," he said. "I wouldn't have taken that evening class if you weren’t teaching it, and if you'd been in charge of Watercolors for Beginners, I'd still have signed up for it. It was a way to get to know you. God, are you always this dense when someone's hot for you?"

Charles swallowed. "It doesn't happen with enough frequency for me to be able to say," he managed. "When did you see me first, then? Because I know we hadn’t met before the class began."

He was certain of that. The visceral reaction the first time he'd seen Gray had been strong enough to make it impossible that he'd seen him before and ignored him.

"I was at my grandmother's and you came over to get your cat after he'd pounced on a bird and Gran had pounced on him." Gray's eyes went distant. "I heard your voice.

God, you had me at 'Good morning', you know that? I wanted to go out and meet you, but, shit, I was hard, and I lurked."

"You did what?" Charles was grinning now, Gray's discomfiture relaxing him.

"I peeked around the door," Gray admitted, grinning himself. "Got a nice view of your ass when you bent over to pick up your cat, then I watched you walk down the street. Asked Gran about you, and got a lecture on curiosity, followed by everything she knew, because she loves gossiping, no matter what she says." Gray took a deep breath. "It's how I knew you were gay. And English, which I'd kind of figured, and not seeing anyone, or at least no one you were bringing home."

"Does she have my bedroom bugged?" Charles asked acidly. "For your information, I've brought several men back here."

"Not recently," Gray said. "So how long has it been?"

"Not long enough that I'm desperate," Charles said. "Not long enough that I'll allow you to manipulate me to satisfy what sounds like nothing more than a whim."

"Have you been listening to a word I've said?"

"Since you pulled up your shirt? Not really."

That got a chuckle from Gray. "Hey, humor. It's a start."

"I wasn't really joking." Charles frowned, thinking. "I remember that day. About four or five months ago, wasn't it?"

"You're wondering what took me so long to make a move when you don't have me down as the shy, retiring type?"

"I suppose I am."

"I wasn't out then." Gray looked thoughtful. "Wasn't sure I wanted to be, if it was who I was."

"And you are now?" Charles asked, unable to keep the skepticism from his voice.

Gray's eyes focused on him. "Oh, yeah. I am now."

Charles stood. "And I'm sure I'm happy for you, but I won’t help you test that conclusion in the field."

"Relax. You wouldn't be. My first, I mean." Gray raised an eyebrow. "I spent six months in Europe; you think I didn't take advantage of what was available?" He sighed. "Luke, yeah, could say my taste for Englishmen started with him, although I'd have to say when it came to blow jobs, Sarah was better."

"And what am I supposed to say to that?" Charles asked. "Or do you think my competitive streak will push me to try and outdo Sarah?"

There was nothing but heat in the look Gray gave him. "You? You don't have to try hard with me. You don't have to do anything but look at me."

Charles met his eyes. "Really."

"You don't believe me. Why?"

A shrug was all Charles could muster as reply. He knew he was in good shape. Knew, without vanity, that most people would call him attractive, although his brown hair and gray eyes weren't anything out of the ordinary as far as he could see. But being used to seeing warmth in someone's eyes when he smiled at them with intent didn't translate into being the sort of man someone like Gray would want.

"God, it's as if you don't know what you're like," Gray said. "What you do to me."

Charles snorted. "Gray, a word of advice: I'm as susceptible to flattery as anyone, but you're laying it on too thickly. Go and find yourself another Luke or Sarah. The town's full of students who'd love a quick fuck with someone like you, a little older than them, with a place of your own. I can't imagine you'd get turned down often, if at all. Hell, the way you look, you could probably have Luke and Sarah at the same time if you wanted."

"It isn't." Gray's face flushed with anger. "It isn't. You are. Or you were, but I'm starting to think I've been wasting my time."

"You have been." Charles tried to keep his voice steady. "I'm not interested in a serious relationship with you, or anyone else, and when I want sex, you're not remotely close to the men I go with."

Which was the truth, though there’d been no one since he'd met Gray, and until the memory of their single kiss faded it would stay that way.

"What's wrong with me?" There was a baffled frown on Gray's face and Charles was torn between sympathy and amusement.

"Nothing," Charles assured him. "I prefer men closer to my age, with a more experience and no expectation of an encounter leading to more than that. One-night stands."

"Kind of cold," Gray said scornfully. It was, deliberately so, but Charles had no intention of defending his lifestyle. "And from where I'm sitting, we're not that far apart in age. Fuck; you talk like you're fifty or something, and I'm sixteen!"

It had been too many years since Alan for that to do more than make Charles flinch inwardly.

"I admit nine years isn't significant under some circumstances, but right now you need to be with someone your own age."

Gray shook his head. "And we're back to you being full of it. Forget it. I’m done begging." He headed toward the door, flinging back a farewell, "Keep the fucking book."

The front door slammed behind him. Charles wondered if all their conversations would end that way.

Of course, he wouldn't get a chance to find out if Gray stayed angry and absent. How convincing had he been?

"Not very," he said aloud. Rudegar padded in and gave him a curious look. "Oh, don't you start." Charles retrieved his glass. "I did the best I could." He swallowed what was left of his drink and poured another. "Could've had him," he told the cat, sitting where Gray had sat and stretching out his legs to give the cat something to jump on and knead. "Right now, I could've been doing anything I damn well wanted to him. And it's not like I haven't given it some thought." He shivered, picturing that smooth bare skin, remembering the responsive warmth of Gray's mouth. "The hell with Sarah," he said. Rudegar's tongue flashed out, pink and derisive as he washed a paw. "And the hell with fucking Luke too," Charles said, for good measure. "Oh God, how lucky were they?"

That night, he wanted to dream of Gray. He didn't get his wish, although his sleep wasn't haunted by memories, either, as he'd feared.

Alan. Not fifty, no, and Charles was an adult, but…

They'd met when Charles had been in his second year at university, sophisticated as hell—compared to the first-year students, at least. He'd known all the good pubs, had a circle of friends, although none of them were close, and was doing well enough to have his tutors guardedly optimistic about his chances of a First in History. And he'd decided once and for all that he was gay and been terribly earnest about defending that choice to middle-class parents who'd gaped at him in horror, then been understanding, which was worse.

Alan had taken that safe, predictable life and given it a negligent nudge, then watched it smash. He'd been about to turn forty, something which bothered him far more than Charles, secure in the immortality of someone still six months shy of twenty, could comprehend. Alan's way of coping was to abandon London for Oxford and turn up drunk at his old college for dinner with his uncle, one of Charles’s tutors. He'd been impossibly elegant, with his straight fair hair falling across his face every time he leaned forward and raked back with hands that were still the most beautiful Charles could remember. Charles had watched him across the dining hall, his heart hammering in his chest, aroused in a way that left no room for self-consciousness. He'd been there when Alan had stood, graceful in drunkenness, and given his uncle an ironic farewell bow, and when Alan had turned on his heel and cannoned into him, he'd held onto him for long enough—

It should have been a single night, the briefest of brief encounters. He should have stumbled out of Alan's hotel room the next morning, dazed and yearning, dazzled and delirious, and lived off the memory for months until reality reasserted itself.

But he hadn't left the room for three days, and neither had Alan, and when they did, it was so Charles could pack a case and go to Paris for the weekend, trailing in Alan's wake, besotted and adoring and lost to everything that wasn't connected with the hunger Alan awoke in him with a smile cruel enough to be promising.

And Charles had thought he was the only one, ever, to see the smile lose the cynicism, the cornflower-blue eyes sparkle with affection.

Stupid.

And he wouldn’t let Gray be stupid too.

No matter how much he wanted him there beside him when he woke, body tense with a longing his hand, tight and ruthless around his cock, couldn't quell.

 

 

Chapter Three

Gray let himself into his studio apartment and rolled his eyes when he saw who was lying on the couch, playing a game on his phone judging by the faint music. Carl. Of course, it was. Who else would it be? He glanced around the dimly lit room, pausing to sneer at the bottle of wine on the table. If Carl was going to help himself, he could at least have taken something good. That brand was what Gray used to cook with.

"Carl? What the fuck are you doing here?"

Carl tossed his phone on the coffee table. "Right now? I'm doing nothing. In thirty-three minutes, I'll be doing Debbie."

"Funny," Gray snapped. "Fuck her somewhere else. You've only got a key to this place for emergencies or when I'm away. I don't even know why you still have it now I'm back from Europe. Hand it over."

He extended his hand and Carl sighed. "I've got it because we're friends, Gray. Good friends. Close friends. Friends who understand that when other friends aren't using a king-size bed because they're getting fucked through another mattress, it's up for grabs."

"Excuse me?" Gray’s temper, already simmering over Charles’s rejection edged into the red zone. "You've done this before? When I've been away overnight?" Carl's gaze slid away and Gray picked up a cushion and threw it at him, hard. "You bastard. And I bet you didn't even change the sheets."

"I didn't, no. But I always made sure they did. And sometimes they wanted to straighten up, so give them points for that, even if I told them no, because—"

"Because then I'd notice," Gray said grimly. "God, you think of everything, don't you?"

Carl reached down and picked up a red rose in a bud vase, placing it beside the wine bottle and grinning. "Yeah."

"Fuck off." Gray collapsed into a chair and glared at him. "Seriously."

"He wouldn't go for it, huh?" Carl sighed. "I tried to tell you."

"You're not leaving. Why is that?"

"Shut up." Carl picked up his phone. "Text or call? Hmm. Call. The personal touch is always good. Debbie? Debbie, it's me. Sweetheart, it's killing me to do this, it really is, but I've got to cancel."

Gray nodded. "Damn right you do," he muttered.

"Why? Honey, I won't lie to you. It's not my fault. Really. I've got a friend here with me—No, it's a guy. Really. And he needs me." Carl's voice dropped low. "He's not looking good, Deb. Bad break up. Really bad. Talking about how his life is ruined, how there's nothing left for him. I’m worried."

"Oh, you fucking liar." Gray launched himself out of his chair and threw himself at Carl, wrestling the phone from him and pinning him to the couch. "Debbie? It's Gray here. Gray Collins. Yeah, that crazy artist, that'd be me." Straddling Carl's hips, Gray settled down. "Carl's here at my place and he's so full of it, it isn't funny, but I think you'd better make other plans for tonight because I'm going to—" Carl wriggled under him, trying to get free and Gray smiled down at him and changed, 'beat the crap out of him' to something far worse. "Get to know him better. Connect with him, you know? Emotionally. Spiritually. Physically." Carl's fist smacked into his side and Gray leaned back, keeping the phone out of reach. "What? Oh, yeah, it'll involve him naked, Debbie. You bet it will. Naked and possibly oiled up. Maybe with handcuffs, maybe not. What? Noooo, I don't think he'd go for a threesome. He's not open to new experiences the way I am—the way you are. Sad, I know, but—yeah, I'm kidding. But you're still not fucking on my bed. Night, Debbie."

He ended the call with a jab of his finger. "She's pissed, but I'm not sure if it's at you, me, or both of us."

"I'm pissed, and I know who—Gray? Oh fuck, don't look like that. Come here, you asshole."

"Don't." Gray got off Carl but didn't shrug away the arm Carl slung over his shoulders because it felt good knowing someone cared. "If you get touchy-feely on me, I'll think the world's ending, you know."

"From the look on your face when you came in, I thought it had." Carl rubbed Gray's back with more force than was needed. "But you start crying, and I'm out of here, got it? I don't do tears."

Gray turned his face into Carl's broad, solid chest—Carl's days of playing football at college were only a few years behind him and the man was built—for a moment. He breathed in the familiar smell of his own soap and shampoo—Carl really did have no shame—and the indefinable smell under that which registered in his brain as both arousing and off-limits at the same time. "No tears," he agreed. "Now put that vinegar back in the kitchen and get us a beer or three, will you?"

Carl gave him a final one-armed hug and stood. "Sure. Then you tell me what you did."

"I do?" Gray looked up at Carl and sighed, seeing the determination on his face. "I will. Let's get drunk first?"

"I'll drink to that."

Big surprise.

***

"So let me get this straight." Carl settled his shoulders against the large floor cushion he was reclining against and took a sip of the vodka they'd moved onto when the beer ran out. "You told him you've been thinking about him when you jerk off for months—"

"But it's always you I think of at the crucial moment," Gray said sweetly, avoiding the kick aimed at his ankle. The carpet wasn't all that soft but they'd ended up on the floor anyway, because at one point the room had started to spin and it seemed safer somehow. He leaned back against the couch, facing Carl, watching the lamplight deepen Carl's blond hair to gold, and wondered why he'd never wanted to paint him. Mistake to think about that when he'd tried over and over to do even a pencil sketch of Charles and got nowhere.

"You better not think about me ever when your hand's anywhere near your dick," Carl threatened. "Now shut the fuck up, I'm summarizing. You told him that. Told him he could kiss your pretty little ass, or whatever it is you guys do to each other—"

"Save the blissfully ignorant routine for someone who buys it. You know damn well, and don't you wish Debbie would let you do it to her."

Carl looked thoughtful. "She might. If she was going to come here and do us both, then maybe she’s up for some back-door action."

"I really don't think she was serious, and you’re crude and rude," Gray told him, putting his half-full glass on the coffee table. The vodka had taken the edge off his anger, but any more and he'd start to feel sorry for himself. Sorrier.

"Really think she fucking was." Carl gave Gray a leer that didn't work with his deceptively innocent blue eyes.

"Yeah? And who would I fuck?" Gray shook his head and grinned at Carl. "Not you, so don't get your hopes up, and not her because—"

"You're gay. Got it." Carl yawned. "Maybe next week you'll have changed your mind again, because God knows last year we'd have been in there right now giving her the time of her life, and you know it."

"Drop it, Carl," Gray said wearily. They’d had this talk too many times. "I tried women and I tried men. One worked, one didn’t. I’m going with what makes me feel good. It’s that simple."

Carl sighed and picked at the label on one of the empty bottles of beer. "Fine. Limit your options." He tapped his foot against Gray's. "Still want to know why he turned you down. You've got a cute ass—"

Gray rolled over and wiggled it at him. "Yeah? Bite it!" He winced as Carl's hand slapped it instead. The man didn't know his own strength.

"And he won’t get any better offers at his age," Carl continued.

"Hey!"

"Fifteen years older than you!"

"Nine!"

"Whatever."

"It doesn't matter." Gray changed his mind and grabbed his glass, draining it in three gulps. "Doesn't fucking matter, okay?" He stood. "I'm going to bed."

"Right." Carl squinted up at him. "Mind if I stay? Don't feel like walking home."

For some reason, Carl still lived with his parents. Who spoiled him, had given him a token job working at his father's car dealership as a salesman, and had turned part of their house into a suite for him, with its own front door. Okay, that was a lot of good reasons to stay at home.

Even if Carl despised the job and wasn't exactly grateful for the roof over his head. He'd wanted to become a pro football player, always had, but that was a crowded dream and for once, Carl hadn't ended up with what he wanted. Good, really good, but not good enough.

"Couch is right there. Help yourself."

"And a bed big enough for six is right there." Carl nodded at the open bedroom door.

"Anyone ever tell you straight guys would sooner sleep on tarantula-infested concrete than share?"

Carl smiled, standing and stretching. "Fuck that. And fuck that itty-bitty couch of yours. Besides, that's two straight guys. I know you're gay, so it's not a problem."

Gray stared at him. "You're weird," he decided. "I've known you for—" He tried to work it out, but third grade seemed impossibly distant in time. "Years. Yeah. Lots of them, and I've finally realized you're certifiably weird."

"You always were a little slow on the uptake. Most people get that after five minutes with me." Carl walked toward the bedroom, a slow, meandering path, stripping as he went, so by the time he got there he was already down to his shorts, leaving a trail of clothing behind him.

Gray followed and watched Carl fall forward onto the bed that filled most of the room—it was a bedroom and as far as Gray was concerned, it was for sleeping in, so all it really needed was a bed. The closets were built in and there were spotlights attached to the bed frame for when he wanted to read in bed. The nightstand was only there because he'd gotten sick and tired of putting his book on the floor next to a glass of water and spilling one and ruining the other when he got up to pee in the dark and forgot that they were there.

"Get the pillow." Carl's voice was muffled and sleepy.

Right. The pillow. Gray picked up the long body pillow with a sneering Daffy Duck on it from the floor and put it between them. Like it made a difference. He'd wake up with Carl wrapped around him, the pillow kicked to the floor.

Always did.

***

Morning came too early and too soon. Gray disentangled himself from Carl's arm, heavy across his chest, and rolled over, burying his aching head in a pillow and feeling like shit. He'd slept—or passed out—eventually, but it felt as if he'd been talking to himself all night somehow, replaying his conversation with Charles in his head so it ended with them together.

He'd woken up the day before so sure—God, he'd been fucking stupid to think it'd be that easy; that Charles would have spent the night thinking about that kiss as much as he had and regretted sending Gray away.

He still couldn't figure out why Charles had done that.

His student? What kind of crap was that? The course was over, and even if it wasn't, so what? A night class for fun, that was all it'd been. It wasn't as if Charles had been his teacher at school or college. Gray could see how that would make a difference, although he wouldn't have cared himself, if Charles had given him even a hint that he wanted him.

God, no.

Gray rolled to his back, shoving his hand down inside his shorts and biting back a moan as his cock hardened from one touch because he remembered the way Charles’s hand had curved around him. Beside him, Carl slept, his breathing even and soft.

And the age difference was nothing. Gray liked that Charles was older. Liked the idea of being with someone who knew what they were doing. He was hampered by his shorts, and he took a moment to wriggle out of them.

Carl murmured and rolled over. Gray froze, irritated rather than embarrassed. Carl blinked, eyes hazy and unfocused, then muttered thickly, "Got to pee."

Gray grimaced as Carl stumbled out of the room, moving as if his eyes were shut again, and carried on with what he'd been doing, making it quick.

I am interested—most, sometimes all, of my attention

Charles’s mouth against his, so fucking hard and rough, God, perfect, yes, Charles’s finger tracing the scratch on his back, delicate and gentle and Gray wanted that too, soft touches everywhere, not only his dick and his ass, good as that felt. Wanted more from Charles. Much more.

Gray thought about Charles dragging his hands, fingertips crooked, over his skin, scoring his back with bright, shallow pain, and his cock jerked against his palm. "Oh, God—"

"Christ, Gray." The bed creaked and shifted as Carl flopped down beside him. "Strike me blind, God, please, and do it now."

"Fuck off." Gray moaned, too close to coming to stop, his hand busy. "God—" There was a welcome silence and he screwed his eyes closed, picturing Charles’s face, animated and intense as he leaned forward, talking quickly, his words clear, always, but spilling out fast because he was so into it and—

"Did you—Fuck, Carl, fuck you—" Gray came hard, shooting messily over his hand and belly, Carl's hand warm against his balls, tickling him mercilessly.

He rolled over and drove his fist into whatever part of Carl was closest. "You fucking bastard!"

"Hey, it got you off, didn't it?" Carl was laughing too hard to defend himself, not that Gray was doing much damage. Carl was five inches taller and weighed thirty pounds more, none of it fat.

"Will you remember that you're straight?" Gray hissed.

Carl stopped laughing. "Maybe I'm not," he said looking solemn.

"Don't do this to me."

"Maybe I'm like you, Gray." The grin was already tugging at Carl's mouth.

"I'm fucking warning you."

"Gray." Carl wriggled closer, his erection right there and doing fuck all for Gray because this was Carl and he didn't register as an option. "Suck me off?"

"You really want my teeth near your cock? When I'm this pissed at you?"

Carl grinned at him, unrepentant and relaxed. "Get your gay ass off me, then. I want breakfast. And you need a shower."

 

 

Chapter Four

"Charles." Drew widened his eyes as Charles led him down the street toward the open door of the gallery. "No, really. You said we were going out to dinner. Said you'd found a place that did a marvelous sea bass en papillote."

"I did. It's in Boston." Charles applied a gentle, insistent pressure to Drew's elbow. "Drew, come on, will you?"

"No." Drew came to a dead halt, glanced around, and swept Charles over to a bench between two planters overflowing with well-tended flowers in white and yellow. "What the fuck is going on?"

"I didn't know you used language like that these days." Charles knew he was stalling. "Thought you were setting a good example now you're a father."

Drew Taylor smiled grimly, his affectations lost, traces of an English accent surfacing when he replied. Drew had been living in New York for over twenty years and, as far as Charles knew, didn’t miss the country he'd left at sixteen. Unless befriending Charles had been partly to do with growing up within fifty miles of each other, as they'd discovered during the course of their first conversation. "Oh, I can do a lot worse than that, Charlie-boy. Now tell me why I'm here."

"I want to look at the exhibition."

"You're about the only one who does," Drew observed, jerking his head at the all-but-deserted street.

"It's been on for two hours. Anyone who's going is already in."

"Or they've guzzled as much tepid wine and stared at as much bad art as they can stomach, and gone somewhere to throw up in peace." Drew glanced around the main street and snickered. "Hopefully in front of that health food shop, if they still sell those god-awful granola bars I broke a filling on last time I was here."

"Remind me why I still have you on my Christmas card list?"

"I am?"

"In a theoretical way," Charles said absently. "If I ever send any, you'll certainly get one."

"I'm touched. Now, why am I here? Starving and deceived, in case you've forgotten that part."

 Charles hesitated before answering, choosing his words carefully. "There's this young man. Twenty-three."

"And you’re interested in him?"

Charles wanted to lie, but if he didn't tell someone how he felt about Gray soon, the words would pour out of him the next time someone asked how he was, and Drew was safe. "In the same way I am in breathing."

He didn't sound besotted. Bitter, yes.

"Spare me the hyperbole. And he's off limits because?" Drew held out his hands, palms up. "Help me out here, Charles. I came to celebrate your birthday with wine, food, and civilized conversation that doesn't revolve around my daughter's inability to potty train. You're making me wish I hadn't bothered."

"He's someone I met when I taught that evening class for Peter. He's an artist—"

"God help us." Drew groaned loudly enough to scare away a pigeon pecking at the remnants of a dropped cookie. "And you want to moon over his daubs?"

"I want you to tell me what you think of them," Charles corrected him.

"I'm a bookseller," Drew said, reasonably enough. "What the hell do I know about it?"

"Come off it. You'll know if he's got talent." Charles amended his words. "You'll know if he's marketable, at any rate."

"So would you."

"I don't trust my judgment when it comes to him," Charles confessed.

"Fuck him, then judge. I can guarantee you'll see them clearly then."

"It's not that simple."

"Never bloody is, with you," Drew muttered. "So he was in your class and you fancied him, but he wasn't interested? Don't you think you should take the hint?"

Charles glared at him. "He came on to me. And turned up at my place the next day to try again."

Drew moaned. "You're not making any sense here. Did I tell you Laura's potty plays music when she does the deed?"

"He's too young. It wouldn't be fair to him. And that's revolting."

"You're insane," Drew said with conviction. "Leaving that aside, and yes, it is, but Margaret thought it would help, and I'm not arguing with a woman who's had to have the carpets cleaned three times in the past four months, it's still insane. So you want me to go in, take a look, report back?"

"No, we're both going. I told you, I want to see his work."

"That's what they call it these days, is it?"

"And if I go in there alone, he'll think—he might assume—"

"So I'm there to hold your hand?" Drew's expression made it plain he disapproved. Charles had seen that pinched mouth before when Drew’s steak had arrived cooked through and garnished with a blob of mustard.

"Not literally. I don't need your support, thank you. I want you to, uh…"

"Yes?"

"Make it look as if we're together. An item."

"Charles, leaving aside the many flaws in your plan, not least that I'm married, live in New York, and I'm leaving this benighted town tomorrow, isn’t this a little juvenile?"

"Drew. Please."

"Not to mention tacky."

"He gave me something."

"Even wacky. What did he give you?"

"The book," Charles said. "You can cross it off my want list. He got it for me."

"The book." Drew's voice was flat. "Lover boy got you a copy—"

"Not mint." Charles did his best to placate him. "I thought it was, but there's a small rip on the jacket and—"

"Of the book I've been hunting down for you, for the last six fucking years—"

"And I'm grateful to you. More than grateful." Charles frowned. "Aren't you glad?"

"Where did he find it?" Drew sounded savage. "Tell me where he got his grubby little hands on it."

"They're not grubby, and he, ah, well it turns out that his grandmother, charming lady, lives on my street as chance would have it, and she—oh fuck, Drew, she got it in a thrift store for a dollar."

Drew made a choking sound. "I hate that," he said after a moment. "Fucking hate stories like that."

"I know," Charles said sympathetically. "They suck."

"Stop trying to sound American. I can get away with it, but it doesn't suit you. Yes, it sucks." Drew gave him a cynical look. "And you didn't?"

"What?"

"Young Lancelot slays the dragon and brings you the treasure and you don't even give him a pity fuck by way of thank you?"

"Oh, because that wouldn't be tacky!" Charles snarled.

"Point," Drew allowed. He nodded at the gallery. "Right. I'm curious now. Take me to him. Let me see the guy."

"I thought—"

"He beat me to a book." Drew bared his teeth in something that didn't resemble a smile at all. "Don't expect me to like him."

***

According to Carl, Gray was a snuggler. He couldn't say it was something he wanted carved on his gravestone, but it was true enough.

But only with a few people, and it took one to know one. Carl and Gray couldn't be in the same room for more than fifteen minutes without winding up close enough to touch, even if they'd have to be really drunk, passing-out drunk, to cuddle.

And it’d be like that with Charles. Gray didn't think he could get close enough to him. He wanted to strip them down and crawl close, nuzzle into clean skin, wrap his arms around that wide chest and hang on. Knowing that he'd blown it, and one kiss and a few touches were all he had to look back on, was twisting him up inside, spoiling the night.

Or maybe that could be blamed on the woman in front of him, Alise Narrington, owner of the gallery, owner, now, of two of his paintings, and someone who was most definitely not on the list when it came to touching him.

Because if there weren't any limits when it came to people like Carl getting close, he made up for that by loathing it when his space was invaded by someone he didn't know, or didn't like. It was taking all his willpower to stand there and smile as Alise's cool, dry fingers tapped his hand, his arm, fuck, even his face. That was too much, and he stepped back quickly, using the excuse of dealing with his empty wine glass to cover the flinch.

Her pale-blue eyes narrowed with annoyance but she didn't stop smiling. "It's going well, don't you think?"

He nodded warily. Well enough. Red 'sold' stickers on a good third of his paintings, far more than he'd expected given that two more established artists were exhibiting as well.

"We should celebrate," she said. "What would you like to do?"

Charles walked in, his face impassive, his gaze traveling slowly around the room, and Gray gave Alise one of his best smiles, blindingly happy.

"What? Do?" He turned his head to look at Charles again. "Three guesses."

He heard her sigh and didn't mind that she got in one last pat on his ass before she moved away to flirt with someone else. Not with Charles here, when he hadn't seen him for two weeks, because he had too much pride to make it three rejections in a row and Charles knew where he was if he wanted to find him.

And he hadn't, which should have made Gray hate him, or at least make an effort to forget him, but which made him want him even more. If Charles had been playing some hard to get game, which Gray didn't think he was, well, he'd won. Two weeks without seeing him and Gray was ready to beg if that's what it took to get that mouth crushed against his again.

And if he got that, he knew he'd get more.

Walking through the crowd, gaze locked on Charles, he missed seeing Carl approach until a large hand wrapped around his arm.

"Fuck off, Carl. Not now, okay?"

"Look, you can't start something in here."

Gray blinked up at Carl. "What? Start what? I'm going to say hi to someone."

The hand on his arm tightened. "Yeah. Saw him come in. Saw your face." Carl glanced over at Charles and frowned. "Don't see the attraction."

Gray rolled his eyes. "You're not looking at him right."

He couldn't blame Carl. Charles dressed to hide what he had, all loose pants, starched shirts, tweed fucking jackets, like an alien trying to fit in by dressing to a stereotype of an English professor. Gray would have liked to claim it was his artist's eye that let him mentally strip all that away to see the wide shoulders, slim hips and long, strong legs, but it was more likely lust. Charles was deceptive. Gray didn't mind that.

"He's okay," Carl said grudgingly, after another look. "Also with someone, or did you miss that?"

"What?" Gray dragged his attention off Charles, who was staring in quiet contemplative amazement at a truly hideous painting of a cat that for some reason had been the first to sell—had to be the artist's mother buying it—and scanned the people around him. "Who?"

Carl's grip loosened. "Shit, Gray. Don't freak out on me. He walked in with him. Guy with a suit, dark hair, same size as me, but, like, twenty years older." Carl shrugged. "Guess he wasn't lying when he said he didn't go for your age group."

Misery rose in a choking flood as Gray spotted the man and saw him lean close to Charles and murmur something in his ear that had Charles laughing, relaxed and happy.

"Fuck." Gray took a deep breath and let it hiss out between gritted teeth, "Oh, fuck."

"Right here, buddy, right here."

He was grateful for the solid warmth of Carl beside him, his arm thrown across Gray's shoulders. Not so grateful when Charles turned, saw him, smiled as if he couldn't help it—God, he felt that smile, felt it slam into him and take his breath away—then saw Carl.

Watching Charles’s smile fade and being too far away to explain who Carl was, and what he wasn't, was hell. The man with him touched Charles’s arm, not even bothering to look over at Gray, and the two of them were hidden by a couple walking in front of Gray and missing when the couple passed by.

Gray stepped forward, shaking off Carl's arm. "Oh, this is too fucking much. He comes here with a fucking date? What's he trying to do to me?"

"If it’s drive you crazy, mission accomplished," Carl said. "Will you calm down? Please? You're here to sell your stuff, not get misty-eyed over someone who, for the twentieth time, isn't fucking interested. Let it go."

"Go. Yeah. Good idea." Gray spun on his heel and headed toward the door. Carl grabbed at him again. Okay, he was going to have bruises if this kept up.

"You're supposed to be here. Making nice to people."

All the artistic temperament in the world—and Gray had plenty—didn't excuse acting like an asshole, and Gray rarely traded on the tortured artist card. Sometimes, though, it came in handy. With a wide sweep of his arm he pointed at the paintings hung and beautifully lit on the pristine, off-white walls. "They're for sale. I'm not." Cranking up to full-on diva and not caring, he ground out, "I want to be alone, Carl, okay?"

"No." Carl's face was flushed now and he looked stubborn as hell. "Alone to do what?"

"Christ! Sob, scream, punch a wall. How the fuck do I know?"

A large hand came out and held his. "Not that last one. Promise me? Or I'll tag along."

Right. Artists didn't get to punch walls. Might make holding a brush difficult. He gave Carl a grudging nod. "Won't. I promise. Now can I go? Because I'm losing it here, and it won't be pretty if I do."

"Sure." Carl cocked his head. "Want me to go flirt with your boss?"

"She's not my boss, and why the hell would you want to?"

Carl shrugged. "I don't. You're the one with a kink for the over-forties brigade, not me."

"He's thirty-two, for fuck's sake. Alise is pushing fifty." Gray shook his head, desperate to leave. "Whatever. Do whatever, but leave me alone, okay? No coming back to my place tonight, because I really need some space."

Hurt darkened Carl's eyes. "Hey, trying to help get her off your back. Or didn't you notice the way she's glaring at you?"

No. He hadn't noticed anything since he saw Charles.

Blindly pushing past people, he made for the door that led to the bathrooms, knowing there was an exit there too. The chatter and buzz from the showroom cut off abruptly as the door closed behind him and he sighed, taking a shaky breath and pushing back his hair. He'd meant to get it cut because it was driving him nuts the way it kept falling into his eyes, but it'd been a good intention lost in the excitement of preparing for his first exhibition.

He'd taken three steps toward the exit when the door to the men's bathroom opened and the man who'd been with Charles stepped out.

"Oh, it's you, is it?" He had a rumble of a voice, deep and soft, with a muted echo of an English accent flavoring it. "Young Lochinvar."

"What?" Gray hesitated, automatically trying to place the reference. "Sir Walter Scott. What?"

"Or was it Lancelot? Never mind; you probably had to be there," the man said. "I was favorably impressed by your location of a certain book, that's all, but now that we've met you don't look all that heroic to me, I have to say."

"There wasn't anything heroic about it." Gray went hot all over. "Did he tell you what I said?" he demanded, shuddering at the thought of the two of them laughing at him. "Look, it was a fucking joke, okay? And I'd have cut down the fucking roses for her anyway."

"Roses?" The man looked puzzled. "Are we out of legend and into fairy tales now?"

"Is that supposed to be funny?" Gray snarled. "Sorry, but I'm not laughing here."

"So touchy. Why?" Enlightenment flashed across his face. "Oh God, no, lad. I didn't mean—Well, of course I didn't. Your talk of roses made me recall a rather lovely illustrated copy of the Sleeping Beauty story, complete with the requisite thicket of briars for the hero to slash at, sword in hand. Or, from what you say, pruning shears? Far more practical."

"Practical. Right." Gray sighed, giving up on getting a grip on the conversation. "Look, are we done here? Because in case you didn't notice, I was heading for the door marked 'out'."

"Alone?"

The word caught him and held him in place.

"Yeah. Alone. Don't have much choice, do I?"

The man's eyes were watchful now. "Fell out with your boyfriend? That was fast."

"Do you ever make a single fucking bit of sense?" Gray shook his head as realization dawned. "Carl. You mean Carl."

"Tall, blond, wearing you like a scarf?"

"Friend since fucking ever, straight, and here to hold my hand because I threw up three times today I was so fucking nervous?" Gray sneered into that blank, wary face. "That Carl?"

"That would probably be the one." The man nodded and held out his hand. Gray stared at it and he sighed and let it drop. "Drew Miller. Dealer in antiquarian books, known Charles for, hmm, six years or so, and let's say I have more in common with Carl than you when it comes to whom I bed." He smiled. "Nice to meet you, Gray. Now if you'll excuse me, Charles is waiting in the car, about to take me somewhere to celebrate his birthday, if he knows what's good for him. He wasn't in the best of moods, but who knows? That might change."

"It's his birthday?"

"Does that matter?"

"Not to me." Gray smiled savagely. "But if he didn't like being nine years older than me, I don't suppose he's wild about it jumping to ten."

"Now we both know that makes no sense," Drew said gently. "So let's not give it another thought, shall we?"

"Tell him—"

"Do I look like Cupid?" Drew twisted to peer at his back. "No, no wings. I thought not. Tell him yourself."

"What car?"

"My rental. Silver sedan parked outside that revolting health food shop. Did I mention I'm here from New York for the night? And not stopping with Charles because his damn cat makes me sneeze?"

"Right."

Gray slammed his hand against the door, forcing it open and flinging it back. Drew was walking, but he was running, the sidewalk smacking against his shoes jarring his body with every step.

By the time he reached the car his breath was stuttering in his throat, hot and dry, but it didn't matter. He yanked the car door open and leaned in, kissing Charles in what felt like one continuous movement, all of it, coming to a halt only when their lips met. He kept it at a brief, hard kiss because otherwise he'd have been moaning into it, melted and dizzy, and pulled back. "Not my boyfriend, any more than Drew's yours," he said. "Happy fucking birthday, you stubborn asshole."

Charles stared at him for the longest moment and Gray licked at his lips, wanting to capture the taste of Charles while he could, waiting, because damn it, he couldn't say any more than that.

"Thank you," Charles said finally. "I—"

The driver's door opened and Drew got in. "Oh, be off with you, Charles. I'll find a fast-food place and go to sleep belching and cursing your name."

"There's no need for that." Charles reached out and grabbed at Gray. "No. Don't go. Not yet." He looked dazed and Gray could understand that. "Gray, I promised to feed him, and I don't break my promises. Will you—"

"Do you know where I live?" Gray asked, staying still because Charles’s hand was warm on his arm, even through his shirt, and he didn't want to lose that warmth.

Charles nodded. "It was on your application for the course."

"I'll be there when you’re done eating." Gray stood reluctantly, his hand resting on the roof of the car, feeling the metal heat under his hand. God, he could melt the polar cap the way he felt right now.

He walked away quickly, not looking back, hearing the car door slam and the engine start.

Stopped when the hurried footsteps behind him came to a halt though.

"Thought you were feeding him."

"He said it was an extra birthday present."

Their words met and clashed, then he was pressed against a wall, Charles kissing him without holding back for the first time, and Gray was lost.

"You don't give up, do you?" Charles murmured against his throat, the words traveling along every nerve-ending Gray had and leaving him clutching Charles because his knees were about to give way. Or maybe that was his body hinting that horizontal would be good right now.

"When it's something I want? No. Why would I?"

Gray slid his hands inside Charles’s jacket and stopped the next question from being asked, not with a kiss, but with a look. Why, with Charles this close he wanted to stare at him instead of kissing him, eyes closed, mouth open, cock hard, he didn't know, but looking was having pretty much the same effect on his body as kissing, because Charles was looking back.

Looking back, with worry clouding his eyes.

"No," Gray said. "Not tonight. My showing; your birthday. You can go back to ignoring me tomorrow, if you want, but fuck me tonight?" Time for the magic word. "Hard?"

"Oh, why not?" Charles murmured. "Forget I said that. Yes." He smiled. "So we go and you show me your etchings? Or do you want to come back to my house?"

"Whichever's closer," Gray said.

"Etchings it is."

 

 

Chapter Five

Within five minutes, they stopped talking. It wasn't an uncomfortable silence; they were concentrating on walking quickly. Which was an admirable goal, but meant that they kept bumping arms and exchanging quick, hungry glances.

The third time it happened, Gray reached across and grabbed Charles’s hand, linking their fingers and stroking his thumbnail across Charles’s palm. "I'm gonna come three steps past the front door, I swear it. God, you're killing me here. Say something. Distract me."

Charles dealt with the image slotted into his head and said carefully, "What do I do that makes you come that fast?"

"Exist?"

"Flattery. Nice."

"Truth."

Charles tilted his head back and stared up at a three-quarter moon, picturing Gray naked on a bed with that luminous, unearthly glow spilling over his skin. "Perhaps I stop you taking a fourth step by saying your name, making you turn to look at me."

"What do I see?"

The quickness of the reply, the way that Gray instantly followed his lead and began to play, was reassuring and promising. Not unexpected, though; they'd sparred like this in class, and now, looking back, Charles admitted that although the words had been innocuous, the underlying tension had made them as sexually loaded as this conversation.

"What would you like to see?" So much to learn about each other. Even if it was for a night, and he couldn't let himself think beyond that. "Me, leaning back against the door, taking out my cock, ready for you to suck? Or me kneeling to take yours in my mouth?"

"You—" Gray halted them, still clutching Charles’s hand and said tensely. "Stop. I can't—Fuck. I want you right the hell now, and we can't."

Charles looked around. The street was quiet enough, with no one close to them, but not empty, not this early, and there was nowhere off the street that looked private enough to take care of them. He said softly, "Tell me what you see."

He didn't move closer, but when Gray stepped forward, rubbing up against him frantically, his free hand going around Charles’s ass and holding him in place, he didn't move away, either.

"See you watching me." Gray's words were rough-edged and low. "Like you did in class. Won't take more than that and I'll be on my knees, coming for you, and you can do whatever the hell you want with me after that."

"Come for me now." Charles’s hands were at his side, his mouth barely touching Gray's ear as he whispered into it. "Walk by me wet and smelling of sex, still hard, and I'll do everything you ever wanted me to do."

Gray's head turned and he smiled, savage and bright. "You first."

Impossible not to laugh, or to fall a little bit in love with someone this challenging.

"Let me try distracting you again. That picture of a cat at the gallery; tell me I'm missing something that makes it work?"

"I'd like to be able to, but I can't," Gray replied as they began to walk again. "It's a piece of crap."

"I missed the crap, but were there bits of kitty litter glued onto it?"

"Yeah. Be glad it wasn't used."

"I am," Charles told him. "Profoundly."

By the time they reached Gray's apartment, they'd fallen silent again, a silence broken only with the grate of a key in a lock and the click of a closing door.

"Gray—"

"Don't." Gray shook his head, then hooked his fingers into the front of Charles’s shirt, tugging him further inside the apartment. "Don't ask me if I'm sure, don't remind me that we're practically strangers, don't warn me that this doesn't mean anything—Don't."

"I wasn't going to say any of that."

Gray's eyes glittered. "Liar."

"Maybe some of it," Charles said reluctantly. "I don't want this to be a no-strings fuck. I like you too much to use you like that, but—"

"Want to be used." Gray moved closer and pushed his hands under Charles’s jacket, easing it off him to fall, forgotten, to the floor. "Hard and often."

"Okay, that sounds tempting." His words emerged with difficulty because Gray was busy undoing the buttons on Charles’s shirt and each light, fleeting touch was slowly robbing him of his ability to form coherent sentences. "But I still need to know—"

"Charles? Shut up." Gray's voice was as frayed as Charles’s. "Please? If you don't want to do this, turn around and get the hell out, but if you're staying, stop talking." He bent his head and mouthed roughly, desperately, at Charles’s shoulder, pushing back his shirt and biting down hard. "Oh, God, stop talking."

Charles gave a guttural groan, less at the small flare of pain and more at the intense, dizzying wave of arousal it sparked. Gray laughed, the sound choked off as Charles’s hands slid into his hair, pushing Gray's head back so that he could kiss him, a hard, messy clash of lips and teeth that ended with them staring at each other in the darkness of the hall, illuminated only by a lamp burning on a table in the main room.

"Do you still want me to watch you come?" Charles said in a harsh whisper. "Right here, before we even get to your bedroom?"

Gray's eyes widened and he swallowed hard. "Might take the edge off."

"That's not why I want you to do it," Charles answered, "but, yes, I imagine it will." He ran his finger from the hollow of Gray's throat to his navel, skimming the navy silk shirt Gray had worn on Alise's orders. "Take this off?"

Slowly, without looking away, Gray obeyed him, revealing tanned skin and smooth muscles. Charles smiled appreciatively. "You're—" He hesitated, lost for words for once.

Gray grinned impishly. "Hot as hell?"

Charles had to grin back. "Definitely." He pushed him back against the wall, his hand going to the leather belt threaded through Gray's black jeans. "Let me cool you down a little."

Without giving either of them time to think about it too much, Charles eased down the zipper and pushed Gray's jeans and shorts down enough to allow him to wrap his hand around the thick jut of Gray's cock. It quivered and jerked against his palm and Charles bit his lip, leaning in to kiss Gray again, their tongues meeting, tasting, testing. Without breaking the kiss, Charles took Gray's hand and guided it to that swollen cock before stepping back and leaning against the opposite wall of the narrow hallway.

"Do it," he said quietly. "Show me."

Gray blinked at him, his fingers already tight around his cock. "What will you be watching, Charles?" He made it a challenge, not a question. "My dick? Or my face?"

Charles shrugged, not hiding his arousal. "Don't know. Either. Both." His gaze dropped to the slick slide of Gray's erection through his clenched fingers. "Oh, you look good," he murmured.

"Good enough to eat?" Gray panted, his head thrown back and his teeth gritted. "So not gonna be able to last long—"

"I'm looking forward to it." Charles’s cock was throbbing insistently but he was in control enough to stay still, giving it no stimulation, not even the soft brush of fabric as he shifted position.

Gray's face contorted with pleasure, his breath coming in short, fast gasps. "Tell me what you'll do to me."

Charles was staring at his face now, loving the way it reflected Gray's emotions so nakedly, more aroused by that level of trust than by what Gray was doing.

"When you've come—"

"Not long now."

"I'm going to fuck you, Gray, what do you think I'm going to do?" Charles kept his voice cool through an effort of will. "Take you into your bedroom, with your hand and stomach still wet with cum, strip you bare and taste your skin until you're hard again, because I'm not fucking you until you are."

Gray slid down the wall, his hand speeding up, sharp, pained sounds coming out of his mouth, Charles’s name amongst them.

"God, I will be," he said thickly. "Count on it. Oh, fuck, Charles—"

He arched and came, still working his cock as his climax hit, the jetting, jerky spill of cum spattering across his stomach. Charles groaned, as lost in the moment as Gray was, their physical separation irrelevant. He pushed away from the wall and fell to his knees beside Gray, cupping his face in one hand and stroking his thumb over Gray's mouth. Gray stared up at him, then deliberately ran his wet hand over Charles’s bare chest, pushing aside his open shirt.

The cool stickiness felt odd but the fierce lap of Gray's tongue across the glistening skin felt perfect.

Charles stood with as much grace as possible, holding out his hand.

"This way," Gray murmured, not releasing Charles’s hand.

Charles blinked when Gray flicked on a lamp and glanced around. "Big bed," he commented, his voice unsteady.

"All the better to be fucked in." Gray flashed him a smile that was too sweet to be wolfish. His hand slid out of Charles’s grip and he turned to fumble in the small night table, tossing lube and condoms onto the bed. "Okay?"

Charles nodded and said briefly, "Lose the clothes, Gray. I want to see you."

"Thought you were going to do that." Gray fell onto the bed, sprawled out on his back, his cock, half-hard still—or again—and his eyes narrowed. "You want me naked, then take off my clothes. I won’t stop you."

"I'd forgotten how much you don't forget." Charles rolled his eyes, the memory of half-a-dozen debates clear for a moment before the sight of Gray, one hand tucked behind his neck, the other scratching lazily at his ribs wiped everything but him from Charles’s thoughts. "If you insist."

Choosing speed over a more romantic approach, he pulled off Gray's boots and socks, kneeling down and tossing each item aside as it left Gray's body. Gray's feet were well-shaped and as tanned as the rest of him, the skin of the soles supple and tough. Curious, Charles drew his fingernail along the high arch of one foot and smiled as Gray shuddered, his toes curling sharply. "I'm sorry." He did it again. "Does that tickle?"

"Yeah. So don’t do it."

Charles propped his arms on the bed and smiled at him. "Odd," he confided. "I'm in less of a rush somehow."

"Why?" Gray sounded aggrieved and was close to pouting, which Charles didn't mind him doing at all. "Don't like what you see?"

There was enough insecurity in his voice to have Charles penitent at once. He took hold of the waistband of Gray's jeans and pulled them down a little further, running the back of his fingers over the smooth skin of Gray's stomach; tracing the narrow strip of dark hair dividing it and finding the hollows at his hips. "I like it." Gray sucked in a sharp breath. "I'm not inclined to rush."

"I want you to rush."

Oh, yes, he was looking deliciously petulant now. Charles smothered a grin and gave Gray's cock a teasingly light lick, tasting salt and musk and sternly quelling the flare of arousal that leaped up high and bright in response.

"Take them off," Gray said urgently, squirming higher on the bed.

Charles relented enough to kneel back and peel the jeans off him, revealing strong, long legs that Gray spread for him, blatantly inviting. After discarding his own clothes without rushing or lingering, with Gray watching every move, he moved knelt on the bed beside Gray, studying without touching.

"Knew you'd look like this," Gray said finally, ending his own visual examination. "Used to drive me crazy imagining it, waiting for you to bend over for something, or stretch out so that I could see the shape of you under those clothes you wear."

"I find it causes fewer problems if I don't dress to attract."

"Don't want your students coming onto you?" Gray asked. "Yeah, I can see how that'd be a pain in the ass."

Charles straddled him, moving fast enough to startle Gray, then pinned his hands to the mattress. "Sometimes." He shivered as his cock, wet-tipped and hard, met Gray's skin as he leaned forward to kiss him. "Sometimes they're persistent and aggravating."

"Yeah? Anyone I know?"

"And sometimes," Charles said, ignoring him. "They're distracting, tempting, and I spend longer than I should having entirely inappropriate and sadly unoriginal fantasies about fucking them over desks."

"You'd better not be talking about Anne Sinclair. Even if she was your star student." Gray flexed his hands, held in a grip that was tight enough that Charles felt Gray's wrist bones shift, the beat of his pulse.

Charles frowned. "No, she wasn't." He dipped his head to kiss Gray's throat. "Or no more so than you at any rate. And don't be ridiculous. I was talking about—"

"Charles."

"Oh, it was you," Charles whispered against his mouth. "You know it was you. Happy now?"

"Getting there. Let go of me?"

Charles released his grip without moving his hands away. "Why?"

"Want to touch you."

A vague feeling that he shouldn't be pushing Gray this far, this fast, struck him. "Gray—am I—tonight, I mean—Oh, bloody hell. Stop me if this is more than you want."

Gray shook his head. "You're really something, you know that?" He wrapped his arms around Charles, pulling him down, body to body, with Gray's heartbeat close enough to feel against his skin. "There isn't anything you could do that's going to freak me out."

"Oh God. Gray, you really don't know that. Not for sure. Don't trust me so easily."

"Why?" Gray's hands came to rest on Charles’s backside, fingers spread, exploring curves and planes methodically, mapping him out, Charles thought, feeling his skin wake and tingle. "You think I mind you getting off on stuff? I don't. Maybe I won't like all of it, maybe I will. Either way, you'll know how I feel, I promise you that."

The fingers of one hand dug in and Charles moaned as a questing, curious finger ran down the crease as far as Gray could reach, scratching lightly at sensitive, sensitized skin. "You going to let me fuck you?" Gray asked.

Charles nodded, ready to agree to anything in the moment. "If you like."

"Cool." Gray's hands moved away, stroking up the sides of Charles’s back, then returning to where Charles had held them, high over Gray's head, the shadows spilling from his curved palms. "Not tonight."

"No," Charles agreed, dragging a fingertip across the fragile, thin skin of Gray's inner wrist. "Not tonight."

"Do it? Fast?" Gray begged. "I want this over. First times suck. I want to get to the part where we've already fucked, and it's cool and we can relax."

Surprised, Charles stared at him. "You don't feel relaxed?"

Gray groaned. "No, of course I don't! I've been thinking about this for months and I'm scared I'm going to fuck it up, because that I'm good at." He frowned. "If it doesn't matter, if it's a fuck, well, there's no pressure and I'm fine. Better than fine."

"I'm sure Luke and Sarah would give you glowing references," Charles said dryly.

Gray flushed, dark eyelashes lowering. "I shouldn't have mentioned them, should I? I was trying to—"

"I know what you were trying to do." Charles gave him a hard kiss, making it as possessive as he felt. Gray's response was immediate and eager; although he kept his hands where they were, his legs wrapped around Charles, holding them together.

"Please. God, please."

Charles pulled away, kneeling again. "If that's what you want."

"Want you," Gray said intensely.

"Turn over."

 

Gray rolled to his stomach but didn't, somewhat to Charles’s surprise, go to his hands and knees. There was no way that he was going to rush this as much as Gray wanted, though, so he didn't comment, only drew his hand slowly down Gray's back, remembering how he'd touched it before.

"The scratches are gone." Gray's voice was muffled by the pillow. He twisted his head around and stared at Charles. "See?"

Charles found the place where they'd been and licked across the healed skin, feeling Gray shudder. "No, they aren't," he murmured, dragging his fingernails across Gray's back, forcefully enough to leave scarlet lines although he was careful not to break the skin.

Gray cried out softly, and Charles smiled, hearing the pleasure welling up through the shock. Moving quickly, he opened the condom and when it was in place slicked his fingers.

"Up."

With a slow, languid, impudent rock of his hips, Gray got into position. Charles felt his hand itch to place a stinging, admonishing slap on the nicely curved backside Gray was wiggling at him, coupled with an equally strong desire to laugh.

"Brat," he said under his breath.

"Fuck it out of me," Gray said seriously. "Because I am, I know I am, but if you don't like it—"

"I didn't say that." Charles dragged his finger down the shadowed cleft of Gray's backside, pausing as he felt the smooth skin give way to the whorl of his hole. Gray tensed and Charles slipped his free arm around Gray's waist in a hug. "Tell me if—"

Gray arched and pushed, taking Charles’s finger inside him. "I'm fine," he snapped.

Charles laid his hand flat against Gray's stomach and slid it down. Gray was already half-hard. Good enough.

The intimacy of this first moment of possession took Charles by surprise, as it always did. He fought for detachment as he pushed his finger in deeper, the hot clutch of Gray's body defeating him easily.

Closing his eyes, he let arousal wash over him, leaving him panting, Gray's name on his lips.

"Charles?"

Gray sounded uncertain and that was all it took. Charles rubbed the head of his cock across the slowly yielding entrance before pushing inside, taking care but not too much. He'd been where Gray was, tangled up in desire and apprehension and ready to scream because he'd thought nothing was worse than the waiting.

He'd been wrong, but he didn't make Gray wait, easing inside him in a series of small, incremental advances, never pulling all the way out, so that by the time he was sheathed inside Gray, he was trembling with the need to move, wanting the blurred, mindless thrusts that would have Gray arching and crying out.

Gray was making hoarse, desperate sounds even now; his head down, his fingers scrabbling at the pillow. If Charles hadn't had a fist full of Gray's cock, hot and quivering and hard, he might have thought they were distressed sounds.

Probably not, though. He'd made them himself often enough to recognize them. If his concentration wasn’t focused on not hurting Gray, he might've provided an echo.

"Won't break," Gray said thickly. "Or did you want me to beg?"

"Not tonight. Although it's tempting." It was.

"Then what's it going to take to get you to—oh God—"

Charles smiled and repeated the fast slam into Gray that had torn that half-awed exclamation out of him, shifting so his hands gripped Gray's hips. He missed holding Gray’s cock. "Better?"

The strong, lithe body beneath him shuddered. It was as good an answer as any.

Too close to coming after the long tease of the walk and the sight of Gray jerking off, Charles didn't draw it out. Gray was right; they needed to do this and have it done.

Within the space of a few strokes, they'd found a rhythm, desperation-fueled and matching the thrum of blood in Charles’s ears. Gray's body was so responsive, and he was so utterly open about his reactions, demanding and pleading in the same breath until words became guttural sounds and his head sank low. The shadows trapped in the inward curve of his broad shoulders shivered and spilled down Gray's spine with every strong, fast thrust from Charles’s cock, endlessly renewed.

Couldn't last ... not with the heady scent of sweat and cum drenching the air and the dozen ways Gray was dragging Charles headlong toward a climax he craved.

He was fucking selfishly, hands still tight on Gray's hips, not really trying to get the angle right, although he could tell when he did because of the shiver that raced over and through Gray. Given the way Gray's arse clenched when that happened, Charles was doing more to avoid it, if he was honest with himself.

Fast and hard, and he'd make this up to him, he swore he would, but right now, right now... Gray twisted, his weight all on one hand, the other going to his cock, neglected and needy. The shift in position meant Charles’s next surge forward gave Gray what he needed to come, snarling out a grunt of pleasure and taking Charles with him, inescapably, inevitably, his climax meshing with Gray's.

They ended up huddled and spooned together on the bed, Charles’s arms wrapped around Gray, his upper arm around Gray's waist, the lower slotted awkwardly between the pillow and Gray's neck. It didn't seem to matter. Gray stirred, wriggled a little, and it was comfortable. Charles waited until they were breathing in less of a labored gasp for oxygen and kissed the back of Gray's neck, tasting salt-sweat.

He knew soon they'd have to move apart, clean up, make small-talk, but for now, for a moment, there was Gray pressed close, snuggled up against him, relaxed and contented.

And when he moved, it was to turn within the circle of Charles’s arms and kiss him, still silent, his lips soft and slow, his eyes heavy and dark, sleep-caught.

***

"It's your birthday." The drowsiness was edged out of Gray's voice by a chuckle and Charles felt a soft touch on his backside, dispelling the sleepy haze he'd been luxuriating in for an hour, sprawled on his belly with Gray beside him.

"No. Don't even think about it."

Even without looking he knew Gray was pouting. "Wasn't going there. That's kinda rushing things, right? Spanking you?"

"Definitely too soon," Charles agreed, too relaxed to think through the implications until Gray gave an interested 'mmm?'. "It's always going to be too soon," he added hastily.

"So we substitute." Gray wriggled down the bed. "Stay still."

"What—oh!" Charles smiled into the pillow as Gray began to dot kisses over his backside, counting under his breath after each one and taking his time. It felt good, slightly ticklish, but bearable and Gray was being remarkably well-behaved, not biting, not that Charles would've minded...

Gray finished counting and sat up, his hand coming to rest lightly against the skin he'd been kissing. The smack that followed was unexpected, hard, and left Charles’s arse stinging.

"Ow!" He rolled over and glared up at Gray, who was grinning and not looking at all contrite.

"That wasn't a spanking. That implies more than one, uh, contact, and I swear I'm done."

"More semantics?" Charles inquired acidly. "Kisses that aren't touches—"

"Other way around."

"Slaps that aren't spankings."

"One slap. One."

Gray moved back, eying him warily, and Charles pounced on him.

"You asked for this." Charles crooked his fingers and went for Gray's ribs.

What followed was a struggle they enjoyed too much to end it soon, with Gray laughing up into Charles’s face, unrepentant and gasping for breath as Charles fought off Gray's attempts at reprisals while continuing his assault.

"Apologize." Charles found a spot that made Gray arch, then curl in on himself and grinned triumphantly.

"Not gonna," Gray managed to say. "Felt too good to regret." He straightened out and stopped struggling, his body pliant under Charles’s. "But I'll kiss it better, if you like."

Charles paused, staring down at him, the never serious impulse to exact revenge slipping away. "Oh, you brat," he murmured, pushing his hands into Gray's and dragging them above Gray's head before leaning over to kiss him. "Gray—"

His hands loosened their grip and Gray's arms went around him, pulling Charles down on top of him, the kiss that followed turning serious within seconds. Gray's mouth was unfamiliar enough to be exciting, and the encounter held enough of the forbidden to appeal to a part of Charles he'd thought dormant.

"It's midnight. Won't be your birthday much longer. Want a present?"

"A present? Too kind." Charles bent his head to lick a circle around and across a flat nipple to feel it rise up and harden. "I had my heart set on the cat picture, mind you, but as it's been sold, I'll settle for a kiss. Possibly two."

"Oh, I can do that," Gray said. "Maybe even three." Charles let himself be pushed to his back, smiling as Gray wriggled down the bed. "And I get to choose where," Gray whispered.

Charles’s hand dropped to tangle in dark, soft hair. "Good choice," he whispered back, as Gray's mouth pressed kiss after kiss along his cock.

"Want more?"

"I'd hate to seem greedy."

Gray smiled. "You'll hurt my feelings if you say no."

"Oh, well, in that case."

Yes, Gray had done this before. Not often; Charles winced as Gray's teeth scraped over sensitive skin—too much pain and in the wrong place—but enough to swallow without fuss and know there was more he could do than suck. Charles, left feeling pleasantly sleepy and sated, thought it was one of the nicest presents he'd had in recent years.

"Want to go to sleep?" Gray asked, moving back to lie beside him.

"I think I'm going to whether I want to or not." Charles yawned and ran his hand down Gray's arm. "Unless you'd rather I didn't stay?"

"You want to go?"

Charles flinched at the uncertainty in Gray's voice. "No. I want to stay." Gray kissed him, a light, damp kiss, flavored with the fresh tang of cum. It brought back memories and Charles shivered and tugged Gray closer. "I want to stay," he repeated.

"Cool," Gray murmured, his natural resilience seemingly back. "G'night. Sleep tight."

Charles lay awake in the unfamiliar room until Gray, with a grunt that might have been an apology, rolled over, starfished out, and fell asleep.

 

 

Chapter Six

The scritch-scrape of Gray's pencil as he shaded in the soft folds of the sheet trapped under Charles’s arm woke his subject. Gray sighed as Charles moved, the position he'd held for twenty minutes lost.

"Another five minutes; that's all I needed."

Charles opened his eyes, blinked, and yawned. "Good morning to you too," he muttered.

"Good morning, Charles," Gray said gravely. "Did you sleep well?" He dropped the sketchpad and pencil on the bed and grinned. "You drooled on me."

Charles groaned, squeezing his eyes closed. "God save me from early morning chirpiness."

"It's ten o'clock." Gray watched Charles, wondering, a little uneasily, if he was going to leave in a flurry of insincere assurances that he'd call, yes, it'd been great. Gray had woken in too many beds and said that to feel safe.

"It is?" Charles yawned again and opened one eye. "Coffee?" he asked hopefully.

"Depends," Gray replied, picking up his sketchpad again and clutching it to him for comfort. "How long are you going to stick around after you've drunk it?"

"Long enough." Charles propped himself up on one elbow and touched Gray's knee. "Come here." The sketchbook was abandoned again and Gray leaned in as Charles kissed him, a light press of his mouth leaving Gray wanting more. Charles rubbed his thumb caressingly over Gray's jaw. "You shaved and you brushed your teeth. I feel at a distinct disadvantage."

"I've spent the last twenty minutes wishing you'd wake up so I could touch you. You look fine to me."

Charles glanced down at the sketch Gray had made. "Good God."

"What?" Gray asked defensively.

"Do I really look like that?"

"Like what?" From where he was, the sketch was upside down, but that didn't matter. He'd drawn Charles, defenseless, vulnerable, frowning slightly, and that was how he'd been until he'd woken and his face had smoothed out.

"Never mind.” He gave Gray a charming smile. "I really would like a coffee, if it's not too much trouble."

"It's not." Gray hesitated, hoping Charles would say something, maybe kiss him again, but Charles was resolutely not looking at the sketch, as unapproachable as he had in class, despite being naked in Gray's bed. He rose, hitching up his boxers. "Coffee. Right."

"Black," Charles called after him. "And may I use your bathroom?"

Gray lost it at that. He turned, strode over to the bed, and kissed Charles hard, remembering a dozen kisses from the night before with Charles’s lips open and eager on his. He pulled back, breathing quickly. "You can do whatever you want. Stop being so polite."

"I'm sorry," Charles said softly after a moment. "I'm suffering from a slight case of the morning after. I don't mean to be—I'm sorry."

"Yeah," Gray snapped. "It's awkward for me too. I'm not as good as you at pretending stuff didn't happen. Which it did. On this bed. In the hall."

"In the shower?" Charles asked.

"What? We didn't..." Gray watched Charles’s mouth curl up in a smile. "Oh. Yeah. We can do that."

Charles pushed the covers away and stood, flexing his shoulders and wincing. "Your bed was designed by Torquemada."

"Yeah, it sucks," Gray said, taking in the sight of Charles, naked in the sunlight. "Big, but the springs are shot. God, I want you."

That got him a startled look, as if Charles wasn't used to hearing that, or maybe wasn't used to people being direct with him. Well, he'd have to get used to it. Gray had never gotten the hang of being reticent about his feelings. It'd gotten him into trouble from time to time, but usually it worked out okay.

Like now.

"Help yourself." Charles shrugged, a small smile curving his lips. "I'm right here."

"Yeah, you are." Gray slipped his arms around Charles and felt an ache of need build. He got one kiss before the phone rang. "Shit!"

Charles stepped back, giving their half-hard cocks a rueful grin. "I'll see you in there?" he asked, already moving away.

"Yeah, sure." Gray located his pants, in a crumpled heap on the floor, and took out his phone. "What?"

"Darling!" Alise gave a startled, not entirely pleased, laugh, then purred at him. "Darling, where did you get to last night?"

Gray registered the sweetness and realized, with a shock of pleasure, the exhibition must have gone well.

"I had to go. There was someone—"

"Never mind." Alise dismissed his stuttered explanation airily. "Without you there, it was much easier. You have no idea of how to present yourself. We'll have to work on that."

"Hey," Gray protested, hearing the shower hiss an invitation. Charles. Wet. Naked. Soapy. "I tried. Listen, I've got to go..."

"Yes." There was an edge to her voice. "You have to come here. Now." The cream slopped over again. "Such a success, my sweet. So much to discuss."

"Yeah? That's great, but not right now, okay? Later."

"Gray, you didn't do well enough to be allowed to have a temperament," Alise said. "An hour. Or I'll come and get you myself. Bye!"

Gray glared at the phone, then tossed it onto the bed, smiling as the news sank in. For Alise to be that pleasant...

He slid into the shower cubicle a minute later, wrapping his arms around Charles and giving him a hug. "That was Alise."

Charles raised water-darkened eyebrows. "A rival? Do I tear out my hair?"

Gray grinned. "The woman who owns the gallery. And, no. No rivals. Only you."

"Glad to hear it." Charles frowned. "Was she annoyed? You did leave her high and dry."

"She's pissed, I can tell." Gray reached for the shower gel and squeezed out a dollop. He smoothed it over Charles’s chest and shoulders, relishing the freedom to touch. "But I think I'm forgiven because I sold a lot."

Charles looked genuinely delighted. "You did? That's wonderful."

"Yeah. It is. And she wants me down at the gallery in an hour." He nipped at Charles’s lip. "Not so wonderful."

"I still get fucked up against the shower wall and given coffee?"

"Think we can manage that."

"Then I fail to see a problem."

"And I fail to see you up against the wall."

Charles stared at him, then turned his back, bracing his hands flat against the white tiles and spreading his legs. The water coursed down his lower back, trickling over his ass and down his legs.

Gray pushed wet hair back off his face and opened the shower door wide enough to grab at the opened condom and bottle of lube he'd left on the side of the bath. Turning down the water so it was less of an assault and more of a gentle shower, because he really didn't want the water to go cold on them halfway through, he got ready.

Nerves hit him with his slicked-up fingers rubbing over damp, hot skin. God, this was Charles. He was about to fuck Charles. He leaned forward, kissing and biting at Charles’s shoulder, trying to get to a taste of him, his scent, through the smell of soap and water.

"Charles—"

He heard the panic in his voice, and Charles must have heard it too, because he reached back, captured Gray's free hand and pulled it around to his cock, hard and full.

Knowing Charles wanted him made it simple.

Easing into him carefully, feeling Charles’s body welcome and fight him at one and the same time, so that he had to push, harder than he wanted to, more than he'd expected, gave him too much to think about to enjoy it.

Then Charles’s head jerked up and his hands flexed and clawed at the tiled wall. "Gray—fuck me."

Had he sounded like that to Charles the night before? That desperate, that hungry? Gray shuddered and slid one hand up to Charles’s chest, seeking out the racing thump of his heartbeat, feeling the pulse of blood echoed a spilt second later around his cock. He felt joined, connected, part of Charles.

Then Charles pushed back, impatient and needy, taking what he wanted and getting every inch of Gray's cock inside him.

"Oh, you," Gray muttered. "You..." His raked his hand down, drawing a guttural cry of surprise from Charles as Gray's nails dug into skin, and grabbed a fistful of cock.

Hard, heated skin to touch, smooth tightness to fuck—Gray leaned over and bit down on Charles’s neck, where it met his shoulder, sucking and mouthing at the skin as his hand squeezed and his hips rocked gently, slowly. All this biting would leave marks, but he didn’t care.

"My way," he whispered, knowing Charles could hear him. "We do this my way."

Charles cried out, a soft, keening sound that went straight to Gray's balls, tightening them, making them ache. Oh, he liked hearing Charles sound like that.

He wasn't sure how much longer he could do slow, though.

The soaked, tropical air inside the cubicle was making him feel dizzy, each gasped breath coating his mouth with water. Charles was still, his body trembling, as if it was costing him not to move.

Gray let his hand slacken a little around Charles’s cock. "Fuck my hand," he said, wanting to see what Charles would do.

Exactly what he'd told him to.

Shifting forward, Gray closed his eyes as Charles, keeping to the exact speed Gray had been using, tilted his hips forward and back, his breath ragged as Gray's hand and cock gave him what he needed.

"Oh, God, you feel good." If he was supposed to hold it together, he was going to fail, because this was too much.

He stopped playing whatever game had begun when he wasn't looking, and took hold of Charles’s hips, slamming into him over and over, letting Charles arch his back and spread his legs until each thrust was easy and smooth.

Perfect angle, perfect view. Even now, with his body shivering and screaming for release, Gray could appreciate the strength and elegance of Charles’s back, accentuated by a wholly unexpected tattoo on one shoulder blade; a small circle, the border a twisted, intricate rope design, the center blank. Gray could have covered it with the ball of his thumb.

"Can... move now." he gritted out, half the words lost because his mind was sparking and shorting out.

Skin. Hot, hot skin. Sounds. Gasping, pleading moans, coming from them.

"Oh, God, oh, yes—"

This was better; finding a rhythm within a few strokes, a frantic, fast rhythm that Gray couldn't sustain for long.

He came hard and silently, his mouth open on a moan that couldn't force its way out of his body, wracked in a climax intense enough to have him forgetting how to do anything but push forward, needing to be as deep inside Charles as possible.

When he'd recovered, he eased out, peeling the condom off and letting it drop with a messy splat to the floor of the shower.

"That was—"

"Gray—"

Charles turned, his eyes wild, his lip swollen and bleeding where he'd bitten it.

"Finish this, or tell me I can."

"You didn't come?" Gray blurted out, feeling a stab of hurt and shame, because he'd thought Charles had—they had—together—fuck, why hadn't he?

Incomprehension followed by exasperation passed over Charles’s face. Gray wasn't sure which way it was directed. "Never mind." Charles jerked himself off as Gray watched, coming too fast for Gray to have time to formulate a way to say, 'Need a hand with that?' which didn't sound like a joke.

Charles leaned back against the wall, eyes closed, then shook his head and moved Gray out of the way so he could stand under the cooling spray and rinse off.

The water cut off, leaving an awkward silence broken by the creak of the door as Charles pushed it open and stepped out. He grabbed a towel and held it for Gray to take before picking up another.

Gray spared a moment to be fervently glad that he'd spent the day before doing housework as a way of distracting himself from his nerves. Sometimes his towels went a long time between washes.

"What the hell was that all about?" he asked when Charles had finished drying himself and had dropped a neatly folded towel over the rack with an air of finality.

Charles didn't look at him. "Me realizing that I'm capable of acting stupidly even at my age. I'm sorry, Gray. Believe me, I am."

"Nothing to be sorry for." Gray felt unease stirring. If this was the build up to a break-up—if they'd even been together for long enough for that to be the correct word—he didn't want to hear it. "And as explanations go, that sucked. Do it again, with less beating yourself over the head and more, you know, words."

That got him a smile. "Mind if I get dressed first? And don't you have to be somewhere?"

Gray edged between Charles and the door. "Yeah, but until I know you're not planning on ditching me, I'm staying right here."

"Gray," Charles said patiently. "We don't have time for this now."

"Promise me!" Gray heard his voice crack and took a deep breath. "Sorry. Fuck, you must think I'm some kind of—You’re backing away."

"For your own good."

"The hell it is." Gray glared at him, grateful for the anger that was elbowing his panic and loss out of the way. "I get to decide that, not you."

"You're going to be late. Look, I don't know you that well and I'm not ready to discuss certain subjects with you—"

"You know me well enough to fuck me!"

Charles’s lips twisted in a cynical smile. "I could have done that without knowing your name. Have done in the past, more often than I care to recall."

"You owe me more of an explanation than this."

"I owe you nothing."

"Give it to me anyway."

Something flickered in Charles’s eyes; resignation, maybe. Gray waited, barely breathing, his body tense. God, what the hell had he done wrong?

"Tonight. Come and see me. I'll try and make you see why this was a mistake. Now, for God's sake, give me space." Charles pushed past him, not meeting his eyes, and by the time Gray had dressed, Charles had murmured a terse goodbye and left.

Gray watched him walk away, unashamedly staring down from the window, taking comfort in the slump of Charles’s shoulders. So he wasn't happy. Good. That gave Gray something to work with.

Then he caught sight of the clock and groaned. He was going to be so fucking late—

 

 

Chapter Seven

Charles gave Drew an unwelcoming look. "Why are you here?"

"And good morning to you too," Drew said cheerfully, pushing past Charles and heading for the kitchen. "As you're fully dressed, I assume Lochinvar isn't here?"

"No, he isn't, and I'm not really in the mood for a blow-by-blow account—"

"Charles, please." Drew shuddered. "Keep it clean; I'm an innocent flower. I thought I'd see how you were before I went home."

"I'm fine," Charles snapped.

"Oh, clearly," Drew said dryly. "Overflowing with happiness. Coffee? Please?"

Giving in, as Drew had already sat and didn't look as if he planned on moving, Charles topped up his mug and poured one for Drew. He pushed the mug over, waiting for the wince, as it was considerably stronger than Drew was used to.

"God, Charles, your stomach must hate you."

"It does what I want it to." Charles took a seat at the kitchen table across from Drew.

"Your stomach? Or the coffee? Never mind." Drew arched his eyebrows expectantly. "Go on; you know you want to."

"Do I look like a sixteen-year-old girl?"

"When you left me last night, there were similarities, yes. So what happened?"

"Nothing. We fucked—don't even think about looking shocked—and that's it. Over. Satisfied?"

"No good?"

"Very good," Charles said evenly. "We had an excellent time."

"Don't make me beat it out of you."

"Why do you care?"

Drew shrugged. "I don't. Not enough to keep pressing you for much longer, anyway. I'm sad your champagne went flat so soon. I haven't seen you look that happy in years."

Charles closed his eyes. Happy. Right.

"Drew—he's so bloody young." He heard the resignation in his voice and opened his eyes to see pity and impatience cross Drew's face.

"Didn't we go through this last night? He's old enough to know what he's doing."

"He knows nothing," Charles said harshly. "Nothing about me, about what I like—" He broke off and shook his head. "Leave it. It's not something I feel comfortable discussing with you. Nor him, although I suppose I'll have to. He's coming over tonight."

"He is?" Drew sounded interested. "Persistent little devil, isn't he?"

"Oh yes." Charles smiled for the first time in hours.

"If you're playing hard to get—"

"I'm not," Charles said indignantly. "I'm trying to avoid dragging him into the mess I've made of my life, that's all."

Drew snorted. "You're looking for an excuse. Got too used to being alone. Well, that's fair enough. You know best, I suppose."

"That was a remarkably quick surrender." Charles eyed him suspiciously.

"I'm a bookseller, not a goddamned agony aunt." Drew drained his mug. "Right. I'd better go; Margaret frets if I'm away too long."

"No, she doesn't. She says you make the place look untidy."

Drew looked complacent. "True, but she still does. And I miss her." He held out his hand. "Let me know what happens."

Charles walked around to give Drew a swift hug, surprising him. "I won't, but thanks."

"I called in at the gallery this morning." Drew moved toward the door. "Picked up one of Lochinvar's daubs."

"His name is Gray. I’m sure I mentioned that."

"He paints well for his age," Drew said grudgingly. "Needs more experience under his belt to be really good, but it's all relative."

"May I see it?" Charles asked impulsively. He hadn't looked properly at the paintings the night before.

Drew gave him an incredulous look. "Do you think I took it off the wall and threw it in the back of my car? It's still hanging and it'll be shipped to me when the exhibition's over."

"Oh, of course." Charles felt foolish. "I should have known. Which one?"

Drew pulled a small catalog from his jacket pocket, folded back. "Number 42."

"Why that one?" Charles asked, reading the description which was unaccompanied by a picture. "The night sky?"

"It's interesting. The composition, the texture…" He gave Charles a quick grin. "You're too much of a Philistine to understand why."

"I'll take a look at it," Charles lied, knowing he wouldn't go near the gallery in case he saw Gray.

"You should. You might change your mind about his being too young for you." Drew tugged at his lip, pensive, frowning. "He doesn't paint like a man who's scared of experimenting."

"I hardly think what applies to art is equally true in the bedroom."

"Did he seem like the shy and shrinking type?"

Charles flushed, hit with a vivid memory of Gray licking his lips and leaving a satiated smile sticking to them. "No."

"Thought not." Drew gave him a satisfied nod and left.

***

Gray arrived late enough to have Charles wondering if he was going to come at all, knocking on the door at ten and giving Charles a tight smirk by way of greeting.

Charles eyed him in silence and led him into the front room. Rudegar opened an eye from his perch along the back of the couch and went back to sleep on the next blink.

"Here I am." Gray spread his hands wide. "Now tell me to fuck off."

Charles sighed. "No. Sleep it off, maybe."

"I'm not drunk."

"Pissed off, not pissed?"

"Brit humor. Funny."

"Oh, I'm a funny man, Gray. You've got no idea."

"Then tell me." Gray came closer and gave Charles a hard, clumsy kiss. "Tell me," he repeated. "You asked me over so you must have something to say."

Did he? Gray's mouth was there, lips parted, tongue showing as he curled it behind his teeth. Kissing him back was simple; telling him why Charles couldn't kiss him again was complicated.

No contest.

Gray pulled back, his eyes intent and warily hopeful. "No talking?"

"Later," Charles said, tasting Gray on his lips again and utterly incapable of sending him away. It scared him; every sign of the power Gray had over his will and resolution was a warning he knew he couldn't afford to ignore, but he couldn't help it.

Didn't want to.

Selfish.

He ignored the chiding inner voice and dragged Gray closer, roughly, knowing Gray wouldn't care, his hands already busy stripping Gray of his coat and shirt.

"Are we going to fuck with an audience?" Gray jerked his head at the cat who was watching them, green eyes unblinking.

"Wouldn't be the first time," Charles said without thinking.

"Yeah?" That got him a speculative glance to match Rudegar's and a shrug. "Fine. I'll take you any way I can get you. You know that."

It was too close to what Charles would have said once not to leave him wincing and stepping back.

"What did I say now?" Gray looked resigned.

"You remind me too much of myself, that's all. It's disconcerting."

"I do?" Gray moved closer again, bare-chested, the top button of his jeans popped open, a zipper tug away from being fucked. "So, does sex with me feel like jerking off?"

Charles couldn't help laughing. "Not that close."

"Good, because that's slightly freaky, y'know?"

"I suppose it would be," Charles agreed, the words catching in his throat as he ran his fingers over Gray's skin, over the pulse beating at wrist, crook of elbow and throat, over the leap of Gray's heartbeat under his palm as he pinched a hard nipple harder.

"You'd better be planning to fuck me soon," Gray whispered. "You stop again and I'll cry."

"I can't see that happening."

"Would you like to?"

Startled, Charles met his eyes. "I don't want you to be unhappy."

"That wasn't what I asked."

Charles brushed his lips against the tracks tears would take as they spilled over and down Gray's face. "Yes. I'd like to make you cry."

"I didn't say that, either."

"Yes, you did." Charles bent his head and bit hard at Gray's shoulder. "It's exactly what you meant."

"Won't make me cry like that."

"Mmm?" Charles murmured and did it again.

 

 

Chapter Eight

Gray woke from what had never been more than a doze and found Charles staring at him. He waited for a word, or even a change of expression, and got neither. Charles kept staring, a frown creasing his forehead, his mouth set.

"Okay, what?"

"You're still here."

"Points for being observant." Gray stretched, feeling an ache in his shoulders and a familiar tenderness in his ass.

Oh, yeah. Well and truly fucked. If he'd been a cat he'd have purred, smug and happy.

"I didn't expect you to be."

"I'm not going anywhere." Some of his sleepy contentment flaked off, exposing raw uncertainty. Guess getting Charles naked wasn’t enough after all. "And I didn't come here to get fucked. You promised me answers."

"No. I said we'd talk." Charles shook his head, his face twisting with sudden anger. "What makes you think you've got a right to know all about me? This soon?"

"I don't. I only want to know why you're so—" Gray held out his hand, palm down, and see-sawed it. "I can't see the problem. You know how I feel, and you can't keep your fucking hands off me, so forgive me for assuming it's mutual. We're both out, so scratch that off the list of problems, and this town's falling over itself to be liberal, so we're not likely to get beaten up for holding hands in public—"

"I know that," Charles interrupted. "I'm not all that concerned about public opinion." He rubbed the side of his nose. "Perhaps a little. You're younger than me, but as Drew was at pains to point out, you're old enough."

"Go, Drew."

"It's still not a good idea. I was determined not to end up in bed with you tonight, and yet I did, which shows when it comes to you, I'm not—"

"What?"

"Not to be trusted," Charles spat out, glaring at him. "Christ, Gray, look in a mirror before you get dressed! Count the bruises."

"You didn't hurt me." That wasn't quite true but in essence it was. Gray was aware of half a dozen places where fingers and teeth and skin on skin had left marks, had left pain, but there wasn't a single one that he hadn't welcomed, even encouraged. Held down and fucked hard... even now, wrung out and empty, his cock twitched at the memory of Charles’s grip, sure and firm.

“Not as much as I wanted to, no, but more than you expected.”

"Okay, is it me, or did it get weird in here?" Gray moved closer to Charles, cupping his face and forcing Charles to turn to look at him. "Listen to me. I'm stronger than you. Want to arm wrestle and I'll prove it? And I'm not the type to roll over and play dead for—" Charles’s face contorted and Gray bit down on his anger. "God, what did I say now? For the love of—This is why you need to tell me. I'm getting all these fucked-up hints and it's scaring me. Way more than the truth could." He swallowed, licking at dry lips. "Did you—did you kill someone? A lover maybe? Things got kinky and there was an accident?"

"What?" The shock on Charles’s face was answer enough. He shifted his hand to Charles’s shoulder, squeezing it gently and feeling the tension in the muscles. “No, of course not.”

"Okay. That's something. Are you going to tell me now?"

"Before you come up with something worse?" Charles sat, pushing a pillow behind him. The room was shadowed, lit only by the light from the hallway, filtering in through the half-closed door, but Gray saw the tiredness on Charles’s face. He sat up facing Charles, cross-legged, close enough that his thigh was pressing against Charles’s knee, and waited.

"I told you that you reminded me of how I was, but in many ways you're far more sophisticated. Five years older, used to living alone, being independent; it makes a difference. I was still getting used to the thrill of living away from home, still a wide-eyed student."

"Okay, I'm lost. What are we talking about here?"

Charles’s lips tightened. "We're talking about me meeting Alan when I was nineteen or twenty. We're talking about my first lover, a man two decades older, rich, bored, spoiled—captivated by my adoration and innocence and equally taken with the amusement to be had in removing both."

Funny how Charles retreated into polished prose when he was emotionally stirred. Most people did the opposite. "He sounds like a son of a bitch, but hey, I could tell you stories myself. We've all had exes from hell."

The look he got was enough to shut him up.

"Alan seduced me, addicted me.”

"You did drugs?" Gray eyed him with surprise. Charles didn't seem the type and Gray had seen enough people who were to be good at spotting them.

"No. Alan drank a lot, but he had a healthy fear of drugs. I think he'd lost more than one friend to them, though I'm only guessing. I was addicted to him."

Gray shook his head. "Sounds dramatic, but that's all it is. You can't be addicted to a person."

He half expected Charles to get angry with him; instead he got an indifferent shrug and an averted face. "Have it your way. Perhaps you're right. At the time, though, I don't think I'd have been so easy to convince. When I left him, I—"

"You left him?"

Charles turned back to look at him. "Yes, though he saw it as a failure not a rejection. I don't think I'd ever managed to surprise him until then. He gaped at me and he looked positively foolish. I laughed. I remember laughing. At him. He was—"

"Why did you go?" Gray was struggling with the need to know all about it and the fear if he pushed too hard, Charles would stop talking and kick him out.

"Nothing earth-shattering; I found him with someone else, that's all." Charles brought his hand to his mouth and chewed at the side of his thumb moodily. "It'd been going on for weeks, but I was too blind to notice, so he set it up, let me walk in and catch him."

"What the hell did you see in someone that fucked-up?"

"Everything I wanted."

Gray winced. "Yeah. Not a lot I can say without being rude." He pursed his lips. "So he set up this big reveal for kicks? Why was he so shocked you walked? Anyone would have."

"It was a test." Charles fiddled with the edge of the cover, rolling it and releasing it, avoiding Gray's eyes. "To see if I loved him enough to stay no matter what. I'd given him every reason to suppose I would."

"That's not love. It's insane."

"Good choice of word." Charles let go of the creased fabric and folded his hands in his lap. "I left, had a quiet, private breakdown somewhere far away, then went back to my studies. I assume Alan's uncle—my tutor—pulled some strings there; I never asked. I worked myself to the edge of another breakdown, but I got my degree and it all fell into place after that."

"Uh, good?" Gray sprawled out beside him, giving Charles’s arm a tentative kiss. "That's it, then? Because I'm still not getting what’s stopping you and me from being together."

Charles slid down the bed and reached for him. He was shaking and Gray found himself murmuring something comforting and meaningless under his breath as he hugged Charles close.

"Not it," Charles whispered against Gray's shoulder. "Years later we met up again. In a club. A private club. He looked—God, he was a mess. Like a smeared, out of focus picture of himself. I barely recognized him. He came over with this pretty little boy in tow, wearing a few scraps of leather, collared and cuffed, whip marks covering his back, and asked me what I thought of him."

The image slammed into him like a wave of icy, filthy water. It turned him on and repulsed him, leaving him guilty over the first reaction and sickened by the second. "What?"

"You heard me."

"Seriously? Because that's..." Gray tried to decide what it was and gave up. His head and his dick had conflicting opinions.

"Mm. Isn't it?" Charles said dryly. "I told him the truth without bothering to make it flattering, and he lost his temper and sent the boy over to be whipped again, telling me it was my fault."

"Okay, stop." Gray gulped down a quick breath and tried to steady his voice. "What were you doing at a place like that?" Were there places like that? For real?

"Having a drink. Enjoying the floorshow. Looking for someone to get off with. What do you think I was doing?"

"I don't know." He was losing it here, assailed by images of Charles watching, eyes bright and cool, as someone was stripped and bent—tied up?—God.

"Breathe," Charles advised him. "You look as if you're about to pass out."

Gray gave Charles an indignant look. "No, I don't! I'm dealing, okay. I'm fine. What happened next?"

The more agitated he got—and he was, he admitted it—the calmer Charles seemed to get. He folded his arms behind his head and carried on. "I'd changed rather a lot since leaving him. I was a professor, not a student, an adult who’d come to terms with my kinks. He'd expected me to protest and I pointed at a sub already in position and being attended to rather nicely by—oh, Saul, I think it was—and told Alan he was mine."

"Was he?"

"Yes." Charles smiled reminiscently. "I'd had him before. Cheeky little sod, he was, but that's not always a bad thing if a sub knows the lines that can't be crossed, and he did. I liked him." His smile faded. "Alan reacted badly. Made quite a scene and stormed out with the boy. The next morning the papers were full of it. He'd hurt him. Badly. The boy—"

"What was his name?" Gray felt anger build, brick by brick. Sex clubs, subs, Charles fucking hot men in leather. Too much to take in. "You keep calling him the fucking boy; what was his name?"

"Steven." A muscle contracted in Charles’s face, a spasm of distaste or regret. Gray wasn’t sure which. "He didn't die, but he turned out to be seventeen. He shouldn’t have been in the club. They were strict about that, but it didn’t matter. The club was closed down, Alan was charged, went to prison, and died there soon after. I'm not sure of the circumstances. His family closed ranks and his death didn't get much coverage. I didn’t want to know.”

"Christ."

"Yes, it wasn't pleasant." Charles’s voice, cool and detached, wavered. "It's why I came over here. The prosecution dug up his relationship with me and the gutter press had fun making me out to be a lot younger than I was. They found some photographs of a private party—God, my parents—their faces—" He shook his head. "I left it all behind. No kink. No relationships. Then you came along and I find I've more in common with Alan than our taste for games, because you're as tempting as I must have been, and I really don't like the idea of following in his footsteps."

"I'm not you. And I'm not like that Steven guy," Gray told him. "I—fuck, Charles, this is a lot to take in, you know?"

"I do, yes. Don't bother trying." Charles got out of bed and gathered up Gray's clothing, tossing it over to him. "Get dressed and leave.”

"I'm not going anywhere."

"Yes, you are." Charles looked dangerously close to losing it, his calm shattered. "I’ve had enough of denying myself because of what Alan did. As much as I want you, and I do, I need so much more.” Charles’s gaze traveling over Gray's body. "God, you've no idea what I want to do to you."

"Tell me. Maybe some of it I can do."

"Not going to happen. I won’t do what Alan did."

"You’re not him and I’m not that young you. One thing. Tell me." Gray wasn't letting him go. He needed time alone to process, but that could come later. Right now he had to keep the connection between them unbroken. Nothing Charles had said had made him change his mind about wanting him.

He rolled to his back and spread his legs wide, loving the way Charles’s breath stuttered. "See? Hard. All the time you were talking I've been like this. What are you going to do to me?"

"Nothing." The word lacked conviction, full of yearning that contradicted Charles’s answer

"Yeah, you are," Gray told him. He brought his hand down to his cock, pumping it slowly, never taking his eyes off Charles. "You're going to let me do this without permission? I don't think so. Tell me to stop." He bit his lip to keep his voice steady. "Or let me come, then punish me for it. Don't care, if you let me stay. Please?"

"God." The single word was said so quietly it was barely audible. Gray felt a pang of remorse at the conflicted, tortured look on Charles’s face but he didn't stop the slow drag of his hand along his cock.

"Going to come. In your bed. On your sheets. Going to get them messy." Taunting Charles was probably the scariest thing he'd ever done and he loved it. Gray gave him a tight grin of adrenaline-fueled arousal and flicked his tongue teasingly, knowing he looked like a slut and not caring. He drew his knees up and let them fall apart, reaching down with his free hand. "Want to see me ride my fingers? Or are you going to come here and do that for me?"

Charles moved faster than he'd expected, strong hands tearing Gray's clenching, clutching fingers away from his body, pinning his wrists to the bed as Charles straddled him, all hot skin and angry, haunted eyes.

Gray lay still, looking up at him. "Want you."

"You do, don't you."

“Yeah. Enough to try a walk on the wild side. Maybe you’re right and it’s not my thing, but God, I’d regret not trying it more than I’d regret finding out I don’t have a kinky bone in my body. Trying gives me a chance at keeping you. It’s worth some awkward moments.”

“You want me that much?”

“Have you been paying any attention to me? Yes! Obsessed, infatuated, determined. When I’m with you, I’m happy, no, I’m more than that. I’m awake, alive. When you push me away and close doors in my face, you turn off the fucking sun.”

“You’re usually the one slamming doors, but point taken. I can’t argue because it’s the same for me, since the moment I first saw you.”

“So which of us is Juliet?”

“Very funny.”

Charles sat back, releasing him, and Gray moaned in disappointment. "God."

That got his mouth tapped. "Lesson one. You don't argue."

"Lesson?" Hope flared. "You mean you're going to..." Gray waved his hand vaguely and Charles rolled his eyes.

"Oh, you're so ready for this, aren't you?" he mocked. "Christ, you're out of your depth. Admit it."

"More than you were?"

“Far more. By the time I'd got to the stage you're at, curious enough to experiment, I'd been with Alan for a month and I was ready for it. He’d seen to that."

“So we’re doing this?”

“We can do something.” Charles sounded reluctant, but Gray saw the longing and hope in his eyes.

“I’m down with that.”

“Okay.” Without asking him again, Charles rose and went over to a chest of drawers. He took out two silk ties, drawing them through his fingers and studying them with an abstracted frown.

A rush of lust left Gray lightheaded. This was so fucking hot, all of it. And so…so grown up. Like graduating from training wheels, his bike heavy, wobbling under his tentative pedaling, then traveling in a swift, sure line when he found his balance and courage. He’d wanted to ride for miles.

"Are you going to tie me up?" Gray hoped Charles hadn't heard the quaver in his voice because the chances were good he'd interpret it as nerves when Gray was so close to coming the touch of the cool, slithery silk would be all it took.

"Would you like that?"

Cool, dry voice. Classroom voice. Fuck.

"Think so," Gray managed to say, completely incapable of looking away from the dark blue and green lengths twined around Charles’s fingers.

"You trust me?"

There was only one answer. This was Charles. "Yes."

Charles sighed. "I wish you'd said 'no'. It would have made it so much easier."

Gray dug around in his memory of online porn. "I get a—a safe word. Don't I?"

"Why not? If we’re playing this game, let’s put all the pieces on the board. What will it be?" His voice was light, verging on bored, but Gray saw the tautness across Charles’s shoulders. He was wound tight.

Was he being cruel? Charles was starved for this and he was teasing him with a taste, then possibly snatching the plate away. Gray didn’t consider faking his reaction. If he couldn’t take what Charles dished out, he’d say so. Have to. For one, Charles would know, and for another, he wasn’t that self-sacrificing or unselfish. He needed to get something out of the sex too.

"Uh, roses?"

That got a chuckle. "Clever."

Gray held still, waiting, forcing himself to breath in a regular, slow rhythm as Charles casually tethered his wrists to the bed frame. He could feel the rub of the silk and the press of the knot but neither was uncomfortable, although he could tell his arms would aching before long. It didn't escape him that the bed frame seemed designed for this, with convenient curlicues of metal that offered plenty of anchor points.

"There," Charles said softly. "You're tied and hard and wanting. That's something I wanted to do to you."

"You won’t stop there?" Now he was the one being denied a taste.

Charles shook his head. "Unless you tell me to," he added. "But while I have you at my mercy, let’s get a few things clear."

"Okay."

"This is to satisfy your curiosity." Charles patted Gray's erection. "And take care of this, as you seem to think I caused it."

"You did."

"Be quiet, or I'll gag you."

Gray's body heated and he whimpered and squirmed, a tiny sound, a small movement, both beyond his control. "Oh, fuck, don't say stuff like that!"

Charles’s eyes widened in what looked like surprise, but his voice was cold. "You don't come without permission when you're like this, Gray. Is that understood?"

"Really not helping."

"Really don't care. Control yourself."

Gray clenched his fists and felt the sharp tug of the silk bite deep. It hurt enough to clear his head but the revelation that he was held securely tipped the balance back and he moaned again, louder this time.

"Do you have anything you want to ask me?"

Gray gathered his thoughts. "Something confusing me."

"Go on."

"This Alan—He was into being in charge?"

"Mm."

"Like you are?"

“He was an emotional sadist. I’m not. But he got off on the same elements of domination as me, I suppose.”

"So how did that work? You took turns?"

"What? Oh!" Charles shook his head. "Alan didn’t have a shred of submission in him. I’m more flexible. I let you take charge in the shower, remember? And stupidly got frustrated when you didn’t know what to do.”

“I wondered what bugged you. Sorry, but as far as I was concerned, it was me fucking you, nothing more.”

“I know. My fault. You stirred old memories and habits. Forget it.”

‘So when did you flip from uh, sub to Dom?” See? He knew something about it.

“I let him dictate what I wore, ordered from a menu, or read, but that was from insecurity and a desire to please him, not a natural inclination to play the submissive. The games we played appealed to me strongly enough that it took me some months to work out why I wasn't quite satisfied even so, and when I did, well, it didn't go down too well."

Interested enough that he forgot he was bound to the bed, Gray said, "So he worked out a way to get rid of you by screwing around."

"He worked out a way to bring me to heel," Charles corrected. "It didn't play out as he'd expected."

"I bet." Gray mulled it over for a few seconds. "Okay. Guess I'm done asking questions."

"It was that easy to satisfy your curiosity? Why do I have trouble believing you?"

Gray gave him a sheepish smile. "Okay, I'm done for now. That better?"

"Considerably more accurate. However, I haven't started."

"I’m tied and hard as rock.”

"So I see." Charles closed his hand around Gray's straining cock, a warm, fleeting clasp, gone too quickly to be anything more than a tease. "You do realize if this was real—"

"It isn't?"

“God, no. You're so stubborn that talking wasn't enough to convince you to back off. Consider it a practical demonstration of what I need. I promise I won't hurt you, but when we're through you'll know it's not for you."

"Hard," Gray reminded him, pushing aside the lurch of dismay that Charles was humoring him, no more.

Charles didn't even look. "I think that's down to other reasons."

"You're pissing me off." Gray kicked out angrily with his foot, frustration boiling up. "What makes you think you know what's going on in my head?"

"You want it to work because you want me, but that's not enough."

"You are one hell of a patronizing bastard, you know that?" Gray licked his lips and stared at his body. He knew how it looked when he lay down. He'd done enough self-portraits to be aware of the changes in musculature due to the position he was in. Muscles and skin were pulled tight and taut, waiting to be touched. He concentrated on the shift and stir of air along the exposed skin of his inner arms; turned his head and breathed in the scent of his aroused body, concentrated to a smoky musk in the cup of his armpit.

"Bring it on. Do whatever the hell you usually do and I'll tell you if I can take it or if it's not my thing. I will. You don't get to tell me."

"With an attitude like that—"

"Hey, it's me. You know it is." Gray glared at him. "And you know you get off on me being argumentative, stubborn, and pushy." He nodded, a realization clicking into place. "Yeah, of course you do. Because it gives you something to work with. Something to beat out of me."

"And I would. Literally," Charles told him, a spark of challenge in his eyes. “I dislike troublesome subs.”

Yeah, sure he did. "You know you won't be able to, but we could have fun trying."

"You're incorrigible."

"Incurably depraved?" Gray pursed his lips in a mocking kiss and wriggled as sensuously as he could. "Teach me some manners, then. Show me the error of my ways."

Charles snorted. "How long do I have?"

"I don't have anywhere I have to be. All night."

"Fine." Charles pulled on a navy robe, heavy cotton, classy and well-used, like most of his belongings.

"Uh, naked works for me."

"You wanted to know what it would be like." Charles wasn’t messing around now. "Waiting is part of it."

"Waiting? Why?" Gray nodded at his erection. "Ready, see? And so are you."

Charles loosened the tie on Gray’s right wrist. "Waiting on my pleasure.” He grinned. “God, I love the sound of that. You can free yourself if needs be, so don’t worry. I'm going downstairs for a glass of water. I’ll be back soon. Use the time alone to think."

"About how I'm going to kick your fucking ass for this?"

"No. About how to beg me to fuck you when you're not allowed to speak after I return and if you do I'll kick your ass out of here. You want to play, then fine, we'll play, but you're arguing far too much and you're irritating me."

"I don't know what to do," Gray whispered, panic twisting inside him, taking away his ability to joke. With Charles beside him he could cope with being tied up; alone, he might freak out and if he did...

"Do what I've told you. Lie there. Think. Wait for me to come back." Charles shrugged. "Don't come."

"Like I could!"

"Oh, you could." Charles smiled thinly. "But you won't enjoy what happens if you do." He tapped the watch he always wore. "Fifteen minutes."

"That’s too long. I don’t need that long!"

He got a sidelong look, reproving, cool. "I'd like you to stop talking now, please." The 'please' did something to Gray, jolting him into a haze of need. "Good. That doesn’t apply if you need to safe word, of course."

The door was left ajar and Gray was left alone.

***

Charles walked down the stairs slowly, resisting the urge to return to Gray’s side. Would Gray call to him soon to be released? Leave in a hurry? Turning his back on him with that thought in place was difficult. The shimmy and stifled moan of panic Gray had given, looking stunningly erotic as he pulled at the lengths of twisted silk holding him—had left Charles rigid, aching to fuck and possess.

Replaying the memory of Gray unconsciously caressing the silk even as he tugged and fought their hold on him, Charles poured himself a glass of water and sat, sipping at it slowly, staring unseeingly at the living room.

The purr and nudge as his cat made his presence known woke him from his thoughts. "Sorry," he murmured, scooping Rudegar up. "Much though I love you, I'd rather you weren't wandering around."

Placating the cat with a serving of crunchy treats, he shut Rudegar into the kitchen and glanced at his watch. Thirteen minutes. It would have felt like thirty to Gray but Charles didn't even consider cutting the time short. When he gave a number—minutes to wait, strokes from a cane—he stuck to it. Had to.

He couldn't believe how easy it was to fall back into this; how natural it felt. Bearing in mind Gray didn't have the faintest idea of what to expect, he planned a scene mild enough not to leave Gray running out screaming and yet sufficient to get his message over.

Fifteen minutes.

He turned and walked up the stairs as slowly as he'd come down them, his cock full and hard, his hands curled loosely, shaking slightly.

That would stop as soon as he saw Gray. His breathing would even out, his voice would be calm, inflexible. He knew that and it still didn't stop them from trembling now, excitement and apprehension forcing his body to react.

He pushed open the door and met Gray's eyes.

God.

***

It took a full two of the fifteen minutes for Gray's heart to stop hammering painfully. Full-on freaking. Tied up. Tied up, dammit, and so fucking turned on it wasn't funny.

And Charles wanted him to wait?

He ran through a litany of curses and felt his calm return. Okay. Tied, yes, but only his hands, and it wasn't as if it hurt. The silk was smooth and it only got uncomfortable on his left wrist if he pulled and twisted and fought. Which he did.

God, he had to stop struggling. He wasn't sure why he was when he didn't want to get free. Free meant Charles would come back and give him that scornful look, the one Gray had sometimes wanted to see in class because there was something so fucking satisfying about wiping it off Charles’s face with a clever question or answer. The smile of approval he earned used to wash over him like warm water, leaving him basking.

Worth the sting of scorn to get that smile.

So he wanted to be like this. Wanted to be tied—and there was that word again. His thoughts kept snagging on it, returning to it and worrying at it. And every time he did, his cock throbbed. He wished Charles hadn’t been all safety first and had left both wrists fastened tight.

There was no point in denying it; he was getting off on the bondage and Charles could go and fuck himself with his refusal to accept this was doing something for Gray.

Honest with himself, he guessed part of his approval was down to Charles being the one doing the tying up. Anyone else had tried this and he didn’t see himself playing along.

All he'd learned was too fresh to deal with. Charles with a past. Charles with a fucked-up, kinky as hell past that involved clubs and collars and rich, older lovers. Gray swallowed, fighting back incredulity and jealousy and reminding himself the guy was dead.

Time to change the subject.

There was no way he and Charles were ever going to be friends if this didn’t work out. Too much going on when they looked at each other, let alone touched. All or nothing situation.

He raised his head and peered at his cock. Still hard. Right. Wasn't all that long since he'd come, panting and grunting and writhing away as Charles fucked him hard and fast. Didn't seem to matter. His cock was flushed and the tip was shining, glossed over. So ready, and Charles wouldn’t walk in and get him off, now would he? No, he’d sit and watch him and make him beg—

Throb.

Fuck.

Okay, breathe. Go Zen. Do what Charles wanted. That was the core of this relationship, wasn’t it? Trust, obedience, submission. He could handle the first, but the others would be works in progress for a while.

No sound from downstairs. Was Charles as keyed up as he was? Comforting thought.

God, he was tied up. Step one on a journey, but what was the destination? Charles knew. Gray wanted to go there with him, discover new territory for both of them because he wasn’t much for staying on the path. This felt good. He knew that much. Peaceful now he’d stopped testing his bonds. He was held in place; nothing to screw up because Charles had put him in this position so it was how he was supposed to be.

His life had stress and worries, but they couldn’t come inside this room. This was a safe space because he wasn’t Gray, aspiring artist, with a career taking off and bills to pay. He was Charles’s…Charles’s…Oh, fuck it. Labels didn’t matter. He belonged to Charles. Had since day one.

Gray stared up at the ceiling, waiting, empty of everything that wasn't waiting, slipping, as the moments trickled by, into a dreamy state of expectancy, listening for the sound of Charles’s footsteps.

It never occurred to him to call out, and when Charles pushed open the door he spread his legs wider and relaxed, still waiting, Charles’s final order gagging him so effectively that the phantom weight of it rested against his parted lips.

***

The look on Gray's face was one Charles had seen before. Impossible to define or bring down to a set of specific physical details; it was simply an expression of readiness.

Gray. Waiting and willing. From where he stood at the door, Charles saw the swell of Gray's lip where he'd bitten it and the sheen of sweat over his tanned skin.

"You look stunning," he told him honestly, making no attempt to hide his pleasure.

He expected one of Gray's flip comments, but Gray turned to him, hips lifting in what was less an invitation than a plea.

Touch me.

Oh yes, he'd want that after being left alone, even if the time had been ridiculously short really.

Charles kept his robe on, thinking absently that he should have dressed again to maintain a distance between them, but went over to sit on the bed beside Gray.

"So good," he murmured, bending over to kiss Gray's lips, feeling a stab of desire as Gray's tongue flickered out desperately, trying to entice him to draw out the kiss. "So obedient. So unlike you."

Gray came close to speaking, a flash of something—Frustration? Anger?—sparking in his eyes, before he closed his mouth firmly.

Charles chuckled. "I wasn't trying to trick you into disobeying me, I promise. I'll let you talk again soon. I want to hear you. But for now..." He tightened the bond he’d loosened before, intrigued by Gray’s sigh of pleasure, even relief. With intent, he drew his fingers down Gray's inner arm, wrist to elbow, feeling the shiver running over the taut skin. "Oh, for now, you can use your mouth for something else."

He was taking a chance here, he knew. Gray was an unknown quantity when it came to his limits, although Charles had seen nothing yet that made him think the other man had many inhibitions. Reaching into the nightstand drawer, he took out a sleeping mask, a souvenir of his last flight, shoved out of sight when he'd been groggy with jetlag, and all but forgotten until now. Letting it dangle from his hand, he raised his eyebrows, waiting patiently for Gray's cautious nod of agreement.

Fitting the mask over Gray's head, Charles gave into temptation a little, taking longer than he had to, enjoying the softness of Gray's hair against his hands. Gray's breath quickened when the padded mask blocked off his sight and Charles let the back of his hand rest for an instant against Gray's cheek.

He sat back, careful now not to touch Gray, and let his gaze wander. Spoiled for choice. He bent over to bite, fairly hard, at the point of Gray's hipbone, sucking at the bitten skin until Gray's gasp of shock and pain mellowed to a moan.

"That's it," he encouraged him, stroking the reddened patch of skin with his fingertip. "Make all the noise you like. But no words."

He kept moving, finding places where Gray's response to being touched verged on extreme, once drawing 'Fuck' out of him when Charles flicked his nail hard against Gray's nipple, already wet and bruised from Charles’s mouth. He let that one slide, not out of mercy—it hadn't hurt him that much—but because the anguished, low howl afterward had made him grin. Gray was so open in his reactions and Charles was enjoying that more than he'd expected.

When he'd reached the point where Gray was moaning, an 'ah' of pained arousal emerging with each exhalation, his cock the only part of him left untouched, Charles shrugged out of the robe and straddled Gray's chest, high up. Settling down so most of his weight was on his knees, Charles slid his finger under the edge of the mask, lifting it slightly. "Want to see?" he asked.

There was a moment's hesitation and he frowned, waiting. Gray made an indeterminate sound, an 'mmm' that seemed to be a question. Charles tried to work it out and gave up, going with a guess.

"You want me to decide?"

That got him a nod.

"Off, then."

The mask peeled away from flushed, damp skin—he'd been crying? Charles fingered the mask and couldn't tell. Either way, the blue eyes blinking up at him were dry now, eyes expressive enough that Charles had no difficulty in interpreting the furious appeal in them.

"Still not allowed to talk or come." Odd to need these reminders. He’d never been with someone as untried and new as Gray. It had a certain appeal, but it was frustrating too.

Gray rolled his head against the pillow, a resentful gesture. Charles smiled, taking hold of his cock and guiding the tip along the tightly closed seam of Gray's mouth, watching the lips soften and open and feeling the hot flick of Gray's tongue.

He groaned himself. Couldn't help it. He was about to slide his cock a little deeper when Gray twisted his head away, his lips flattening and his hands clenching into fists.

"Gray?" Charles took hold of Gray's face firmly, curling his fingers around his jaw. "Want me to stop?" Gray's headshake was immediate but he made a soft, desperate sound, shifting on the bed.

Charles slid off and kneeled beside him on the bed. "Tell me."

Words, frantic and fast, spilled out. "Going to come, God, going to—"

"No, you're not." Charles kept his voice calm.

He got an exasperated glare shot at him. "Am," Gray insisted. "Want to suck you, I do, but so close."

Charles glanced down and decided Gray was correct. His balls were tight and his cock quivering with every breath, smacking back against a flat stomach and leaving a slick smear behind.

"Stop talking."

Gray opened his mouth, looking wildly indignant, and snapped it shut when Charles gave him a pointed look, but the distraction had helped. He lay still, chest heaving, and waited.

"One minute," Charles told him. "Stay absolutely quiet for one minute and I'll see to you."

He waited until Gray had settled into a tortured, tense silence, then pushed his finger slowly inside Gray's mouth, past teeth and tongue, getting it wet. The whimper that escaped Gray was probably involuntary, but Charles shook his head sadly, withdrew his finger and drew a line down Gray's stomach, ending an inch away from the dark, glossed head of Gray's cock.

Time to push.

"Almost there, then I'll let you come. I'll make you come. But not yet. Come before I say and I'll punish you. My hand on your backside, hard, hurting you, until you're—"

Gray wailed, yanked hard enough on the ties that the bed creaked, and came, splattering his stomach and chest, his cock jerking and his hips lifting up, fucking nothing because Charles had moved back and wasn't touching him.

Which was Gray's real punishment for not lasting the full minute.

Gray collapsed, panting, his eyes squeezed closed. Charles gave him a moment, then cleared his throat.

"Sorry," Gray said, disarming him completely. "Fuck, I'm sorry, okay?" Blue eyes opened and stared at him appealingly.

Charles smiled, reaching out to pat Gray's arm. "Don't be. You lasted longer than I expected."

"I did?" Gray sounded doubtful.

"Mmm." Charles ran his finger through a streak of cum on Gray's belly without really thinking about it, and looked up to find Gray watching him. "What?"

"Do you want me to—?"

"What?" Charles followed Gray's gaze to his wet finger and laughed. "Lick it clean? No. It's your cum; I imagine you know what it tastes like."

For some reason that, of all that had happened to him, made Gray blush. "Not really."

"Oh." Charles scooped up more on the end of his finger and sucked it off. "Tastes exactly like, hmm, yes exactly like cum," he said thoughtfully and got a snort of laughter from Gray and a playful nudge of a knee.

"Would you untie me?"

Charles reached up and took care of the knots, feeling mild regret as Gray curled up into a ball, flexing stiff muscles and rubbing at his wrists, already showing marks.

"Going to get yourself over my knee?"

"What?"

Charles moved around, sitting on the edge of the bed, his feet flat against the floor, and glanced back at Gray. "I told you what would happen."

"I didn't think you meant it!" Gray protested.

"And yet the thought of it was enough to make you come without being touched." Charles crooked his finger. "Come here, or go to the bathroom to get cleaned up. Your choice, but if it's the latter, I expect you to be prepared to leave without arguing, is that understood?"

"You’re joking."

"Don't make me count to three, or something equally ridiculous," Charles said with a sigh.

Gray bit his lip and crawled off the bed, standing in front of Charles. "I—God, I feel like a fucking idiot!"

"You look like an indecisive idiot to me," Charles said coolly, reaching for his robe again and slipping it on. His arousal was intense enough that he had trouble concentrating, his body clamoring for release.

"Hey!"

"I won’t make this easy for you," Charles told him, knowing in a way he was by saying that and getting the game started again. "You'll put yourself across my knee, and you'll be the one asking me to do it."

"Do what?" There was a trace of defiance in Gray's voice now.

"Spank you, Gray. For failing." Charles spaced the words out, watching Gray swallow, watching his half-hard cock twitch and fill again. God bless the recovery time of a young man.

"How... How many? Or are we talking time?"

"Good questions. We can discuss the answers when you're in position."

Gray shifted his feet, a deep flush scalding his face, his breath shaky. "Oh fuck."

As Charles was about to stand and end it, Gray scrubbed hard at his face and sat beside him, giving him a swift, hopeless look, before draping himself awkwardly over Charles’s lap.

The weight of him was unexpected and oddly comforting. Been a long time.

Carefully, not rushing, Charles adjusted the way Gray was positioned, spreading his knees apart a little to avoid trapping Gray’s cock in the folds of his robe.

"You wanted to know how many, how long. I could tell you until I’m done punishing you, but sometimes it’s good to have a goal in mind."

Gray gave a stifled sound that might have been anything and Charles placed the flat of his hand lightly across the small of Gray's back. "Five, I think, as that's about how many seconds you had left."

"You can't know that."

Unseen, Charles rolled his eyes, a grin on his face. God, Gray would come back from the dead to argue with him.

"I can. I was counting. Five, and since that’s a trivial number, I’ll make them sting." He waited, then added, "Gray?"

"Five. Right." Relaxed now he was talking again, Gray wriggled a little, settling his hands flat against the floor, and took a deep breath. Charles stroked Gray's backside, the muscles clenching, then lifted his hand and brought it down hard.

Five was nothing. He wouldn’t hold back for five, and he wouldn’t renege on his promise. Gray was going to see what he could expect if he stuck around, and Charles, staring down at the fading flush of scarlet his hand had left, Gray's whimper resonating in his ears, couldn't imagine not doing this again if he had the chance.

So damn responsive. Lovely. It wasn't that Gray couldn't have kept a stony silence if he'd wanted; certainly once he knew what to expect, the four smacks that followed weren't painful enough to make silence impossible. No, he didn't care that Charles knew how he felt, and hoarse, open-mouthed gasps followed each slap, blending with the flat crack of Charles’s hand.

Charles gave him the last one and put his hand over the rough, hot skin, feeling the shift of tensing muscle.

"Ch-Charles?"

"Yes?"

"More? Please?"

Charles stared at the wall opposite, his hand already rising.

 

 

Chapter Nine

It was too easy to forget around Carl. Gray froze, half in, half out of a fresh pair of jeans, bare ass on display, held in place by the snarled question.

"What the fuck?"

Settling his T-shirt in place, Gray turned and met Carl's gaze coolly. "Don't."

"Don't what? Don't comment on those marks on your ass? Yeah, let's think about how much that's never gonna happen."

Gray reached for a paintbrush, twirling it between his fingers, focusing on the way the bristles overlapped. Might be cool to paint them from memory using the brush itself, detailed enough that they wouldn't look like anything at first, the subtle stains of old paint—

"Hey!" Carl drove a fist into Gray’s shoulder, jolting him out of his introspection. "Don't do that. Don't shut me out."

Rubbing away the throb, Gray gave him a pointed look. "I asked for the marks on my ass, but I could’ve done without the punch. I paint with that arm, you know."

"Asked for them?" Carl's mouth thinned. "Oh yeah, I can see that."

Gray didn't answer him.

"He comes near you again, and I’ll rip his fucking arms off."

"How old are you? Twelve?" Gray shook his head. "We're playing, that's all. Totally consensual so back off."

“Playing? Do you know how many bruises you've got?"

Yes. Charles had counted them, pressing cool fingers against each one, counting slowly as Gray writhed under him, speared on Charles’s cock.

"They'll fade."

"Yeah. And what then?"

He'd beg Charles to put some more on him.

Time to be firm. Didn’t help that he was inwardly squirming with embarrassment. "This is none of your business."

"Yes, it—"

"No." Gray spoke over Carl's words, knowing what they'd be. Hell, he could predict Carl's response to any situation, he knew him so well. "This is my sex life, Carl. Mine."

"And his."

There was a pause before Gray nodded. "And his, yes."

"In fact," Carl went on, "it's all his, right? His fucked-up kinky shit and you're going along with it because you're fixated on him, like you were with that girl with the hair down to her ass who wouldn't even speak to you."

"No. It's not like that."

"Yeah? Then how come you've never done this before? With anyone? And don't tell me you have, because I'd have known."

"Because I didn't know I wanted it! Until I met him, I never— Fuck, Carl, this is so not what I want to be discussing with you, okay? Back off."

"Maybe I should be discussing it, then." Carl’s mouth twisted as if the spiteful words he spat out next tasted bad. "With the Dean. With the police."

Gray reacted without thought, lashing out and jarring his arm when he split his knuckles on Carl's teeth. "Fuck, that hurt."

"You bastard." Carl swiped blood and spit from his lips and lunged at him.

They struggled, swaying back and forth for a minute, no more, snarling insults at each other, dealing out blows and kicks. Gray didn't register any of them after his first punch, although Carl wasn’t holding back at all. Terror and rage insulated him from the pain and gave him strength.

It couldn't last. Carl was angry too.

Gray staggered backward and fell. Carl landed on him, his fist pulling up and back.

This one would hurt.

Gray turned his head aside, less to avoid the blow than because he couldn't bear to see the look on Carl's face, hurt and bewilderment washing over it.

Not the first time they'd fought. Not the first time they'd bloodied each other either. But the first time they'd meant it.

"You piece of shit." Carl struggled to his feet, lurching back a step. "You're not worth it. You want him? Have him. And when he leaves you crying, go to someone else for sympathy, because you know what? I'm done being there for you."

"Why?" Gray swallowed sour-tasting spit, his gut protesting the damage it’d gotten. "Why now? Because I get my kicks a way you don't? There has to be more to it than that."

"No, there doesn't."

Gray hauled himself up, waiting automatically for Carl's hand to bring him to his feet and not getting it. A day of firsts. "Uh-huh. Does."

"Fuck you."

"You want to?" Gray smiled at him, a challenging smile, all taunt. "Is that it? Jealous because he gets to do what he wants with me? Because I've found someone and you're still fucking sluts who'll screw anyone who buys them a drink?"

Carl shook his head, face pale, blotched with rising bruises. "Man, you really are an asshole." His voice was quiet, contemplative, though he was shaking as if the temperature had dropped to freezing. "I see you hurt, and I care, and you turn it into me being a loser. Way to go, Gray. Way to fucking go."

Guilt sprang full-blown from the fertile soil of his words. "I'm sorry. Okay? I'm sorry. You can't threaten him and expect me not to freak. I'd do the same if it was you."

"No, you wouldn't."

"Yes, I would," Gray insisted. "Carl, I love you. I do. I love you. Don't do this to me."

Carl rolled his eyes. "Self-centered asshole."

"Yeah, so what's new?" Gray demanded. "That's me, always has been, and you've never cared before. Probably because you are too."

"Never came close to losing you before."

"You haven't." Gray stepped closer. "Look, punch me if it'll make you feel better, but stay, will you?"

Carl's eyes filled with tears Gray knew wouldn't fall. "You want more bruises, you go to your freak of a fucking boyfriend."

"He doesn't hit me," Gray said softly. "Not like that."

"I don't want to know."

"I don't want to tell you."

"Well, good." Carl looked around helplessly. "Gray—"

"Right here," Gray said, hugging him and feeling Carl's arms go around him. "Right here, you jerk."

***

Charles knocked on Gray's door, waited, then sighed, juggling two hot cardboard cups of coffee as he fished out the key Gray had given him. The apartment was silent and dark and he glanced around, a little surprised that Gray, who loved the sunlight, hadn't bothered to pull back the curtains before leaving.

Unless he was still in bed? It was eleven, but—

He set the coffee down and walked across the room to the bedroom door, blankly closed. It swung open and he saw Carl, naked, framed against the deeper dark of the bedroom, his eyes unfriendly.

There was a moment when he felt the hurt of betrayal stab at him, fierce and cold, but it passed. He knew Gray. He trusted Gray.

And he knew Carl better than the young man realized.

"Good morning," Charles said. "I'm sorry; if I'd known you'd be here, I'd have brought three coffees."

"I'm here a lot."

"I know."

"Don't know everything." A sneer worked its way across Carl's face, distorting his good looks and making him look older. "Or don't you mind sharing him?"

One step closer. Two. Charles let his gaze drift over the body Carl was showing him. Well-built, solid muscles, a totally uninterested dick. He noted the flinch Carl gave, the involuntary shift back, and smiled. Impossible to picture him with Gray.

"I do mind. Or rather, I would. As the situation doesn't arise—"

"I nailed him last night," Carl insisted. "And I didn't have to fucking hurt him to get hard, either."

Charles paused. Gray really did have a problem with discretion, but for all his concern, he experienced a pang of pity for Carl. "No, you didn't." He walked to Carl and glanced up at him. "I've never done anything to your friend that he hasn't asked for."

Or begged for, voice thick and hoarse with longing, eyes blazing bright.

"Until you came along he didn't want shit like that!"

"Hey." Gray's sleepy voice interrupted them. "Keep it down, will you?"

"Good morning, Gray." Charles kept his voice even, peering past Carl to see Gray in bed. "I've got coffee if you want it."

"Later. Got to sleep. Christ, what time did we get to bed anyway?" Gray's voice died away to a murmur and the bed creaked as he rolled over and tugged the covers over his head.

Charles chuckled softly and turned his attention back to Carl. "Maybe you do get a coffee after all. I'd prefer it if you got dressed first, though."

He got a baffled glare followed by a shrug. "Okay. I dress; we talk."

"If we must."

"Oh, we so fucking must," Carl snapped in an unsuccessful attempt at an English accent.

In jeans and a white T-shirt, Carl looked bulkier and more threatening, but he accepted Gray's unwanted coffee with a grunt, stirring in another spoonful of sugar without tasting it first. Charles pulled back the curtains and they sat at the small table, sipping the coffee in silence for a while.

"You didn't believe it, did you? Not for a second." Carl eyed him resentfully. "What's the matter? Think I'm not good enough for him?"

"As a friend? You're a good one, as far as I can see. As a lover? Do I really have to answer that?"

"We do sleep together."

"I sleep with my cat on occasion. It doesn't mean we're fucking."

Carl choked on a mouthful of coffee and gave him a reproachful look. "Dude."

“Sorry.”

“You can’t blame me for caring. When I saw his ass bruised to hell and back, I wanted to throw up."

“Oh.” Charles mentally apologized to Gray. Not indiscreet, but careless. “I can see how that must have worried you.”

“Totally.”

God, he was so young. They both were. “You don’t have much experience with, ah, alternative lifestyles?”

“I don’t get my kicks the way you do, if that’s what you mean!”

“The way we do,” Charles corrected him.

"He didn't want that before you came along."

"How do you know?" Charles held Carl's gaze until he got what he wanted—surrender.

"It's fucking sick."

"You're entitled to your opinion."

"I could tell—" Carl subsided before his threat was voiced. "No. I wouldn't. This changes shit, you know?"

"No." Charles wasn't backing down on this point. Carl had to see…"His sex life—and certainly mine—is none of your business. I can't imagine why you think it is."

"We're close."

"Perhaps you're too close," Charles suggested mildly.

"Fuck off."

It was said without heat and Charles smiled. "No."

"You will in the end." Carl jerked his head in the direction of the bedroom. "He's hard to live with. He gets in these moods when the painting's not going well." He rolled his eyes. "Shit, even I'd agree he needs his fucking ass kicked when he gets like that. You haven't seen him."

"I can handle him." Looking forward to it, in fact.

"You'll be the first, then. Everyone else bails on him."

"Apart from you."

"Yeah." Carl smiled at him, an easy, confident smile. "I stick around."

"Why?"

"Because it's what I do, dude." Carl waved his hand impatiently. "What's your fucking problem with that?"

"I don't have a problem with you being his friend. I have issues with you wanting to be his keeper."

Carl looked as if he was about to refute that, a scowl wiping away his smile, but then he sighed. "That's how it looks to you?"

"Yes." Charles wasn't in the mood to be anything but frank. Carl was a problem, one he wanted to eliminate. He didn't like the way Carl had homed in on disclosure as a potential threat. It couldn’t get him into any legal trouble, but it wouldn't be pleasant to have his history raked up and his relationship with Gray smeared by gossip and innuendo. Carl would be sorry afterward no doubt, but the eggs would still be broken, the cat still out of the bag, the horse—Charles bit down on his lip before his brain threw out any more clichés.

"You're worried you'll lose his friendship because there's a part of his life that's off-limits."

"Something like that," Carl murmured, not meeting Charles’s eyes. "Because I sure as hell can't see us discussing anything he does with you in bed, you know?"

Charles didn't bother keeping the impatience out of his voice. "Why would you? With anyone he's fucking? You're not teenagers snickering over a bloody skin mag together! It's nothing to do with you."

Carl ran his finger up the side of his coffee, catching a drip and smearing it against the side of the cup, giving it all of his attention as Charles waited. "He's not fucking you, though, is he?" he said finally.

"Of course he is—" Charles ran his hands over his face, his eyes closed, needing a moment when he couldn't see Carl's stubborn, closed expression. "Now you've got me doing what I said you shouldn't."

"Huh." Carl looked smug. "I'm a persuasive guy."

"He fucks me." Carl blinked and Charles forced himself to continue. "Look, I mean it. I'm telling you the literal truth."

"Didn't think it worked that way."

"Oh, this is impossible," Charles muttered. "Carl? That way? There is no 'that way'. There's the two of us doing—"

"Don't wanna know."

"Fine." Frustrated, Charles took a gulp of cooling coffee. "Then don't make arrogant, ill-informed assumptions."

"Hey!"

"What?" Charles shot back.

"Look, you're the one into the freaky shit, not me."

Impossible not to laugh. "Carl, trust me, I'm—What we do is so—" He took a deep breath. "We're playing. It could be far more intense, but I left that world years ago and there’re reasons why I'm not inclined to return. If anything, Gray's more likely to be the one pushing my limits in time."

"Playing." The word hung between them. "He's got bruises."

"He's not collared. He's not marked. He's not under any control of mine when we're not… playing—which is why it is play," Charles argued.

Carl flushed. "He's not what? Oh, God. Oh, God, tell me you're making all that up."

"No." God, this was profoundly irritating. "This—it's something I like. It turns me on. When I was younger, it was something I was into, yes, but it's not my life. I know people—friends—for whom it is. 24/7. Every decision made for them, total control given and received. That's too much for me." He glanced over at the bedroom. "And it wouldn't suit Gray."

"No shit." Carl swallowed. "You know—"

Enough. "This conversation is over. I've told you more than I wanted to, more than you had a right to expect. Now, you can accept that Gray's still Gray and your best friend or you can continue to act out like a spoiled kid and risk losing him."

"You think he'd choose you over me if I pushed him on it?" Carl demanded, his chair scraping over the floor as he got to his feet.

"You know him better than I do; you tell me."

Carl shook his head. "Man, right now? I wouldn't like to say. Too close to call."

"I'm flattered," Charles said. "And impressed by your honesty."

Carl grinned. "You think it'd be you, don't you?"

Charles grinned back, all teeth. "Oh yes."

The punch to his shoulder was meant to be friendly, he was sure of it.

It still left a bruise.

Somehow, he thought that would please Carl quite a bit.

 

 

Chapter Ten

"Carl's shut up about us." Gray stretched out lazily, kicking at a pillow that had somehow migrated to the bottom of the bed. He eyed Charles, who was still fully dressed and sitting beside him, when he should've been naked, in Gray's opinion. Naked looked good on him. "What did you do to him yesterday?"

"Nothing."

Charles’s bed was his favorite place to fuck, Gray decided. Wide and firm. Oh who was he kidding? It was the way Charles could tie him to it that he loved. And if he was lucky—If he begged—

One of Charles’s eyebrows lifted when Gray gave an involuntary shiver. "Hmm?"

"Nothing."

"Didn't I say that?" Charles asked, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. Gray couldn't get that crease of skin captured on paper no matter how many times he tried. "If I elaborate and tell you I had a chat with Carl and convinced him I'm not the monster of depravity he seemed to think I was, will you tell me why you gave that delightful little shiver?"

Gray closed his eyes, feeling his face heat. "You know I hate talking about it. What's to say?"

"I need to know what you like doing." Charles made it sound reasonable, as if twenty minutes spent discussing why Gray preferred being fucked from behind to on his back was a conversation everyone had. And Gray wasn't sure Charles was done with that topic. He'd been thinking about it, off and on. If—when—Charles asked him again, he'd have a better answer than the flip ones that had gotten him punished by a gently closing door as Charles sent him on his way, frustrated, resentful and still half-hard.

"If I don't tell you, what will you do to me?" And he'd only just gotten here, only just stripped, so if Charles tried to kick him out he'd handcuff himself to the fucking bed and swallow the key.

"Nothing," Charles said, with a smile that got wider as Gray glared at him.

"You know, that hurts you too," he pointed out. "Or don't you want me?"

"I do, and it does, yes. But I'm considerably more patient than you and I'm used to waiting for what I want."

Charles leaned closer, giving him a kiss that left Gray's mouth hungry for more, chasing after another kiss he didn't get because Charles rose and moved to the leather armchair in the corner.

The one with the wide seat, big enough for two people to share if one was straddling the other's lap. The one with the back marked up by Gray's fingernails scrabbling frantically for a grip as Charles drove into him with a merciless precision of rhythm, unvaried and maddeningly slow.

That chair.

Seeing Charles sitting in it, one leg thrown over the other, the soft, loose sweater he wore hinting at the strength of the body under it, no more, was like staring at candy in a store when he was a kid who'd spent all his allowance.

"Can I—" Gray swallowed, thinking about how to say it, knowing Charles wouldn't give him hell for stammering over it, but wanting to get it right, wanting to be perfect for him, the way he had been in class, rehearsing questions and answers in his head, polishing them apple-bright. "Can I tell you over there? Sitting with you?"

Charles blinked, visibly disconcerted. Gray liked that. He liked Charles knowing what to do; it made him feel safe. Charles had never hurt him past what he'd intended to do or Gray had asked for. Never left accidental marks on him. All deliberate. All placed carefully, none lasting more than a few days, not really. Soft, surface stuff.

Yeah, he liked Charles being experienced, but he got a kick out of surprising the man from time to time.

"Of course." Charles crooked his finger. "Come here, Gray."

The jolt of arousal from that meant Gray couldn't go anywhere for a long three seconds and when he did, he had to pay Charles back.

Holding Charles’s gaze, he rolled and turned until he was kneeling on the bed facing Charles. He crawled to the foot of the bed, slid off it to the floor and kept on crawling, head up, watching Charles’s expression. Payback. Charles looked close to the way he did before he came, mouth tight, breathing audible, eyes narrowed, hot as hell, all focused and about to come undone.

"Brat," Charles murmured. Gray waited at Charles’s feet, on his hands and knees. The urge to play it for laughs, nudge Charles’s leg and meow, maybe, faded. He was shivering again, not visibly, not so much, but inside. "Stop it," Charles told him, stroking Gray's hair, playing with it, pushing it back. "It's all right."

"This is scaring me," Gray whispered. "Wanting to do this—"

"You don't have to."

"Yeah, but I want to."

He felt the fine tremors solidify into a single jerk, like the one he got sometimes as he was falling asleep, then his body relaxed, warmth flooding it.

"I'm kneeling."

"Yes. You look stunning on your knees."

He let his head drop away from Charles’s hand, breathing slow and deep, and waiting for Charles to slip a hand under his chin and bring his head up again. Charles didn't touch him. Gray focused on what he could see without moving: the thick, dark green carpet, the wooden leg of the chair, and Charles’s foot, in a black sock, inside out for some reason, the inner seam showing. That prosaic detail made it all seem real, but the steady throb of blood in his stiffening cock belonged to his fantasies.

"I'm on my knees to you." Drowning here. He heard the panic in his voice, but he'd done this to himself, hadn't he? His bright idea to crawl, and now his legs didn't work and he was dizzy and so fucking turned on, and why wasn't Charles doing something?

"Does that make it easier?"

Easier? Gray fumbled his way back through the conversation. Easier to do what? Oh…talk. Tell Charles why he'd got that smile on his face, that flush of heat.

"Maybe. I don't know."

"Tell me."

It was like being touched when Charles used that tone of voice. Like a strong, firm hand closing around him.

"I wanted you to—to tie—I wanted you to tie me to the bed."

"I can do that. You only had to ask." Faint surprise.

"No. Didn't want to ask."

"Well, I'm not a mind-reader, Gray."

"I… I wanted to beg." God, that had killed him to say. Beg. Gray had never begged for anything in his life, ever. It'd been given to him or he'd taken it. He wasn't a jerk. He didn't take stuff for granted, but when had he ever not gotten what he wanted?

And now he wanted Charles. Wanted this.

"I can make you beg." Charles sounded cool and relaxed but Gray was still watching and Charles’s toes had curled hard. He wasn't alone here; it made a difference. Both locked in little pockets of arousal, not even touching, close to coming from this, no more than this.

The carpet, soft though it was, scuffed Gray's knees as he held position and his fingernails picked up fluff when he flexed his hands hard, needing to move something.

He bent his arms, his muscles shifting, taking his weight, and put his mouth on the hollow of Charles’s ankle, kissing it with a slow deliberation, aware of the thin, clustered bones under the layers of cotton and skin.

"Please."

It was an answer, not a request.

"Kneel up. Back on your heels. That's it. Turn a little. Yes."

The flurry of orders gave him something to do, grounding rather than confusing him. He moved the way he'd been told, settling into a pose that was as unfamiliar as his previous one. He sprawled, he stood, he sat, loose-limbed and casual; this precise, constrained arrangement of his body was new.

For the longest time, Charles stared at him, a slow assessment that left Gray's watched skin burning and tight the way Charles’s hand did. His cock was rigid, slicked with pre-cum at the top, tickling him as it dried. Charles wasn't looking at it much, though. He was watching Gray's fingers as they continued to twitch and shift, Gray's throat when Gray swallowed spit, Gray's chest as it rose and fell. Charles’s gaze was making him do those things, driving the tension in his body to unendurable heights.

Gray moaned, a thick, throat-caught whimper, rocking forward. "Charles—"

"No, I won't touch you yet." Still staring. Why wasn't he doing anything? "Put your hands behind your back, crossed at the wrists. Stay still."

"Dying here."

Charles chuckled, looking genuinely amused. "You're really not, you know."

Gray looked down at his erection, then back at Charles. "Uh."

"You're hard. I can see that. It's been a few minutes, no more. Really, Gray."

"It feels like longer."

"I'm sure." Sometimes, Charles sounded as dry as desert sand.

"Why are you doing this?"

"Seriously?" Gray nodded. "I get off on it. Simple as that." Charles arched an eyebrow. "What, you wanted deep and meaningful? Sorry. I love looking at you—you're an artist; I'd think you'd understand that—and I like—no, I love making you wait, making you sweat."

He shifted to the edge of his chair and leaned forward, his hands on his knees. Gray sensed the air between them stir as Charles pushed through it, getting close, close enough that if he'd wanted to he could've kissed Gray.

Didn't look like he wanted to.

Charles’s face was a blur in front of him, because Gray didn't want to blink and his eyes were tearing up. His body was sparking, nipples hard, cock aching—yeah, normal enough, but his thighs clenched as he tried to offer himself up for a touch without moving. That wasn't normal.

Charles tilted his head, bringing his mouth level with the side of Gray's neck. The whisper in Gray's ear raised goose bumps down his arm, and he ground his teeth before he whined like a puppy he used to have, abject, shameless, wanting a treat. It didn't matter what Charles was saying. Gray couldn't separate the whispered words into anything comprehensible through the seashell rush of blood in his ears, anyway. All that mattered was that Charles’s breath was stroking his skin with every other word, a barely there hint of a touch.

It stopped and Gray blinked, wetness spilling out of his eyes. Not true tears, not close, but they felt the same running down his face.

"I love you like this," Charles said again, each word clear and distinct, punching through the haze of arousal. "I'm as hard as you are, did you know that?"

Gray shook his head, doing it slowly so Charles had time to ease back, keep a distance between them, even if it was only a matter of inches. Wouldn’t cheat, or force Charles to touch him.

"I want you to do something about that," Charles said. "I want your mouth on me, Gray. Keep your hands where they are, and use your mouth to get me off. I'm going to come in your mouth and you're going to hold it for long enough that when you swallow you can still taste it minutes later. I want you tasting me when I make you come."

He whined then—couldn't help it. Soft, frantic little whines, building up and spilling out. He'd never wanted anything, anyone, as intensely as he wanted Charles. Years of easy, fast fucks, climaxes as pleasurable as a cold beer on a hot day, nothing more. This was a world beyond that.

When they'd finished, dressed, left the bedroom, he'd be himself again; giving Charles grief, arguing, teasing, snatching kisses, and angling for a drink of one of Charles’s good whiskies, that Charles said he had to work his way up to appreciating. It wasn't that they kept this separate, never to be spoken of, not really, but neither of them wanted it fulltime. At least, he didn't think they did. He wasn't sure he could.

But right now, in the shadowed quiet of Charles’s bedroom, with the afternoon theirs to fill, and the soft rain falling outside, he wanted this for as long as Charles would give it to him.

It was a game and he was getting good at playing it.

Charles stood, leaving emptiness around Gray, and stripped from the waist down. Gray wanted him bare; wanted to be able to nuzzle into Charles’s stomach, the hair there soft, dusted over hard muscles, but the sweater covered it.

He closed his eyes and welcomed the bump of Charles’s erection against his face, soft, stretched skin over hardness, and a rich, heady smell. His tongue flicked out, a quick, secret lick, dartingly fast, glancing off the side when Charles moved back and sat. His eyes opened in time to catch Charles’s smile.

"No hands?"

"That's right."

Gray nodded, swallowing, getting closer in a graceless scramble, his hands still locked behind his back, unbalancing him. Charles sat, knees spread wide enough for Gray to fit between them, relaxed, his hands resting on the arms of the chair. One finger on his right hand drummed lightly, slowly. Gray didn't think Charles knew he was doing it, but he took the hint and didn't rush to get Charles’s cock wet and messy in the next thirty seconds.

Instead, he used the tip of his tongue to deliver teasing, stinging flicks against the head. And Charles hadn't said he couldn't talk so why not use words too?

"If I was painting your cock, you know what I'd do?"

"Literally? Or sketching it?"

He loved that Charles would always talk to him. Loved it.

"For real. Paint on skin."

"Show me." Charles sounded interested.

"Well, it's big—" Charles snorted softly and Gray grinned. "So I'd hit it with a wide, thick brush to start with, fill in the background, you know." He licked a wet stripe from the base of Charles’s cock up, then another and another, covering all he could see. Charles’s cock was flat against his stomach, which was a problem.

"You can't reach it all," Charles pointed out, as if he hadn’t figured it out. "Your technique is flawed."

"You could help."

"Or not."

Gray huffed and burrowed his face into the folds of Charles’s sweater. "You could move this out of my way," he said, his voice muffled.

"I could," Charles allowed, tugging the sweater up.

Bare skin. Way better. Gray allowed himself one nuzzle into Charles’s stomach, rubbing his cheek against the silky tickle of hair, then worked his tongue between cock and skin and managed to wet both quite thoroughly.

"That's not erotic." Charles sounded on the verge of laughing. "Damp, but not sexy."

"Oh, the hell with it." Gray opened his mouth, deciding to give up the fancy tricks, and got the first few inches of Charles’s cock trapped between his lips. Charles wound his fingers tightly through Gray’s hair, which kind of hurt, pulling Gray off him and holding him still.

"No. Keep on painting me. You give up too easily."

"Should warn you, I'm a perfectionist."

Charles smiled, slackening his grip. "I told you I was patient. And there's no rush, is there?"

"No." Something clicked in Gray's head and he straightened. "Oh fuck, yes, there is!"

"What?" Charles was frowning, and Gray couldn't blame him. Way to ruin the mood.

"Beatrice. Birthday. Invited me to tea."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

"What time?"

"Four." Gray turned his head, trying to read Charles’s watch. "How long do we have?"

"Twenty minutes, ten of which we'll need to wash and dress."

"More than enough."

"For you, certainly, and I don't need to hurry, of course—" Charles pointed out.

"Yeah, you do."

"I'm sorry?"

Gray grimaced. "You're kind of invited too. Did I forget to mention that part?"

"You know perfectly well you did, since you know I would have refused." Charles didn't look happy. He tapped the arm of the chair now, a measured, familiar beat to his irritated movement.

"I told you I'd told her about us."

"Yes."

"And that she was cool."

"So you say."

"And she likes you."

"Better before I entered into a relationship with you, I think."

"Only one way to find out." Gray smiled up at Charles. "Ten minutes? Long enough to—"

"Over my knee."

"Huh?"

Charles was looking pissed. "Now, Gray."

"Look, I'm sorry."

"I have no gift, I'm unprepared—"

"I said I was—"

Charles wasn't moving. Gray sighed and did as he was told, wriggling into position. Not the first time, not by a long shot, but Charles had never been annoyed with him before, and it made a difference.

"You're not to come," Charles said inflexibly. "You're going to walk around to your grandmother's house, sit down on your well-spanked arse and be polite for as long as she wants you there. After—"

"We come back here and I say I'm sorry again and make it up to you?"

Charles’s fingers traced the cleft of his ass, making him ache deep-down, deep inside.

"Please? God, I haven't seen you in three days."

"Shut up."

It hurt. His ass, his feelings, his aching cock. And he was fighting it, not outwardly, because he knew if he did, Charles would stop and he didn't want that to happen, not really, but, yeah, it wasn't fun.

Then between one smack and the next, between one bitten-back ow and one that slipped by his clamped mouth, it felt better than good because he could tell Charles wasn't angry, and wouldn't do this if he was.

"You are a brat," Charles said, dividing the sentence into words with hard, crisp slaps. "You know that, right?"

The last one was low enough and stung enough that Gray's legs kicked out in an involuntary protest. Charles tipped him onto his back and Gray reached up, hauled Charles down so that he could kiss him, making it a fast kiss because they were on the fucking clock, but making sure Charles got the message.

"You're going to kiss that better later," he said, slithering down to the floor and landing on his knees with a bump. He leaned in and sucked at the head of Charles’s cock, rigid and wet. "Now tell me I can use my hands."

"You're sure you want to do this?"

"Like I'd let you visit my grandmother with this in your pants?"

"Brat," Charles said. "And no, you can't. Hands behind your back."

"It takes too long that way."

Charles stood, put his hands on Gray's face and hooked his thumb firmly into the corner of Gray's mouth, opening it wider. "Hands behind your back, Gray."

Gray looked up at Charles and opened his mouth, straightened his back, and put his hands where Charles wanted them.

"Hold still."

He felt the first careful thrust slide over his tongue, filling his mouth, and moaned as his balls tightened. God, he was going to come, he was.

"Don't come."

He made an inarticulate sound that wasn't meant to be a word and stayed still as Charles fucked his mouth until he was left with nothing to do but wait for a final command to swallow that came after Charles had pulled out, his hand caressing Gray's hair with a restlessness that was oddly comforting.

It wasn’t enough for Charles either. Gray liked that.

When he'd swallowed, brushed his teeth hard, and dressed, when they were walking down to his grandmother's house, he risked a sidelong glance at Charles. "I still get tied up later, right? Because I wanted that."

"You got it."

"What?"

Charles smiled, lifting a hand to wave at another neighbor out walking their dog. "Hands behind your back, Gray. Keep them there until Beatrice answers the door."

"What? God. I can't…"

"Yes, you can."

Walking like that and trying to look like it was normal was really difficult. The instant renewal of his erection didn't help.

"See?" Charles said, still smiling. "You're tied. You're bound."

"That's so fucking philosophical of you," Gray snarled.

They turned into Beatrice's yard and Charles fell back a step. Gray felt a gentle pat on his ass.

"Get us out of here in one piece and I'll make the cuffs less metaphorical and more metal."

"It's a deal."

Charles reached past him and rapped on the door, his other hand slipping between Gray's crossed wrists and parting them.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

"Drew?" Charles gave his friend a puzzled smile and stepped back, allowing him to come into the house. "I didn't know you were in town. Is there a book fair on or something?"

"A book fair?" Drew shuddered. "Picked-over remnants laid out on tables for every sticky-fingered illiterate to paw at?"

"If they were illiterate, they wouldn't be there," Charles pointed out, heading for the glasses and the whiskey. If Drew was dropping by unannounced—which had to be more than a whim as he lived a two-hour drive away—it called for a drink.

Rudegar took one look at Drew, licked a paw disdainfully and applied it to his ear, then walked out of the room.

"Thank God your cat can take a hint." Drew sat on the couch with a satisfied sigh, rubbing his neck. "The traffic gets worse every time I visit. I end up hunched over the wheel cursing, which does nothing for my karma or my neck muscles."

"Did you take your allergy pill? Because that's Rudegar's favorite spot. Or should I get you a box of tissues?"

Drew waved a dismissive hand. "Medicated up to the gills since it's pollen season. I'll be fine."

"Is it?"

"When Margaret fills the house with experiments for her flower-arranging class it is, yes."

"So you don't want a drink?"

"I didn't say that."

Charles held the tumbler out of reach. "If you're driving…"

"I'm not. I'm staying. Unless you had plans for the night?"

"Staying here?" Charles handed Drew the drink. "You never stay here. Not that you're not welcome, of course."

"Thanks." Drew toasted him and took a healthy gulp. "Sure I won't be in the way? For tonight only, don't worry."

"I wasn't, and, yes, it's fine." Thinking he knew what Drew was trying to be tactful about, Charles added, "I'm not seeing Gray tonight."

"Pity."

"What?"

"It was him I wanted to see."

"Why?"

Drew grinned at him. "The erudite, eloquent professor reduced to monosyllables?"

"Yes. Spit it out; what do you want to talk to him about?"

"So polite a request." Drew took another gulp. "Don't we do small talk?"

Charles sat in the chair across from Drew with his own drink and grimaced. "Sorry. How are you? And Margaret?"

"We're all well and happy and that's enough of the meaningless chitchat for now."

"You're in one of your mercurial moods, aren't you?" Charles murmured, resigning himself to the role of calming Drew down. He didn't get like this often, but when he did, he was unpredictable to say the least.

"I'm basking in the reflected glory, the same way you will be."

"Drew, I love you like a brother. At least, I never had one, but I'm sure I would have felt like throwing things at him too."

"I'm here asking a favor. Not for me, so don't say no automatically; this is for Margaret."

"Well, I'm certainly curious now, but if you don't get on with it…"

"She wants Gray to donate a painting to the charity auction she's organizing next month. You know, the annual fundraiser for children with learning disabilities."

"And?"

"There is no and."

"Fine, but why involve me?" Charles was genuinely baffled. He was sure Gray would be happy to contribute, but Margaret had good enough connections to get donations from established, well-known artists; Gray was off her radar. Way off it.

"I'm not involving you; I wanted to see what you thought about it before I approached him. You know Margaret; she gets so worked up over this event and if he turned me down, I'd suffer for weeks. You're my inside information. My secret weapon."

"Well, I think he'd be honored," Charles said, shrugging, not seeing a problem. "I'm sure he's got something finished that would be suitable. I’ll pay for it to be framed; you know I usually contribute something to the charity." He met Drew's eyes. "She liked the painting you bought that much?"

"It's good," Drew assured him. "I hung it in the house and it's created quite a buzz with some of our friends."

"Really," Charles said blankly. He'd gone back to the gallery and taken a look at it before it was shipped. He'd liked it a lot, but he wasn't sure how much of his reaction was based on his feelings for Gray and he didn't have the expertise necessary to judge it from a technical standpoint.

"You don't have a clue about it, do you?" Drew said kindly. "Never mind, my little Philistine; get Gray to take a break from cooing sweet nothings in your ear and give you a quick Art Appreciation 101 some time."

"He doesn't coo." Charles eyed Drew. "No nicknames for him now you want a favor? I see."

"I'll call him anything he wants if he gives me something good," Drew said cheerfully. "And no, I don't want an early daub, thank you; this auction gets a lot of publicity; he'll want to send something in that represents the best he can do."

"I hadn't thought about that," Charles admitted.

"Why does that not surprise me?" Drew shook his head. "This could do his career a lot of good, Charles."

"Or blast his self-confidence if no one bids for it."

"Won’t happen."

"It could."

"Well, aren't you in a positive mood." Drew presumed on years of friendship and stood, refilling his glass and topping up Charles’s. "What's wrong? Things not going well between you two?"

"They're going swimmingly."

"Did you smirk?" Drew demanded. "Spare me."

"I didn't!" Charles protested, wondering if he had. Thinking about Gray made him happy, certainly, so it was possible he'd smiled, but smirked? Really. As if he would.

"You're doing it again."

"Oh, shut up!" Charles retrieved his phone from the coffee table, hidden under a magazine. "I'll call him, get him to come over if he's free. He might be out with Carl."

"The blond bodyguard?"

Charles laughed. "Something like that, yes. I think I've won him over."

"Along with the boy's parents and grandmother?" Drew's mouth pursed up in an admiring smile. "You really are a charmer, aren't you?"

"Beatrice is fine with it but I think his parents are a little ambivalent," Charles admitted. "They're out of the country; I've only spoken to them on the phone. They live in a cottage in Provence most of the year; the apartment Gray lives in is theirs and he rents it from them."

"Inconvenient when they come back?"

"I think they stay at a hotel—Gray? Hi. It's Charles. Yes, I'm fine, how are you? Look, Drew's here and he's got something he wants to discuss with you—yes, it'd be easier if you came here, if you're not… Right. See you soon. What? No. Behave."

Charles ended the call with Gray still talking and turned to his friend. "Well? Am I smiling now?"

"No, but you were the whole time you were speaking to him. A fatuous, besotted one," Drew told him. "Positively sickening."

"Oh God."

Drew chuckled heartlessly. "Oh, Charles, Charles… What has he done to you?"

A good question without a good answer.

***

"So what do you think about all this?" Gray asked drowsily, curled up beside Charles on the sofa, one hand stroking Rudegar, who was across both their laps, pinning them in place, the other tucked in under Charles’s arm. Drew had left them, pleading exhaustion, at eleven, and gone to bed, and Gray, murmuring unconvincingly that he'd better go soon, had done nothing of the sort.

"I think my leg's gone to sleep and I feed this cat far too much."

"Seriously."

"It's a good cause and possibly some nice publicity. If you don't mind the investment of time, I can't see a problem." A thought occurred to him. "Alise. This isn't something you have to clear with her, is it?"

"What? Oh." Gray shook his head, rolling it in the hollow of Charles’s shoulder. "She got a cut on what I sold at the show but that's it. I don't have an agent."

"Maybe you should get one."

"Maybe." Gray didn't sound interested. "I've been thinking about what to paint for the auction."

"Already?"

"You and Mr. Taylor—"

"He hears you calling him that and he'll tear you limb from limb. It's Drew."

"Fine. Drew. You were talking. A lot. It gave me time to think."

"I'm sorry." Charles dropped a repentant kiss on Gray's ear. "We had some catching up to do. I didn't mean to exclude you."

"It's okay." Gray's hand moved with a slow certainty over Charles’s chest, the warmth of it sinking through his shirt and dissipating far too quickly. "Like I said, I know what I'm going to do. It's good."

"What is it?"

"You'll see." Gray smiled at him. "Think Drew's asleep?"

"Gray—" Charles protested. It wasn't that he didn't want to and Drew was certainly well aware of what he and Gray did but it seemed rude to fuck right under his room and make him listen to them.

And he wouldn't put it past Drew to hammer on his floor and their ceiling and tell them to get on with it for the love of God because he was trying to sleep.

"Wasn't expecting to see you tonight," Gray whispered, licking around the edge of Charles’s ear, his tongue wet and warm and sinful. "Blew Carl off when we were supposed to go to the movies followed by a bar, so he's pissed at me. And I'm happy about the auction and all that, but hey, it'd be nice if you made it up to me."

"Because you're so concerned about Carl's feelings?" Charles snorted. "Right."

Gray's answering smile was impish. "Letting him down like that crushed me. And it was a really good movie, or so Carl said. Explosions and car chases and beautiful, big-breasted chicks. I need comforting, big time."

Charles rolled his eyes, swatting Gray's hand away as Gray tried to undo his shirt buttons. "No. You need something I can't give to you because it would make too much noise."

Gray picked up an indignant Rudegar and dropped him unceremoniously to the floor, then sat across Charles’s lap, gently kneading Charles’s shoulders. He wriggled his backside meaningfully. "Hold that thought, because, yeah, I could go for that."

"Oh, trust me, I'm scheduling you in at the earliest opportunity." Charles pulled Gray in for a kiss, loving the way Gray's mouth felt against his, the heat building between one touch and the next, deep, appreciative murmurs punctuating the slip and slide of their tongues.

"I can be quiet," Gray whispered. "Want your mouth on me, Charles. Want you sucking me."

"God…" Charles swallowed, already anticipating it. Making Gray lose control was the simplest thing in the world when you had his cock in your mouth. Charles was sure he wasn't the first to find that out, but he didn't really care. He wanted the ache in the back of his throat from dealing with Gray fucking his mouth in fierce, sharp jabs, going so deep, too deep, so that Charles would have to pin him down, his fingers digging into Gray's hips, leaving marks he'd spend long minutes looking at afterward as they lay entwined, sweaty and sated.

Reality kicked in. "You'll be howling after thirty seconds."

Gray looked indignant. "Hello? I can keep quiet if I have to.” He wrinkled his nose. “Though I've never had to before."

"Well, you have to now, and I don't trust you." He should kiss Gray good night and kick him out. Jerk off and go to sleep.

He didn't want to.

"I don't trust me, either," Gray admitted. He bit Charles’s neck, the small, sweet pain triggering a shiver that left Charles resigned to the inevitable.

Damn Gray for being so persistent.

"Gag me," Gray suggested with a flirtatious glance.

Charles shrugged. "Okay."

"Just like that?"

"You've convinced me." Charles tipped Gray off his knee and onto the sofa. He took Gray's hand and bit the tip of the middle finger, holding it between his teeth as he lapped at it. Gray's moan was loud enough to have them freezing in place, their gazes lifting to the ceiling.

"Oh yes," Charles said grimly. "I'm convinced you can be quiet."

Gray sat up, shoving some cushions behind him and getting comfortable. "Fine with me, but don't use anything you mind getting chewed."

"Rudegar's blanket?"

The cat walked up and butted his head against Charles’s knee, mewing at him. Charles stood, scooped him up and went to the kitchen. "Hands to yourself," he threw back over his shoulder, seeing Gray unfasten the button on his jeans. "In fact, put them on your knees and keep them there."

He didn't wait for Gray's response. After placating Rudegar with some food, he took a clean tea towel out of a drawer; white cotton, strong enough for what he wanted, thin enough that when he'd finished folding it lengthwise it wasn't too bulky.

After closing the door on his cat, he walked over to Gray, noting Gray’s back was straight now, hands in place.

"Will you miss the sounds I make?" Gray asked when Charles sat, the makeshift gag cool against his fingers.

Charles ran one finger over Gray's lips, tracing the full pout of the lower one. "Yes. It's why I haven't gagged you before. But you'll look—" He pictured what he was about to see and shivered again. "God, you'll look good."

"You'll have to take a picture." Gray licked his lips, breathing quickly. "Listen, before I can't say anything—"

"You want me to make it quick? Not tease you?"

"No. Well, yeah, and we shouldn’t do this, so doing it fast makes it better, right?"

"No. Equally reprehensible." Charles smothered a smile at Gray's logic. "Go on."

Gray's hands clenched where they lay, then relaxed again. "If I like this, will you do it again?"

"Yes, of course." Charles looked down at the tea towel and grimaced. "But I'll do it properly and buy a real gag."

"You don't have one from earlier? One you used on another, uh, sub?"

"I wouldn't use it on you if I did. Think about where it would have been."

"Oh. Eww. Good point."

"And, no, I don't. I didn't—there was no need. I don't own anything like that. Not now."

"You want to get some stuff ? Start a collection?"

"You're curious." It wasn't a guess; Gray's eyes were bright and he was flushed. Charles sighed. "You don't need all that. Those toys. Not really. They can be useful, amusing, yes, but you don't need—"

"I want to try."

"Well, of course you do." Charles let his head sink down onto Gray's shoulder. "Can we go back to when it was simple and we were only fucking?"

Gray lifted his shoulder carefully, dislodging Charles. "How long did that last? A few hours? You know it wouldn't be enough for you."

"And yet I was managing."

"Not really," Gray said confidently. "And it's not enough for me. Not now."

"God, what did I do?" Charles muttered, half-serious.

Gray smiled at him. "Shut up and gag me, Doctor Frankenstein."

Sometimes Gray was a little too perceptive.

***

The door closed behind Gray an hour later and Charles went back into the living room to tidy up. The towel, stained now with more than spit, he tossed into the trash, and the scattered cushions he replaced, neatly fluffed, on the sofa.

Leaving the glasses they'd used in the sink, he went up to bed, pausing on the landing when he saw that the light was on in Drew's room, but refusing to tap at the door. If Drew had felt uncomfortable—and they really hadn't made much noise—he'd have said something. More likely he'd fallen asleep reading.

Either way, Charles was tired, his body loose and relaxed, his head buzzing a little from the whiskey. The fall semester would begin in a week. He had booklists to prepare, student lists to go through, and the perennial battle for the best lecture rooms and times to wage, but for now, he was still, more or less, on vacation.

He intended to make the most of it.

And of Gray, while he still had him.

Once in bed, lying in the darkness and staring at nothing as the familiar shapes of the furniture emerged from the gloom, he wondered how long that would be. He knew his limits and his range. He'd never been more than an observer of the extremes of a lifestyle he'd once embraced and it'd been easy to walk away from the ritual and the costumes. They weren't really his style.

It was the connection, the power dynamic, and yes, to get down to basics, the spankings, the bondage, the sex that followed, deeply satisfying instead of an itch scratched, that he'd missed.

But Gray wanted more. He could see Gray—ardent, curious, courageous in a way Charles had never quite managed to be—running on ahead, while he followed, lagging reluctantly behind.

Retracing his steps to a place he didn't want to go, haunted by far too many ghosts.

This was enough for him. Gray was more than enough. It wasn't, he was sure of it, be enough for Gray.

And neither was he.

Toys. Oh, he knew what that meant. Gray would go online, if he hadn't already, browsing, wide-eyed and smiling, without a blush, credit card handy, and their bedrooms would be cluttered with cock rings and clamps, whips and cuffs. And he saw the appeal, of course, but—

"You wanted this," he muttered, punching his pillow softer because it felt as if it were filled with sand. "Didn't want what passes for normal. Saw what he'd give if you pushed him, and got the surprise of your fucking life when he jumped all by himself."

And if he lost Gray, not because he was too kinky, but because he wasn't kinky enough, wouldn't that be ironic?

He fell asleep to dream of Gray naked and bound at a club, appreciative eyes watching him writhe and beg and come. He thought Carl might have been the one whipping him; he knew he was the one screaming.

 

 

Chapter Twelve

He could still feel the gag pressing against his lips and teeth. Lifting his hand to his mouth, Gray fingered the slightly tender skin and smiled.

That hurt too. It wasn't Charles’s fault; he'd tied the gag with a deftness that reminded Gray this wasn't new to one of them, but Gray had tightened the knot when Charles had asked if it felt okay, tightened it until he could bite down on the folded cotton without worrying about the gag slipping. He didn't like half-measures and he'd wanted to know

He'd liked it. It'd been weird. He got off on talking during sex too much not to miss it, but in a way it was because he missed it that having it out of reach turned him on so much. Charles hadn't had the chance to do much to him. Gray had come fast and hard, his teeth digging into the gag, come after he'd moaned when Charles licked his way around the head of Gray's cock and heard nothing emerge but a stifled whimper.

He wanted that again, but with his hands bound too, maybe blindfolded, maybe with his ears plugged. He pictured Charles taking away every sense, one by one, until all that were left were smell and touch and, bound as he'd be, touch would be whatever Charles did to him: a sighed breath, a wet fingertip, a slap.

He couldn't imagine it with anyone but Charles. So much trust needed. Yeah. Do it with someone like Carl and he’d goof off to watch the game and leave him hanging. Or hurt him.

Gray shuddered. It'd be a pretty vulnerable place to be. He wasn't sure he wanted it, not really. Wasn't even sure Charles would agree to it.

But he was curious.

***

The next morning he painted after breakfast and didn't stop until he lost the light. He didn't do that often because he'd learned when his hand was shaking from fatigue and hunger he didn't produce anything worth looking at. Sometimes, though, he had to work through the physical barriers and this was one of those times.

The canvas disappeared under paint, what he wanted to say rising to the surface, shouldering its way out impatiently, as if it had been waiting for a long time. He felt the joy, the intense rightness of it, in a way he hadn't for a long time.

Some paintings were like that.

When he'd done all he could, he sighed and stepped away, working his cramped fingers absentmindedly as he stared at it. Getting there. He'd start early tomorrow and—

A knock at the door brought his head around and he panicked, grabbing for a dustsheet and tossing it over the still-wet canvas. Not recommended, really not, but the thin material wasn't touching anything and if it was Charles he really didn't want him seeing this.

Not Charles. Carl.

"Hey, man, what's up?" Carl bit down on the apple he was holding and grinned. "Safe to come in? Guess so, as you're not naked."

"Charles isn't here." Gray gave his friend an irritated look before he remembered that, to be fair, Carl was the one entitled to be pissed. "Why are you?"

"Time to kill; thought I'd drop by." Carl wandered over to the easel. "Can I see?"

"No." Gray rolled his eyes, putting himself between Carl and the painting. "Like you'd even want to."

"I asked, didn't I?" Carl said reasonably. "Showing an interest."

"In my painting?" Gray shook his head. "Whatever." He stretched as high as he could, his back pop and clicking like overactive cereal. "God, I need to spend an hour in the shower to get the stiffness out. I've been painting all day."

Carl threw himself down in the nearest chair, still biting chunks out his apple. "Yeah? Me, I've been making sweet, sweet love to Debbie."

"All day? Going for a record?" Gray frowned, trying to remember. "Didn't she ditch you?"

"With my charm? I don't think so. I don't get dumped."

"I could quote examples if your memory's that shot," Gray offered. "Because you sure as hell do."

"Save it."

"For who? No one appreciates my humor the way you do."

"Debbie doesn't, that's for sure."

Gray walked across the room, cuffing Carl's head lightly as he passed him. "You could do better than someone with no sense of humor."

"Because you're in love, we all have to be with our soul mates?"

"So funny. See me laughing." Gray hesitated in the bathroom doorway. "And yeah, I'd like you to find someone. Got a problem with that?"

Carl tossed the apple core at the trash can in the corner, overflowing with the soda cans Gray kept meaning to recycle and crumpled paper sketches he'd discarded. He gave a satisfied smile as it hit its target. "At my age? Yes. Go and get wet."

"Fine." Gray waved his hand. "Help yourself, like you needed permission. There's some beer in the fridge."

"Sometimes I wish I was gay." Carl got to his feet. "Debbie would never say that. It'd be kinda nice to date someone with the same priorities I had."

"Yeah, but the sex would suck," Gray said. "Sex. Beer. Choose."

"That's cruel," Carl said with feeling.

"That's life," Gray told him, heading for the hot water.

***

He jerked off in the shower. Couldn't help it. It wasn't the best idea he'd ever had; his fingers ached after being wrapped around a brush all day, but it was worth it.

Charles.

The painting.

All tangled and tied together in his head so when he closed his eyes against the insistent beat of the water, the wash of color, red and black behind his eyelids, became a backdrop for a fantasy without much effort.

He'd done this so many times in the weeks when Charles had been teaching him in class; focusing on images snatched and stolen in quick, careful glimpses. The reality was so much better. Oh, God, so much.

Naked, Charles was lean, strong, with long arms and legs. Perfect, no. Put him against Carl and the difference between trained, built-up muscles and the reasonably fit body of a man in his thirties would be apparent. Charles walked, sometimes went jogging, and ate vaguely healthy food, offset by a fondness for whiskey. He had a flat stomach and hollows at his hips that Gray's fingers and tongue found over and over, loving the smooth inward curve there.

He also had a soft padding of flesh that might, in time, become love handles, a scar from an appendectomy, and bony knees.

Gray didn't care. He cared that it didn't matter because it proved something to him, but that was all. Charles was so fucking sexy it hurt. His hands—oh, God, his hands. On him, touching him, hurting him so perfectly, so carefully—

Gray came with a voiceless cry he hoped the water washed away, his head full of sounds and sights, one hand busy, the other braced against the shower wall. He watched his hand work his cock, detached from that because his thoughts turned him on more than what his hand was doing.

That was familiar; what was in his mind, fantasies replaced by memories now, wasn't.

Dried and dressed, he went back out to Carl who was on his second beer, watching TV. Gray snagged the mostly full bottle from Carl's hand and took a drink, fending off an indignantly flailing hand without much difficulty as Carl kept his eyes fixed on the football game the whole time.

"Get your own."

Gray took a second, longer swig and gave the much-less-full bottle back to Carl. "Whatever you say, dude. Here."

Carl studied what he had left to drink. "Jerk."

"You know you love me," Gray mocked, relenting enough when he got to the fridge that he brought two bottles back with him, tucking one inside the crook of Carl's arm.

"Now, there's love," Carl said. "Deep, abiding love."

"God, you're easy," Gray said, flopping down on the couch with a contented sigh. "Want to stick around? Maybe order a pizza?"

"Sure." Carl dragged his eyes away from the game. "You're in a happy mood; what's up?"

"Got some good news when I went over to see Charles last night."

"When you blew me off and left me high and dry, you mean," Carl corrected him. "For that, you throw in garlic bread, okay?"

"Whatever you say." Gray kicked a cushion, feeling a grin spread across his face. "Going to ask what it is?"

"Is it safe for my innocent ears?"

Gray launched the cushion at Carl, missing because he hadn't really been trying. "You haven't been innocent since third grade and Stephanie Vaughn's show and tell behind the monkey bars. Yeah, it's safe. You remember that friend of Charles’s from the city? His wife's running this charity auction and wants one of my paintings to sell."

"That's good?" Carl looked doubtful. "Why is that good? You don't get paid for it, right?"

"Think big," Gray told him, feeling exasperated by Carl's lack of enthusiasm. "It means she really liked the picture Drew bought—"

"Drew? Getting chummy with him now, are you?"

"Shut up. And it means lots of publicity. My name and photo in the program, along with my contact details, that kind of thing."

"I guess." Carl still didn't sound thrilled, but he gave Gray a high five on his way to the bathroom. "Way to go, big shot. Knock 'em dead."

"Yeah." Gray toasted himself with his beer bottle and snuggled down into the couch, smiling happily. "Way to go, me."

Carl paused. "What are you going to send them?"

"Huh?" Gray tilted his head back to look at him. "Was that an actual attempt to show an interest? Twice in one hour?"

"Fine. Keep it a fucking secret."

Gray rolled over so he could see Carl's face the right way up. Carl looked closed-off, a little hurt. "Hey. Relax, okay? I've got something in my head, but I don’t want to wreck it by talking about it."

Carl was staring at the covered easel. "Right."

"It's not that one," Gray said mildly. "Because I know you looked."

Carl flushed. "You are so full of it, you know that?"

"You have paint on your hand." Gray grimaced. "Artist's eye. You know I notice the small stuff."

"Whatever, man. So not that one?"

"No. That's for Charles. Late—really late—birthday present. I wanted to give him something. It was a good way to burn off some energy before I start on the one for the auction. Sort of calm me down, you know? Because my head's fizzing. This one's going to be good."

Carl nodded slowly. "And what do you think he'll do with it?"

"What?" Gray sat up, his gaze going to the easel. He didn't need to uncover the easel to see the painting. He only had to close his eyes to do that. "Hang it on a wall? Kind of a wacky notion, I know."

"Where people can see it?"

"Maybe not," Gray allowed. Oh yeah, Carl had for sure seen it. He shrugged, losing interest. "Bedroom wall, then. I don't know. I give it to him and he can do what the hell he wants with it."

"Right," Carl said thoughtfully. He took his phone out of his pocket and tossed it to Gray. "Order. And don't forget the garlic bread."

 

 

Chapter Thirteen

"What do you think?" Gray tossed his overnight bag onto a chair—they weren't at the stage where Gray left much at Charles’s house, not even a toothbrush, and Charles rarely stopped at Gray's apartment—and gave Charles a hopeful, slightly wary look.

Charles stared at what Gray had taken out of the bag and placed on the bed.

"I think you've lost your mind."

"No. I want to try it."

The crop lay in a dark, forbidding line against the comforter, an emphatic statement of intent. Charles eyed it, knowing how it would feel in his hand, the sound it would make as it fell, as it met skin.

"Where did you get it from?" It wasn't new; he could tell that from looking at it. The leather grip was worn shiny. "Oh, God, tell me it isn't Beatrice's!" He could see her on a horse, somehow, and the thought of using her crop on her grandson's arse was—no.

"Relax, it was in that secondhand store in town, the one next to the farmer's market. I go there looking for junk to paint sometimes when I feel like getting back to basics. I got this, a riding hat, all the velvet peeled off; really interesting texture, and a pair of gloves, but they're too big for me."

"Thank God. I feel much better." Gray brightened and Charles added hastily, "I'm still not using it on you."

"Why?"

Reasonable question and Gray had asked it in a calm enough voice, but Charles wasn't fooled. He saw the resolve in Gray's eyes and he knew how persistent Gray could get when he wanted something.

"Because you're not ready for it."

"What, there's like, exams? I have to pass a test?" Gray smiled, a thin, tight smile. "Sure, teacher. Let me sharpen my pencil."

Charles took a step forward, then another, bringing him closer to Gray and the crop. "That will do."

"No. You don't get to tell me what to do when we're not playing."

"If we used that, we wouldn't be playing." Charles nodded at the crop without really looking at it. "That would hurt."

"Kind of the point, right?"

"There are degrees of pain."

"Sure there are. And I want to take it up a few notches."

"What's the bloody rush?" Charles demanded, losing his patience sooner than he'd expected. "Will you tell me that?"

Gray held out his hands, palms up, shrugging helplessly. "I want to try it, okay?"

"Not okay." Charles picked up the crop, feeling a visceral shiver as it weighed down his hand. "I could mark you with this and you'd carry those marks for days. Weeks. If I really wanted to, I could leave scars."

"Do you? Would you? Because I don't want that. Not scars." He sounded interested, not scared. No, thank you, no scars today, but I'll take six of the best, if you'd be so kind.

Right. So simple in Gray's world, wasn't it?

"No." Charles closed his eyes for a second to shut out the sight of Gray's face as he watched Charles’s hand tighten around the crop; aroused, a pulse beating strongly at his throat. "No. You know I wouldn't."

"Then I'm not seeing the problem." Frustration made Gray's voice compelling, persuasive. "I trust you. You don't have to really go for it. Hell, I'll probably be begging you to stop after a couple, anyway."

"That would be a first," Charles said dryly. "You asking me to stop."

"Please?" Gray got closer, his breath warm on Charles’s face. "You don't know how much I want this."

Charles held his ground. "No, I don't. So why don't you tell me?" He turned his back and walked over to the armchair by the wall. "Strip down, kneel, then we'll see if you can convince me.”

"Yeah? Great! That's—"

He cut off the excited babble. "Be quiet, Gray. You speak when I ask you a question. Beyond that, I want your silence."

He watched Gray absorb that, his demeanor changing in a subtle rush. Hard to describe, really; the arrogance, the argumentative confidence, all that strength, channeled into being an obedient submissive. It fascinated Charles. Gray approached this in such an individual way. He wasn't sure it would work in a more structured setting, or with anyone else, but it was—mostly—working for them, and he supposed that was all that mattered.

Gray exhaled as if the breath took away the last of his words, and took off his clothes, dropping them over the top of his overnight bag. Sometimes Charles made him arrange them in precise, neat folds, refusing to accept even the smallest deviation from the way he'd taught Gray to do it, until Gray's mouth was quivering with distress both at the delay and his failure to achieve what Charles wanted. Not today. Charles wanted to get this sorted out, as quickly as possible.

Gray was half-hard by the time he went to his knees, his hands behind him. It was one of Charles’s favorite positions for him; it kept Gray's shoulders well back and the muscles of his chest taut.

Charles drew the crop through his fingers. It needed oiling; the leather was dry and if it was neglected much longer, it would crack. He checked for any roughness or splits but found none that he could use as an excuse for deeming it unsuitable. Gray swallowed audibly and Charles smiled.

"You like seeing me play with it, don't you?"

"Yes." Depth of feeling without aggression. Lovely. And the jerk of Gray's cock made a nice punctuation to his answer.

"How did you feel when you saw it in the shop? Tell me in detail."

Gray's eyes became unfocused, dreamy, but his gaze stayed on Charles’s face. "I wasn't expecting it. There was this crystal vase and the sun hit it; too flashy, not what I wanted, and I turned away and kicked this box. I smelled oil and leather and I took a look. It was full of all sorts of junk: brushes, saddle soap… It looked like someone had cleared out everything they had. The crop was sticking out of the top and I—" His shoulders moved restlessly, his gaze dropping momentarily.

"Look at me," Charles said quietly. "Go on."

Gray's face flushed, the color rich and hot. "I got hard. I hadn't touched it, and I thought about you using it on me and I—it was like—God, Charles, I wanted it. More than anything." He smiled slightly, remembering. "I bought the whole box, to have something I could hold in front of me."

"When you got home, what did you do with it?" Charles already knew he would use the crop on Gray. Talking about it had brought Gray to the point where Charles really thought he could come at a touch. Sweat sheened skin, his nipples were dark and hard—and his cock was quivering with every breath, the head of it glistening wetly. He wouldn't stop asking Gray questions, though. For one thing, it was turning him on to listen, and it wouldn't do for Gray to get everything he asked for too easily.

"I didn't touch it for a while." Gray's voice was remote again, lost in his memories. "I emptied the box and threw most of it away. Kept the hat, because it might be something I'd want to paint, and the gloves. I put one on and took the crop out of the box. Put it on my bed. Then I…"

"Yes?" Charles prompted. His arousal was never something he kept secret from Gray; he reached down and stroked his hand over the fabric covering the demanding, insistent throb of his cock, only controlling the hum of approval rising in his throat.

"I jerked off." Gray’s gaze dropping to Charles’s idly moving hand. "Wearing the glove. Looking at the crop. Made it last as long as I could."

"How long was that?" Charles was willing to bet on scant minutes.

"About ten seconds."

Charles snorted with amusement, getting an answering grin from Gray. "I'm not surprised. It sounds like quite a build-up to those ten seconds."

"I haven't touched it with my bare hand before today," Gray told him.

"And I believe you were supposed to stay silent until asked a direct question?"

Gray blinked, looking hurt, but had enough sense not to offer an excuse. He gave Charles a swift, pleading glance, then bowed his head.

"I'll deal with that later," Charles told him. "Remind me, won't you?" Gray risked a nod and Charles pursed his lips in thought. "I've got something for you."

Gray looked startled but interested. Charles leaned forward, kissing him briefly, before standing and walking over to the built-in wardrobe on the opposite wall. After sliding the panel back, he took out a small box and returned to the chair.

"Cuffs," he said succinctly, emptying the contents into his lap. "Ankle and wrist." He arched his eyebrows. "You can talk now; I'd like to know what you think of them."

"Can I touch them?" Before Charles corrected his grammar, Gray amended his question. “May I?”

Charles shrugged and tossed one at him, Gray reacting quickly enough that he caught it before it landed in his lap. "Wow." Gray bit his lip, his fingers exploring the cuff. "It's soft inside."

"Fleece-lined, Velcro fasteners," Charles told him. "There's a far wider range than there used to be."

"You went looking after I asked you about it?"

"Mm. I was curious too, I suppose," Charles admitted. "And you needed some proper restraints; these are far better for the job than my ties." He lifted up a tangle of long strips. "The cuffs can be snapped together, or I can use these to attach them to the bed."

Gray moaned. "God yes."

"Oh you like that, don't you?" Charles held out his hand. "Give it to me and stand."

He stood and fastened the wrist cuffs on Gray, feeling the shiver racing over Gray as he adjusted them. After he added the ankle cuffs, he gave the eager bob of Gray's cock a smack. "You'll wait a long time to come," he warned Gray.

"You get off on that, don't you?"

"I most certainly do." Charles gave him a slow smile. "You're welcome to beg, but not to complain."

"And you get off on me begging."

"I'd say you were astonishingly insightful if it wasn't blindingly obvious that I do."

"I love that you don't mind admitting it."

Charles felt something close to panic. "I don't mind admitting it to you, but—"

"No, it's cool, I get it," Gray assured him. "Really. Don't worry about it. Between you and me. All of it. Well, not the part where we're together, right?"

Charles kissed him, feeling Gray's mouth press against his with a sweetness he didn't usually associate with the man. "Not that, no."

"Charles—" Even though the wrist cuffs weren't linked, Gray kept his hands beside him, but he swayed as close to Charles as he could. Charles fancied he felt the heat trembling off Gray's body. "This is me starting to beg. Do it. Please?"

And the panic was still with him.

Charles put Gray face down on the bed, spread out, hands and ankles tethered to the corners of the bed, working on autopilot, making sure Gray was comfortable, with no strain, no pain. Done right, Gray should be comfortable enough to sleep like this, in theory at least. Charles put a pillow under Gray's hips and took a moment to admire the view. Even more than the rounded firmness of his arse, Charles loved Gray's back. Without letting himself think about it, he picked up the crop and ran the tip of it down Gray's spine, pleased when Gray groaned, a note of yearning deepening the sound.

"No words," he warned Gray. "Unless you need your safe word, of course. But sounds like that… Make as many of those as you like."

Gray's fingers and toes curled hard, reflexively, when the crop trailed over his backside, but he kept quiet, a small defiance that had Charles feeling a spark of amusement and irritation. A conflict easily resolved, since it would be simple enough to bring Gray to the point where he couldn't help but make all kinds of soft, plaintive, ecstatic whimpers. Until they were involuntary, as far as Charles was concerned, they didn't count.

He could do a lot with the crop that didn't involve striking Gray, and for a while he did, using it as an extension of his hand and fingers and cock; lifting the heavy fall of Gray's hair away from his neck; using it to rub insinuatingly along the damp, heated flesh behind Gray's balls.

That got him noise and he relaxed, his arousal simmering, sinking into a place where he felt in control of the situation.

Then Gray moved, a sharp, petulant shrug that effectively doused the small, bright light of Charles’s contentment.

Folding his lips together and reminding himself Gray was still new to this, he carried on tracing random patterns on Gray's back, but Gray was tense and tight now, all the progress they'd made lost.

"What is it?" He tried to keep his voice low and even, but it was difficult not to snap.

"This is nice, but can we move it along a little?"

Charles gaped down at the bound figure, feeling a stunned outrage that was, he thought, not out of proportion at all. What the fuck did Gray think he was doing? "What?"

Gray twisted his head around and gave Charles an impatient look. "Hit me with it. I want to feel it."

Pushy, cheeky— Charles brought the crop up high and brought it whistling down, splitting the air in a high whine, taking an entirely reprehensible and vindictive satisfaction in Gray's startled cry and flinch. The crop bit down deeply into the yielding softness of the quilt, sending up a puff of dust, the motes drifting, caught in the lamplight.

"Fuck!"

"Don't you ever, ever, give me orders at a time like this," Charles said through his teeth.

"If you weren't shit-scared of doing what I want, I wouldn't have to," Gray snarled back. "Well? Are you going to—?"

The crop hit Gray for the first time as Charles tossed it onto his back. "No."

Gray buried his face in the pillow, his shoulders rising and falling as he took some unsteady breaths. "Okay. Fuck you. Roses. Fucking roses."

Charles nodded, even though Gray couldn't see him, and reached for the ankle cuff nearest to him. Gray kicked out, his heel striking Charles’s finger and bending it back, making him cry out in pain.

"Sorry."

It might have been sincere; Charles didn't care. He reached for the crop and picked it up, his fingers tightening around it.

Easiest thing in the world to bring it down across Gray's skin, leaving a burning, biting slash of pain. Gray might even thank him for it, not knowing it would be a sign that Charles had failed him about as completely as was possible.

Easy.

Not as easy as putting it tidily in Gray's overnight bag before releasing Gray from his cuffs. That took no effort at all.

And when Gray had gone, slamming out of the house, his shirt untucked, his eyes flat and angry, remembering that it'd been an easy choice to make was all that comforted Charles.

 

 

Chapter Fourteen

Gray had once gone hiking with Carl. Three miles away from their tents, on a swelteringly hot July day, Gray had drained the water bottle he'd been taking gulps from at increasingly frequent intervals, then discovered Carl, dumbass that he was, Carl who was supposed to be carrying the water, while Gray was packing the food, had left it behind. Something about taking it out to check if he had a spare T-shirt at the bottom of his pack and forgetting to put it back in.

Whatever.

They'd turned around, which had been sensible, and gotten lost, which wasn't. Five hours. Five hours to get back to camp and now, six years later, Gray had forgotten most of his emotions. The panic when a rustle in the bushes to their left turned out to be a snake, four foot long, sinuously, sleepily crossing their path, the sick wrench of disappointment when each clearing they stumbled into was the wrong one, and the pain, sharp, raw and constant, of a blistered heel.

They'd all been erased, smudged by each retelling of the story, played for laughs, Carl laughing loudest of all as Gray mimicked Carl's expression when a squirrel ran down the tree he was peeing on, startling him so much that he jumped back, still peeing, and fell over his own feet.

But even now he could remember how it'd felt to be thirsty and not have water. To picture those bottles of water, waiting, cool enough that when he drank them he'd feel it in the pit of his stomach, water to be gulped in a long, continuous swallow. Or, since Carl had probably left them out on the open, sun-warmed and tepid, but that had ceased to matter.

He'd craved, obsessed, thought about nothing else, in the last few hours of the hike.

And he felt like that right now, lying in bed, on the morning after he'd slammed out of Charles’s house, the need to kick stuff and swear loudly having given way overnight to an intense, knee-weakening need to see Charles and finish what they'd started.

He'd never, in his whole life, been as turned on as he had last night. Never. Charles had gotten him fucking cuffs, serious, heavy-duty cuffs, dammit, and what he'd been doing with that crop… Gray shuddered, squirming as his cock hardened for about the twentieth fucking time since he'd woken up. Hell, from what he'd been dreaming about, and the tangled mess of the sheets, it'd been hard when he was sleeping too.

And he'd fucked it up, being impatient, like always. Gray had never had a Christmas present off his parents that he hadn't tracked down, no matter where they'd hidden them, shaken, guessed at. He hadn't always been right, and once they'd figured out what he was doing they'd wrapped everything inside a box, which was cheating, but he'd had to know.

He'd been the one to leave, pissed off enough that he hadn't dared discuss it with Charles because he was scared of what he would've said—he'd had that much sense at least—but, really, Charles should've kicked him out on his ungrateful ass.

He moaned, turning his face into the pillow, and burrowing in until he couldn't hear anything but the sound of his breath and the beat of blood in his ears. White noise to drown out the voice chanting 'Stupid' in his head, because he really, really, fucking was.

The bed vibrated from a kick and he rolled over, face damp and flushed, ready to rip Carl a new one.

Charles. Fully dressed, down to a rain-spattered overcoat, his brown hair a shade darker because it was wet too.

Charles, giving him a quizzical, considering look that made Gray's body tingle, top to bottom, because Charles wouldn't be looking at him like that if he'd come over to tell Gray it was over. No, he'd be looking sad, if he was, had to be looking sad for that, and he wasn't, he was looking—

"I believe you left without something last night."

Mild, cool voice. The chanting began again, but it was more of a chorus of, 'Fuck, yes, he's still interested,' now.

"I did?"

"You spoke without permission, remember? And I said that I would deal with it later."

Gray swallowed dryly. "Yeah. I remember. Charles—"

"Be quiet." Charles waited until Gray had given him a jerky nod, then continued, his words slow and deliberate. "I dislike leaving something like this to the next day. It gets confusing. I'm afraid you'll have to be prepared for a certain amount of interest on your debt to have accrued."

That meant hard. That meant Charles wouldn’t stop until one slap before Gray was about to use his safe word. Charles always seemed to know. That meant Gray was going to come if he kept thinking about it.

Charles took hold of the quilt and pulled it off Gray in one tug, the cooler air making goose bumps rise on Gray's skin. He'd slept naked, usually did, and he was glad of it now. Meant Charles could see what state he was in, how his cock was rock-solid and ready.

"You weren't about to start without me, were you?"

Did that count as a question? Gray hesitated and got a small nod which let his words tumble out, fervent and rushed. "I didn't want to when I got back last night; too angry, and I haven't—I didn't want to until—God, Charles, I'm dying here. I'm sorry, I'm so—"

"That will do."

Even in the half-light of the bedroom, he saw some of the tension leave Charles, as if Charles wasn’t sure what kind of a reception he'd get. Which was stupid, because Charles had to know—oh. For the first time, Gray stopped feeling as if the need was mostly on his side, because Charles looked relieved, weight off his shoulders sort of deal.

On impulse, Gray rose to his knees, hands behind his back, letting his body speak for him.

Yours. Waiting. Anything. Yours.

It was how he felt right then, and between one breath and the next he shifted worlds, until he was kneeling in a state of pure readiness without impatience. Which was where Charles had been trying to get him last night, but Gray hadn’t been ready.

And remembering the sick, solid sound the crop had made hitting the bed, maybe he hadn't been as ready for that as he'd thought he was, either.

Charles kissed him with a bite at the end that left Gray's lip stinging and pulled Gray across his knee without bothering to take off his coat, the soaked material hell to lie on, wet and clammy and cold.

Didn't matter. Not when his—what was Charles calling it? Disobedient, cheeky, aggravating—ass was burning up, sizzling spanks raining down, crisp beats of a soundtrack to a lecture. Charles didn't usually talk much when he was spanking Gray, but he was talking today. Gray let the words soak in to be studied later. Charles was right, about all of it, and Gray owed him an apology, yes, he did, but right now, right now—oh God, it hurt. Beautiful, perfect pain.

And the only words he wanted to say when Charles had finished were 'Thank you'.

 

 

Chapter Fifteen

Charles bit his lip and tried hard not to let his voice reflect his annoyance. "You're sure you can't come over?"

"Can’t, sorry." Gray sounded distant, distracted. "I'm so close to nailing this. I break now and lose it and I don't know what I'd do, but it wouldn't be pretty."

"Fine." Charles cleared his throat. "I'll—"

"I'll call you, okay. Soon. Love you."

The silence in his ear was as hard to accept as a blow would have been. Giving way to temper, Charles slammed his phone on the table and turned away, his throat aching from the pressure of everything he hadn't said.

A week. A whole bloody week since he'd seen Gray, held Gray, fucked Gray. A week of broken dates, increasingly short conversations, and excuses. And in the days before that, he hadn't had all of Gray's attention. Not since Drew's visit, in fact.

Charles knew the painting was going well. Gray was secretive about the project, but he'd been practically bouncing off the walls, his emotions plain to see. It'd been like sharing a bed with fucking Tigger. He was glad. Really. Drew had called the night before and Charles had been able to reassure him sincerely that, yes, Gray would have no trouble finishing in time.

Charles had also told Gray he wanted to cover the frame and the shipping costs. Gray had been pleased, telling Charles that he had a place in town he always used and that they knew him and would be happy to send Charles the bill.

It had all been going so well.

The fall semester had begun: the usual teething troubles with the students who were homesick and the ones who were lonely—and the ones who were ecstatic to be away from home and not at all lonely—the usual adjustment to a familiar routine. Charles had been pleased to discover some evidence of original thought in a few of his students and resigned to the probable diminution of that as the year went on and deadlines buried them in panic.

It'd been like every other September with the single, shining exception that now he had Gray in his life and it colored every mundane task, enlivened every dull meeting, because whenever he wanted to, he could conjure up a memory and have his breath quicken and his body react.

Beat the hell out of coffee as a wake-up call.

Now he wondered if the doubts he'd had at the start of this weren't justified. Gray had gotten what he wanted, as ever, from what Charles had picked up in the few conversations he'd had with Carl, and curiosity satisfied, was moving on.

Well, of course he was. Stupid of Charles to expect anything else, really.

He gave the stack of essays to be read a glance of pure loathing and left the house.

The sidewalks were drifted over with leaves, some crisp and fresh, vibrant shades of flame, some brown, wet from the rain earlier in the week, pulped by passing feet. Charles kicked them moodily as he walked, the soft susurration accompanying each step doing nothing to lighten his mood.

Autumn. He'd never got used to calling it 'fall', nor the emphasis on Halloween. He handed out candy dutifully to the costumed children who knocked at his door, and for Rudegar's sake, if nothing else, he was glad there was no Bonfire Night to deal with on November the fifth, with the incessant roar and bang of thousands of fireworks, bursting into fleeting splendor against a smoke-hazed night sky.

Didn't mean he didn't miss the traditions of home, though.

He longed to go back. Stupid, there was nothing waiting for him there. Indifference at best from his parents, who'd never quite forgiven him and never would, and as for friends, well, he had none. Not there. None that counted, none that had stood by him.

"Oh, for God's sake," he said aloud, coming to an abrupt halt and looking around him.

He'd reached the edge of the park which cut a swathe through the town, a river running through it; a lake over to the west which froze hard enough to be skated on in winter, although Charles never had. The sun was setting, lost behind a bank of clouds, faint gleams of light filtering through the grey masses.

Gray's apartment was a twenty-minute walk if he turned left. He wasn't sure it was a good idea to drop by when he was feeling this depressed, and, if he were honest, pitiful, but he needed—oh, God, to see Gray.

And if what he was looking for wasn't there, he'd walk away.

The rising wind stirred a heap of leaves, sending the top layer scattering, caught up and cast high. Charles reached up and snatched one from the air, a thin, glowing oval, crimson and supple still. Perfect. He stroked a fingertip across it, breathing in the damp, earthy smell around him, fresh and cool, then let the wind take it from his fingers again, losing sight of it within moments.

He turned to his left, walking quickly now.

When he got to Gray's apartment, there was no answer when he knocked at the door, and no light shining under it. Frowning, he fumbled in his pocket for the key Gray had given him. Had Gray changed his mind? Gone over to see Charles and found a similarly empty house waiting for him?

He opened the door and went inside, flicking on a light. He could tell the place was empty; even when he'd walked in and Gray had been sleeping, he'd always been able to tell Gray was there. It was verging on the fanciful, but he sometimes felt that Gray was like a flung stone; he left ripples. Put him in a room and he became the focus of it, drawing attention. Charles didn't envy Gray that; he'd learned to value the ability to fade into the background, un-remarked, unobserved.

Safe.

So. Not here. A spark of anger flared. Gray had been so definite that he had to carry on painting, even though it was dark now. Or didn't that matter? Was natural light only an issue if you were painting from a subject? Thinking about it, it couldn't have been that sunny for Michelangelo with his nose up against the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

Drew was right. He needed to do some studying. Painting was too important a part of Gray's life for him to continue in ignorance of the basics.

Of course, if they were about to break up, it wasn’t an issue.

Charles stood, irresolute, wondering whether to make himself a drink and wait, or call Gray. The easel caught his eye and he took one step toward it, then another, before pausing. Gray didn't want him to see the painting, which Charles understood, if he related it to his field. He wouldn't have wanted Gray to read a draft version of one of his books, incomplete, littered with typos to be dealt with later, but if Gray didn't know Charles had looked, well…

From where he stood, he couldn't see the painting; the easel was placed so that the light from the studio window would pour onto it. He remedied that with a few steps.

His gaze traveled over the canvas, sweeping it top to bottom, side to side, taking it in. Shock followed recognition, heart pounding in a too-fast beat, sweat prickling his hands and the back of his neck.

He sank into the nearest chair, head in his hands, fighting back panic.

No. Not possible. Gray couldn't—

"Oh man, is he going to be pissed you've seen that."

Charles jerked up his head, blinking at the figure in the doorway.

Carl. The last person he wanted to see.

"I'm sure he would be." Amazing how calm his voice was. He thought about standing, but he wasn't sure he could carry that off. "I wasn't planning on telling him."

"Where is he?" Carl pushed the door to and came into the room.

"I don't know," Charles said wearily. "He said he was busy when I spoke to him earlier, but I—"

"Got tired of waiting for him to stop sniffing the turps, huh?"

Carl sounded vaguely sympathetic. He knew what Gray was like when he was painting, Charles supposed. He doubted Carl dealt with Gray's withdrawal any better than he had. It felt like rejection, although he was sure Gray never meant it as such.

Or maybe even someone as oblivious as Carl could read the desolation on his face.

"I thought I'd see if he was—"

"What do you think of it?" Carl interrupted, jerking his head at the painting. He wandered over to it, passing by Charles close enough that Charles wrinkled his nose, less in distaste than an attempt to separate out the smells clinging to Carl's clothing. Beer, cigarettes, and the sweet, rich, instantly familiar scent of cannabis. A sniff at his past.

"I haven't seen it in a couple of days.” Carl studied the painting with a critical eye. "Huh. He filled in that corner."

"Don't."

Charles regretted the sharp, involuntary command as soon as he'd voiced it. Carl spun around, his face questioning. "Huh? What's your problem?"

"God, Carl! What do you think my problem is?"

He found himself on his feet, glaring into Carl's puzzled face.

"I don't know, man," Carl said, choosing his words as if he thought Charles was having trouble comprehending English. "That's why I asked. You don't like it? Or you don't like me looking at it, since it's kind of freaky what with you being butt-naked in it?"

"Shut up." Charles’s jaw tightened with the effort needed to keep himself from raising his voice.

Carl nodded and proved he wasn't entirely an idiot by remarking, "Both. I get it." He reached out and gave Charles’s arm a clumsy pat. "Hey, it's okay. And maybe it's as well you took a sneak peek at it and got it over with before he shows it to you. Because, this, you freaking? This would kind of hurt his feelings."

"God forbid Gray's sensibilities are bruised." It was supposed to be lightly sarcastic, but it came out sounding bitter, even to Charles’s ears.

"You don't like it?" Carl pursed his lips, considering it. "Sure, it lacks women, but it's still kind of hot."

Charles forced himself to look at the painting again, striving for some sort of objectivity. Hot? Well, yes, it was. Two men on a bed, naked, involved, absorbed in what they were doing to each other—or what they had done.

They weren't touching, he noted absently, and it didn't matter. They were connected in a way that was unmistakable.

He swallowed, trying to see past the blur of shock and anger. Gray, face down on a bed, his head turned so that his profile was a clear, sharp question mark, his gaze fixed on Charles, sitting beside him.

Who was looking, not at Gray, but at his hand, studying it with a slight frown. And in the shadowed black, sepia, white of the scene, their bodies pale in the diffused, indistinct light, one splash of color: the patch of red across Gray's skin where that hand had come to rest again and again.

There was a sense of expectation in the picture, as though this was an interlude, not an ending, as if there was something unresolved.

It was a painting Charles would have loved to look at under different circumstances.

Say, for instance, when he wasn't one of the subjects. When it didn't depict a private moment—one which had, to the best of his knowledge, never occurred, not precisely like that, but was close enough to the truth to be painful to see.

When it wouldn’t be held up, auctioned off. What the fuck was Gray thinking to paint this?

"I don't like it and that's putting it mildly."

"Huh."

"You can't be surprised."

Carl shrugged. "Yeah? Well, I am. Deal."

"It's me," Charles hissed. "Exposed, and no, don't even pretend to think I mean the obvious; you're brighter than that."

There was comprehension on Carl's face, mixed with uncertainty. "I can see that, but—"

"And it won't end with the auction. It'll get bought, stuck up on a wall—stared at. I don't—"

"What?"

Charles stared at the table beside the easel. Tubes of paint, folded and dented with the press of Gray's fingers, squeezed and molded by the strength in those fingers. A rag, paint-stained and reeking of turpentine, and a plate, scattered with crumbs, a knife laid across it.

Gray's lunch. Charles pictured him eating it, stabbing the precut pieces of food—cheese, bread, maybe an apple—with the knife to avoid getting paint over them from his fingers, chewing slowly as he stared at the painting, brush in hand. The knife was small and fairly sharp.

"No!" Carl grabbed his wrist, his grip painfully tight. "Can't let you do that, Charles," Carl whispered in his ear, not unkindly. "Doesn't belong to you. Not yet."

"It never will, you fool," Charles whispered back. "How the hell could I afford it? Don't you know what it'll go for?"

They must have looked like lovers from a distance, locked together, their breath mingling, but there was nothing close to intimacy involved. Charles fought Carl's strength out of sheer frustration for a few seconds longer, but when it felt as if his wrist was about to snap, he surrendered and the knife he'd snatched up clattered to the floor.

"Fuck." Charles cradled his wrist to his chest, feeling sick from the combination of anger and pain. It wasn't a good cocktail of emotions.

"Sorry." It didn't sound sincere. Carl stepped back—prudent, but unnecessary. Charles wasn't stupid enough to punch him, and now his destructive impulse had ebbed a little, he was grateful Carl had stopped him. "How much?"

"What?" Charles went to the fridge, needing to put some space between them. He took a bottle of beer and rolled the icy smoothness against the rising bruises on his skin.

"The painting. If it went—when it goes to that auction—how much?"

"God, I don't know." Charles tried to make his hand close tightly enough around the bottle so he could use his other hand to twist off the top. He couldn't. Mutely, he held the bottle out to Carl, who sighed, uncapped it, drank, then passed it over.

Charles wiped the top clean and followed Carl's sterling example. Whiskey would've been better, but this would do.

"You must have some idea," Carl insisted, following Charles to the couch.

"Ten, fifteen, perhaps." Carl still looked as if he was waiting for something so Charles spelled it out. "Thousand. The bidding would start at a thousand, then it depends on how drunk they are, or what tax write offs they need. There might be one or two in the audience with a glimmer of artistic appreciation who like the painting." He tried not to look at it. "Or not. It's hot, as you put it, but it's not exactly mainstream." He scowled, irritation rising. "I don't know what the hell he's playing at. This is his big chance. God, this could make him! He could be on the next plane out of here the morning after the auction if it sold well, or caught a reporter's eye."

He swallowed some beer and passed the bottle to Carl, perched on the arm of the couch. "You know, that thought's only just occurred to me. He could leave, couldn't he?" Charles chuckled, low and humorless. "I'll fucking kill Drew."

"Leave?" Carl's voice cracked on the word. "And you've got to be kidding me. He sells them for a few hundred more than the cost of framing them, that's all."

"It could go much higher." He saw Carl didn’t get it. "It's a charity auction, attended by rich people with money to waste. That the painting's up there makes it worth something; they'll assume it's valuable because it’s there. And they'll want it to cost them a lot because it's only then that it'll have any value in their eyes."

Carl got that. Dressed head to toe in designer labels, he'd have to.

"Gray wouldn't leave." Carl didn't sound sure and his hand was as unsteady as his voice when he tipped the bottle up again.

"He might."

"No." Carl's lips thinned. "He went to Europe that time and it was awful. I missed him."

"If he did go to New York, it's not that far—"

"No." Carl stood, slamming the bottle down on the coffee table hard enough that it teetered and fell, spilling out the dregs. He ignored it, and Charles’s automatic protest, and was at the door and through it before Charles could find the words to stop him. “Not gonna happen. I’ll fix it.”

Alone, the quietness was unbearable. Charles cleaned up the spilled beer, put the bottle in the trash, and left, never once letting his gaze fall on the painting.

***

Charles woke from a doze, the cat jumping off his knee with a yowl and a painful scrape of claws. He could smell whiskey, fumes rising from the glass he'd fallen asleep holding, and his head was spinning.

The door. Someone at the—

Gray came in, moving fast, his face contorted, his voice already raised, words tumbling out. "It was you, wasn't it? It had to be, couldn't have been anyone else. How the fuck could you do that, you bastard? How?"

Charles lifted a hand to ward him off, struggling to clear his head. "Gray—"

"Shut the fuck up!" Gray was screaming at him now, tears wet on his face. Had to be dreaming—

Charles scrubbed at his face and got to his feet, feeling the room waver around him. "Gray," he repeated, with as much authority as he could scrape together. "Calm down."

The fist connecting with his jaw hurt. He rocked back, riding the blow, his reactions sluggish. Christ, how much had he had to drink? Too much.

"Fine. Don't calm down. No—" This time he dodged the blow without difficulty: Gray was sobbing, swinging wildly, utterly distraught. "Stop it. Please. I don't know what you think I've done, I swear it. I need you to tell me."

Gray reached into his pocket and for a heart stopping moment, Charles thought he was reaching for a gun. Given the way Gray was behaving, it wasn't a ludicrous notion.

But what was thrust at him, pushed at him, was a ragged piece of canvas, paint-daubed and—oh God.

Oh God.

"No." Charles shook his head, rejecting all of it; the accusation, the evidence of the destruction he was holding. "Gray, no."

Gray's face hardened. "Carl told me what you tried to do. How he left you there."

"Carl?" Charles felt an irrational spurt of jealousy that when faced with something like this, Gray had turned first to Carl. "You spoke to him?"

"He got to my place not long after I did. Not long after I'd found—" Gray swallowed, his face twisting. "He told me."

"I didn't do it." Charles felt helpless in the face of Gray's distress, his words thick and clumsy in his mouth, confusion building. Carl? Carl had gone back?

Gray sneered at him. "No? Didn't you say you hated it?"

"I said I—yes, something like that, but I didn't mean I hated it."

"Didn't pick up a knife to slash it?"

Fuck. "Yes, I did that, I admit it, but I don't think I would've done it. And Carl stopped me!" Charles held up his bruised wrist. "See?"

"Looks like he had a hard time holding you back, considering you didn't really want to do it." Gray was spitting out hard, bitter words and Charles couldn't work out how to make him stop.

"I was angry."

"Why?" Gray shook his head. "What the fuck was there to be angry about?"

"Aside from it being something only we should own, you were going to—everyone would have known about us," Charles said harshly. "Surely you can see how that made me feel?"

The look of confusion on Gray's face was enough to rekindle the way he'd felt. “You’re ashamed of us?”

"Christ, Gray! Don't look at me like that! You know what I do for a living; you know what happened to me, how I felt when it all came out last time; if you'd had any common sense, you'd have known—"

"It wasn't for the auction." Gray stared at him, voice steady now, eyes dry. "It was for you, you asshole. Sort of a belated birthday present because I never gave you one. The one for the auction was over in the corner, drying. I'd finished it, been painting all day, and I had to get out. It's not of us, not of anyone. It's a—oh, the hell with it. It doesn't matter." He shrugged, his eyes cold. "Happy birthday, Charles." He flicked his fingers at the piece of canvas Charles was still holding. "Sorry it's not wrapped."

"I did not destroy the painting." Charles put the fragment of canvas down on a side table and faced Gray. "I give you my word."

"And I don't believe you." Gray's mouth set stubbornly. "Carl told me—"

"Carl? Christ, Gray, Carl did it," Charles interrupted, as sure of that as he was of anything in this world. Jealous, scared, desperate Carl… "It has to have been him."

"When? He said he left you there; is that right?"

"Well, yes."

"And he doesn't have a key. I took it back because I was sick of him walking in." Gray smiled sourly. "I gave that key to you." He arched his eyebrows. "You locked up when you left?"

"I think so," Charles said doubtfully. "I was—I'm sure I did." He couldn't bring himself to lie about it, about anything. And, yes, he had; he'd dropped the key and bent to pick it up—he remembered the flash of irritation he'd felt.

"I'm not seeing how Carl could have done it. Not seeing anyone but you who'd want to do it." Gray stepped back. "You're fucked up, you know that? Totally fucked up. Stay the hell away from me."

"Listen to me. Please." If he could make him see—

"Don't want to hear it." Gray walked over to the bottle of whiskey and poured a measure into Charles’s glass. "Go on, Charles; toast yourself on a job well done." His hand tightened on the bottle and he turned, sending it flying across the room to smash in a glitter of glass and a spray of liquid against the wall. The noise hit Charles like a blow, echoing in his head long after the slam of the front door as Gray left had faded.

Slammed doors were the soundtrack to their relationship.

 

 

Chapter Sixteen

"Yeah, it looks good." Gray knew he sounded flat but he couldn't help it. He forced a smile onto his face and tried again. "You've done a great job."

The framer, an elderly man whose hands were deft and sure when he worked, trembling slightly when he wasn't, returned Gray's smile doubtfully. "It's a nice piece of work. Pleasure to frame it. Going to New York? My, my."

Gray ran his finger around the smooth wood of the frame. "That's right. Do you still do the shipping service? I'd like it to get there as soon as possible."

Mr. Jackson nodded. "Give me the address and it'll be there first thing tomorrow morning. We'll see to the packing and everything else. That suit you?"

"That's fine." Gray took one last look at the painting, wishing on one level he could keep it. It was good. It was really good. He could be objective when he'd finished something, could see every flaw with a cool, merciless appraisal. Nothing wrong with this one, though. He'd taken his initial idea of painting a brush, magnified to the point of being unrecognizable, and turned it into so much more. Scattered, clinging to each strand of the fine hair of the brush, were tiny images from paintings he'd done with the brush, chosen to merge into it. Then he'd taken the brush and broken it down, splinters and strands and a gleam of gold from the maker's name on the wood, and placed it within the painting, making it real, dense, something that invited a touch.

The painting spoke to him and invited him in. Look here, no, here; see this, no, that… And when looked at it from a distance, it still fucking worked. He'd described it to Drew who’d told him the bidders would get a chance to see it close before the bidding began at a pre-show of the artwork section of the auction.

Speaking to Drew had been weird. He could tell Drew knew about what had happened with Charles from that first cautious 'Yes?' when Drew realized who was calling him. They hadn't discussed it. He wouldn’t bring it up, and Drew had enough smarts to get that it was off limits.

Fine.

He didn't want to know how Charles was taking it in the two weeks since he'd last seen him. Didn't give a fuck if the man was drinking himself to death, blowing off lectures, generally going to pieces. Didn't want to know if Charles was dealing with it like it didn't matter, maybe dating again. Didn't want to know anything, which was why he'd cut Carl and his grandmother off at the knees when they tried to bring the subject up, Carl awkwardly, Beatrice with an incisive, brutal curiosity only close family could've gotten away with.

Charles was history. A mistake. One of those experiences you learned from—yeah, learned to avoid. And now Charles had stopped calling him, finally getting the message that Gray didn't want to know.

And the one time Charles had come around, well, Carl had taken care of that, shoving Charles back out into the cold and slamming the door in his face when Charles had tried to push past him.

It'd taken Carl a while to get Gray to calm down after that. He'd been shaking, close to crying, wanting to break things, smash them up. Carl had held him, held him tight, until Gray had stopped fighting and rubbed a wet face against a broad shoulder, quieting down, his head aching viciously. Carl had made him go to bed and curled up with him, silent for once, wrapped around Gray like a blanket until they'd fallen asleep.

So, yeah, ignorance was bliss. His time with Charles was forgotten, metaphorically over there in a closed box, locked and gathering dust. A box with a couple of months' worth (eight weeks, three days since the exhibition, which was when he counted from. but he wasn't counting, not anymore) of memories.

He wouldn’t think about a single one. Couldn't jerk off without focusing on what Charles had done to him; the smart and tingle of his ass when it'd been spanked, the imagined hiss and burn of something more than a hand he'd hoped for when he'd managed to persuade Charles he was ready for it; the breathless, painful constriction of his chest when he was tied, held still, before that warm, soft peace rolled over him, head to toe.

Impossible to think of any of that and not think of Charles, so he wasn't. No jerking off, no sex, even if Carl had dropped hints about a friend of Debbie's, or hey, her cousin's got this older brother available, I could introduce you?

No. And no. No to all of it, the suggestions of going out, getting drunk, having fun, getting laid; a barely grudging yes when Carl pushed for the night in with pizza, beer, and a movie. Grudging, because Carl wouldn't fucking shut up about what Charles had done and hearing the man's name mentioned hurt him. Why couldn't Carl see that?

In the end, he'd told Carl to fuck off for a while, give him space, trusting friendship to make it something Carl could understand and forgive.

"Pack it up," he said, turning away from the newly framed painting. A thought occurred to him and he took his credit card out, wincing inwardly at the dent it was going to put in it. "And I'll pay now."

"Oh? I thought—"

"I'll pay in full, now," Gray repeated.

Mr. Jackson cleared his throat. "I've already been paid for the framing, sir. He, that is, the person told me it had been arranged that he would—"

Gray put his credit card down on the counter with an audible snap. "Then I'd like to pay what's left outstanding and I want a copy of the whole bill." He paused, then added under his breath. "I'm going to fucking kill him."

Mr. Jackson flinched, flushed, and clucked disapprovingly, but he did what Gray wanted. Gray glanced at the total and worked out how much he owed Charles. He'd be eating at Beatrice's as many times as she'd let him, once he'd repaid Charles, but he'd manage.

"It's a pity it wasn't quite ready when the gentleman paid for the framing," Mr. Jackson said diffidently. "He could have taken it with him."

"What?"

"Mr. Taylor? The husband of the lady running the benefit?"

"Drew? Drew paid for it?" Gray gaped at the framer, wondering why it made a difference. "Oh."

"Mm," Mr. Jackson said, looking a little smug, as if he'd scored a point. "A polite gentleman. Oh yes."

Gray took the deserved rebuke without comment. "Thanks," he said, waving the bill. "For everything."

"Mm." He got a slightly cool nod. "Welcome, young man."

Okay, so he’d have to earn his way back to 'sir'; he could live with that.

***

"Yes, I paid for it." Drew sounded bored and busy. "Margaret wouldn't have wanted you to be out of pocket over this. It's more than enough that you've donated your time and the materials. If you send me the shipping bill, I'll take care of that too. I wondered if you’d bring it here yourself."

"Drew, I can't let you do that."

"Is this going to be one of those tiresome arguments I always win?" Drew inquired. "Because I'm hellishly busy, you know. Margaret seems to have forgotten I have a business to run and decided to make me her gofer. I'm sandwiching in my real work in odd, precious, snatched moments. Like this one. Which was a hint. I've got a gem of a first edition here that I'm supposed to be authenticating, and—oh, never mind; you're not interested and although I'm still annoyed with you, I can't be bothered to bore you."

"Annoyed with me? Why?"

There was silence, then Drew chuckled dryly. "Oh, you little shit. Where do I start?"

Gray swallowed, anger boiling up. "What did you call me?"

"You couldn't have picked a better way to gut him and leave him to dry if you'd tried, you know that?"

"Look, he's the one—"

"Shut the fuck up, Lochinvar."

"Don't call me—"

He rolled his eyes as yet another sentence was interrupted, clamping his lips tightly and letting Drew get it all off his chest. Let him rant if it made him feel better. Gray wasn't listening.

"I appreciate that you haven't known him long, but you're insane if you think Charles is capable of anything that petty, that destructive, and more importantly, that plain stupid."

"It had to have been him."

Okay, staying quiet was harder than it looked.

"Which is exactly why it wasn't." Drew's voice was flat, uncompromising. "Even angry—and he admits he was furious, and yes, I know, not his most shining of moments; he was a fool—God, where was I? Even angry, he wouldn't have done that. And even drunk he wouldn't have denied it when it so clearly was him."

"That makes no fucking sense."

Drew sighed. "Look, Gray, from what he tells me, if that friend of yours hadn't stopped him, he might have done something. Maybe. We'll never know. Myself, I think the act of picking up the knife, scissors, whatever, would have been enough to jolt him out of it a moment or two later. He wouldn't have gone through with it. Not Charles. But if he had, he'd have admitted it; why bother denying it? And he'd have tried to convince you he was sorry, not innocent."

"It couldn't have been anyone else," Gray said stubbornly. "Carl left first and he doesn't have a key. Charles admits he locked the door so no one could have gotten in after he left. You do the math."

"Charles didn't do it. And before you say anything, ask yourself why he'd lie to me about it when I don't give a fuck about you or your painting."

"Thanks," Gray said, wincing. He still couldn't think about the loss of the painting without it hurting; it was partly symbolic, he supposed; he wasn't letting himself mourn Charles, but the painting made a good substitute. It'd been one of the best paintings he'd done and no one had ever gotten to see it, not properly. "Thanks a whole fucking lot."

Drew's voice softened. "Sorry. That wasn't fair. And from what Charles said about it, it was good, but it’s not as important to me as he is."

"He hated it," Gray protested.

"No. He hated the idea of it being on display and the idea of someone buying it when it was so private a moment. He told me that when he saw it—well. If you'd given it to him as planned, he'd have said thank you in a way you'd have liked one hell of a lot." Drew made an inquiring murmur into the silence that had fallen as Gray tried to process that. "Gray? Did Carl know it wasn't the painting for the auction, by the by?"

"Huh? Yes, he did."

"He didn't share that little piece of information with Charles, you know."

"What difference—oh." Fuck. Gray connected the dots. Carl had known why Charles was freaking and if he'd told him the truth, there wouldn't have been any reason for Charles to destroy what was a private gift. And Carl had left bruises on Charles, trying to get the knife off him, when one sentence would have had Charles dropping it—one sentence—

"Yes," Drew said meaningfully. "Oh, indeed. Are you quite sure young Carl doesn't possess another key?"

"I—I don't—I don't know."

"Send me the shipping bill," Drew said. "And you know, I'm expecting both you and Charles to be there on Saturday night as our guests, all smiles and reconciled, if you please, and, yes, it is black-tie, so rent a dinner jacket, will you?"

The call ended, leaving Gray to decide if he wanted to kill himself or Carl more.

***

He didn't call Charles, not yet, or Carl. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again and rush off, flinging accusations around. He’d be calm, reasonable and… No, he’d tear Carl's fucking balls off.

He paced around his studio, restless and muttering to himself, something he did when he was alone because he liked talking too much to stop. When he realized the one-sided conversation was a litany of cursing—inventive, but not all that useful—he stopped.

Think. What was it all the detective books said? Means and motive? Could Carl have a second key? He frowned, trying to remember if he'd ever lost one of the spares he kept, or if he'd given Carl more than one. No, but when he'd asked for Carl's key back, making the request pointed enough that even Carl couldn't blow it off, Carl had told him he didn't have it with him and had returned it the next day. Getting a key cut took about four minutes at the hardware store in town. Gray contemplated going in there and asking, but it wasn't likely they'd remember if Carl had gotten a key cut or be willing to tell him if they did. People had astonishingly good memories in books but in reality, Gray guessed he'd get a blankly suspicious stare.

And it wouldn't prove anything. Carl could always say it was a key to his parents' house or something.

Thinking about it, it made sense Carl would have kept one. Having access to Gray's apartment was too fucking handy for him, wasn't it? And he would've figured that if Gray found out he could sweet-talk him out of the ass-kicking he deserved.

And, yeah, he probably would have forgiven him. Gray had always cut Carl a lot of slack. Always.

So, Carl could have had a key, could have slipped back once he saw Charles leave. Question was: why? Why destroy something he had to know meant a lot to Gray? And it wasn't Carl's style to be that sneaky. Except… Gray grimaced. Okay, maybe it was. The guy had spent months bringing his girlfriends over to fuck them and made damn sure Gray never caught on. Carl's technique on the football field was one of brutal full-frontal force, but that didn't mean he couldn't be tactical off the field.

Still didn't explain why, though. Gray dragged up everything he could remember of Carl's rambling conversations after it'd happened. He'd been tuning him out, so it was tricky, but there was something… yeah.

"He said you'd be leaving. Going to live in New York. He was so full of shit, Gray. I told him that. Told him you wouldn't go away."

He tried that theory out in his head. Carl, freaking about Gray leaving, destroys the painting that—no, that didn't work. Carl knew it wasn't that painting that was going to supposedly make him famous. Gray sighed. As if. God, wasn't he supposed to be the artistic dreamer? Charles and Carl with their heads full of fantasies. He was good, yeah, but not that good. He wanted the painting to sell well to get money for the charity, but he wasn't under any illusions about being catapulted to overnight success. A few orders, maybe, and if there was any good publicity it'd be a little leverage to get Alise to include him in the Christmas show she had planned, sure, but that was as far as it went.

He gave up. He was sure now it had been Carl who'd slashed the painting to ribbons, hanging limply out of the frame, but why was something only Carl knew.

Time he shared. "Carl? Hey, how's it going? Get your sorry ass over here, will you? There's a beer waiting."

He sounded normal. He must have. Carl traded a few insults, then said he'd be there in thirty.

Gray spent most of them staring out of the window, trying to picture a life without Carl in it and wishing he could believe getting Charles back would be as easy as seducing him.

***

He let Carl get in and settled with a beer before he hit him with it, hoping Carl wouldn't have chance to get his guard up, keeping his voice casual.

"Oh, you know that painting of mine? It's looking like it wasn't Charles who did it after all. Wasn't you, was it?"

Carl stared at him, eyes wide. The lack of reaction and denial was damning. Carl would’ve have torn into Gray if he'd been innocent.

"Carl?" Gray asked tightly, feeling sick. "Need to know, buddy. Really do. Did you trash my painting or not?"

"I told you who did it." There was an undercurrent of pleading that closed Gray's throat with pity.

"No. You told me who you wanted me to think had done it." Gray took a sip of beer and wished he hadn't. He couldn't swallow it. He forced it down, choking over it, and glared at Carl. "You've got another fucking key, don't you?"

"Gray." Carl sounded lost, scared, the way he had when he thought he'd gotten Anna-Marie pregnant at sixteen, the way he had when he'd come this close to getting kicked out of school for smoking pot at recess, dammit, right behind the gym where anyone could see him. "Didn't mean to. Got to believe that."

Knowing for sure hurt worse than he'd expected, but he couldn't get angry, not the way he had when he'd thought it'd been Charles. Which said it all, really. He expected Carl to let him down, it was the way Carl was. Charles, though, Charles he'd trusted.

And now he could again. That was a good thought, something to hang onto.

"Tell me why. Why that one."

Carl's face twisted in bewilderment. "I don't know! The way he looked at it—kinda turned on, but like he hated it—I didn't want you to give it to him and see him act like that. I was thinking about how you'd feel."

"Bullshit." Gray shook his head, feeling tired. "He liked it. He only freaked because he thought it was for the auction. If you'd told him it wasn't, he'd have been fine. But you didn't. It was too good chance to get rid of him, right?" He took another drink, able to swallow it now, feeling calmer, colder. "You win. Any way it goes down, you win. You got to destroy a painting that shows a side of me you can't deal with, and you probably thought once Charles and I split up, his friend wouldn't want anything from me so I wouldn't be packing my bags and heading off to the city any time soon."

"Gray, I know it was for him, but you shouldn't have painted it," Carl said earnestly. "I was thinking of you, what people would think when they saw it—"

"Like I give a fuck," Gray snarled, sitting up straight and slamming his beer bottle down on the coffee table. "Like I ever have. Stop saying you were thinking about me. You weren't. Always about you, isn't it? You manipulative loser. I can't—God, I can't even look at you."

"No," Carl said softly, staring down at his hands. "You haven't looked at me for a long time, Gray. Or you'd have seen—"

"What?" Gray demanded. "If this is more of that crap about you being gay, you can save it, okay? You're not. I'd know. You're not even close."

"No." Carl smiled at him, the kind of smile which broke your fucking heart, if you'd let it. "I love you, but I don't want to fuck you. I'd let you do me, though, if it was what you wanted."

"That's sick, man," Gray protested. "Listen to yourself, will you?"

"No. It's true. Anything you want, Gray. It'd be like jerking off, we're that close."

"We're not that close," Gray said, feeling smothered, suffocated. "No one is. And this is fucking insane, Carl. You can't screw up my relationships and do this psycho-shit and expect me to be cool with it because we've known each other for years. It doesn't work like that."

Except, for Carl, it did. They'd been working their way toward this moment for years. Since the start in grade school, when Carl had put his body, bulky even then, between anyone and anything that threatened Gray—no, that threatened to take Gray away from him. The way when they'd been put in separate classes one year, after three weeks, Carl had transferred over, all smiles, after coming close to getting suspended for the way he'd been behaving. Gray had been happy but baffled. Carl had grinned, looking mysterious. It'd been years later that Gray learned Carl's parents had bribed the principal in a socially acceptable way, donating a new van from Carl's father's car dealership to take the football team to away games.

Carl and Gray hadn't been separated in class again.

And the way Carl had reacted when he'd heard Gray was going to Europe and didn't want company.

"You'd be bored, Carl. You'd hate the museums and the galleries. You'd want to spend the whole time getting drunk and laid and I'm not going there for that." He'd smiled. "Well, not just that."

"You don't want me to come? Man, I've got my passport, bag packed and waiting."

He'd thought Carl had been joking. Maybe not.

The arguments had gone on and on until Gray, evading rather than solving the problem, had changed his ticket, bringing his flight forward a month, and left without telling Carl.

He'd felt a sense of relief stepping off the plane in London, alone, relief that had never quite left him, though there'd been plenty of times that he'd missed Carl. He'd written to him, scrawled notes and postcards, emails whenever he could get to an internet café, not expecting a reply, and finally, after a month or so, Carl had emailed back.

Gray had wondered at the time what had prompted Carl to relent and worked out it was probably the letter in which Gray had told Carl about Luke. He'd thought at the time that Carl had wanted the chance to get on his case about the whole boyfriend thing but—

Oh, shit. He'd been jealous, hadn't he? Someone—another man—giving Gray something Carl couldn't. Girls didn't count, not for Carl. He loved fucking them, liked having them around, but they weren't friends to Carl, weren't in any way equals.

Or rivals.

"I'm something you decided you wanted, aren't I? Like the new bike you had to have, even when you hadn't outgrown your old one. And once you'd picked me, you weren't going to admit you'd made a mistake, even when I never showed any interest in what you thought was important."

Gray had been popular at school and college. He was funny, bright, good-looking; he'd gotten away in high school with not playing a sport by being the one who drew a weekly cartoon about the jocks, one that got posted on the notice board, unsigned, but it was an open secret he wrote it and Carl passed on the gossip that made it hit home. The jocks had loved it as much as the rest of the school. Gray was never malicious and he'd played fair with them. One game when they'd been cheated out of an important win by some lousy decisions by the umpire, and an opposing team who'd been brutally efficient, leaving one man with a broken collarbone, another concussed, he'd done a single, poster-size page, showing the locker room afterward, silent, dazed faces, mud-streaked, blood-streaked.

He could still remember the hands pressing down briefly on his shoulders as he'd walked down the corridor the next day, approving, grateful pats on the back from everyone who counted at the school.

He'd have felt guilty about buying popularity if he hadn't been sincere in his sympathy. He still had the poster somewhere, tattered around the edges, rolled into a loose cylinder and stored with the rest of his school stuff.

Yes, Carl had never taken much heat for befriending a geek.

"You're one fucked-up son of a bitch, you know that?"

He stopped, because Carl was crying, silent tears trickling down his face, and Carl never cried, not when his ankle was snapped, not when he lost the nail on his big toe, not when the dog he'd gotten for his seventh birthday had been run over.

And somehow that made it easy to go to him, easy to hug him and hold him and tell him it was going to be okay, even if it wasn't, and Gray didn't see how it could be.

Made it easy to lie.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Raking leaves was an exercise in futility, Charles decided, as a gust of wind snatched at the heap he'd created on the small lawn in front of his house and sent it flying. He supposed he could invest in a leaf blower, but no one else on the street had one and he could picture Rudegar's reaction if the cat was hidden in a bush nearby when Charles turned it on.

And Beatrice would probably stalk up the street, steel-grey hair all spikes, eyes flashing, and complain. She'd been furious with him when she'd learned he and Gray had split up, not because she accepted Gray's version of events, but because, as far as she was concerned, Charles had given up too easily and upset her grandson, both equally unforgivable.

Bad Charles. No shortbread.

He held open the tall yard waste bag, the stiff paper rustling as he tried to keep a grip on it with one hand and scoop the leaves into it with the other. It wasn't working well; the bag was getting filled so slowly it'd be spring before he'd finished at this rate.

"I could hold it for you."

The bag tore as he turned quickly to meet Gray's tentative smile, the small sound lost in the louder noise of a passing car with a souped-up engine, the windows open wide to let out a blare of music.

Charles used the moment before the noise level dropped to take control of his reaction to seeing Gray again so unexpectedly, clamping down on it before there was time for the rush of happiness to sour when he remembered they weren't together.

"Thanks, but it's starting to rain. I was about to give up for the day."

Gray shivered, rubbing his hands together absently, the long fingers pale with cold. "Rain? Feels more like it might snow."

"It's not forecast," Charles said automatically, too English not to respond to a conversation about the weather. He folded the top of the bag over and glanced at the house, wondering if Gray would take it as a hint or an invitation. Gray settled matters by picking up the rake and they walked around to the back of the house, Gray putting the rake in the small garden shed and clicking the padlock closed, while Charles put the bag of leaves beside the composter he'd bought in an ecologically sound frame of mind a few years earlier and never used much.

Gray came up to him and held out the shed key, silent now, his blue eyes navy against the pallor of his skin.

"You want to talk to me."

Gray nodded. "If you'll let me. I want to apologize."

"It was Carl?"

Gray gave him a look of pure misery and Charles sighed, feeling no surprise, because, really, who else could it have been? Rain pattered down, a soft, determined downpour that promised hours of wetness to come.

"Come inside. I'll listen, but I'm damned if I'll get soaked when I do it."

***

Charles stared at Gray's face, noting the lines of strain. He looked tired, desperately so, as if he hadn't slept properly for days and was managing to function at a basic level, ticking over, no more.

Not hard to recognize something he saw every time he looked in a mirror.

"What did you do with him?"

Gray shrugged. "Not much I could do. I'd like to say breaking down like that did him good—think it did—but it—it scared me. It wasn't like him, you know?"

"Carl's not allowed to have hidden depths?" Charles asked dryly. "I know superficially he seems to be the archetypal jock, but he really isn't. No jock would be seen dead with you, for a start."

"Thanks. I think." Gray gave him a tentative smile that Charles didn't return. Not yet. Too soon.

"And his fixation on you was blindingly obvious to everyone but you." Charles studied his feet, wondering how frank to be. Oh, the hell with it. He looked up and met Gray's eyes. "He needs to get away from you for a bit. Cope without you."

"He's going," Gray said. He laughed hollowly. "All that effort to keep me here, and he's been offered an assistant coaching job on the other side of the country. I didn't even know he'd applied. Not sure he would have taken it if I hadn't found out what he did."

Charles felt a surge of relief at the news that Carl was leaving. Pity, yes, he had a lot of that, but he wasn't a saint, and what Carl had done to Gray had been unforgivable. "And he's taking it?"

"Oh yeah." Gray was squeezing his hands together in his lap. "Leaves in a couple of weeks. He's got some family out there, an aunt, I think, and he's staying with her for a while until he gets a place of his own."

Wishing Carl was leaving even earlier wouldn't do much good. Charles settled for a nod, then lapsed into silence.

"So—" Gray broke off and gave him a mutely beseeching look.

"Yes," Charles said without hesitation, filling in the blanks easily enough. "I do. Forgive you, I mean. I can see why you thought what you did and I certainly made it easy for Carl to set me up. I hope you can forgive me for my initial reaction when I saw the painting."

"I do, sure I do—" Gray got up and came over to where Charles was sitting by the fire, crouching beside him. "Are we back together, then? Officially? Because if I don't kiss you soon I'm going to—"

"Gray," Charles said as gently as he could, putting out his hand to stop Gray from getting any closer. "That's not what I meant. We can't paper over what happened. The bottom line is that you didn't trust me. Not even when I gave you my word. The relationship we have—had—was based on trust; it was at the heart of it. Not the usual expectation that we'd be faithful—every relationship has that; I'm talking about what we do. I can't go back to that if I'm not sure—and I'm not. Not now. And I think we both know it wouldn't work between us without that element."

"I've always trusted you there," Gray said vehemently. "Always. I'd have let you do anything to me, and never felt scared you'd go too far."

"It goes two ways. And I'm not sure I trust myself. Not after what I did. It's why I can't be angry with you. I picked up that knife intending to damage the painting."

"You wouldn't have gone through with it."

"You think?" Charles eyed him. So sure.

Now.

"Yeah, I'm sure." Gray took a deep breath. "Charles, you can forget it. I'm not walking away from you. Not over something this fucking…" He hesitated, visibly searching for a word. "This abstract."

Charles felt his mouth twitch in a smile. "It's an odd choice of word, but I know what you mean."

"Yeah." Gray folded himself into a cross-legged position that made Charles’s knees ache to look at and nodded. "I knew you would. It's bullshit. I won’t let you talk yourself out of being with me when I know you still want me and it's mutual."

"I don't get a say in it?"

"No." His expression must have shown what he thought because Gray grinned, the lines around his eyes smoothing out. "Do you really want me to give up? Walk away?"

He couldn't help it: he cupped Gray's face, feeling the warmth of skin against his palm, craving it, as he had every day of the last few weeks. Gray sighed and nestled into his touch, his eyes closing briefly.

"Feels good," Gray said softly.

"It shouldn't be this easy." Charles brushed his thumb over Gray's lips, feeling them push against it in a kiss.

"Why?" Gray seemed honestly confused. "Right is us being together; wrong is the fucked-up hell of not being together. Putting something right should be easy."

"Eloquent as ever." Charles traced the contours of Gray's face with a fingertip, unable to stop touching him, but trying to keep the touch as limited as possible.

It wasn't working. No matter how small the point of contact, his body was reacting with as much fervor as if they'd been naked and tangled together.

The bump halfway down Gray's nose, the furry dense hair of his eyebrows, the dent in his chin…

"We really need to talk some more," Charles said reluctantly.

"Yeah." Gray breathed out the word, turning to capture Charles’s finger in his mouth. “Talk…" he said, the word muffled as he began to suck and lick at it.

Charles snatched his finger back. "Stop that!"

Gray gave him a faux-innocent look. "You were touching me."

"Fucking isn't going to make it easier to resolve this."

"What will?" Gray shrugged. "I'll do anything it takes. You want to punish me, go ahead."

"No." Charles got up, putting as much distance between them as he could. "That's the last thing—Christ, Gray, that proves it. Of all the stupid—"

"Hey!" Gray rocked back, then rose in one smooth movement, his eyes darkening. "What the hell did I say?"

"Punish you? What did you have in mind, hmm? Tied down, or maybe over my knee, and one hell of a hard spanking?"

"Wouldn't be complaining," Gray said.

"I would never—ever—" Charles ran out of words and ran his hands through his hair. "God."

Gray frowned at him. "Newsflash, you have. Often."

"Not when I was angry," Charles snarled. "If I ever thought you were stupid enough to let someone angry with you tie you up—"

"That's what safe words are for," Gray argued.

"They're not fucking magic spells. It is possible to be a total bastard and, oh, I don't know, not fucking care if someone's screaming out duck-billed fucking platypus, you know."

Gray looked at him as if he'd gone insane. He tried again. "I'm conditioned to stop instantly when a safe word's used. I can't imagine under normal circumstances ever doing that to you. I'd never start something when I was drunk or in any way not in full control. But angry… that's so fucking risky to judge and it's not what this is for, anyway. I don't spank you to punish you; I don't ever want to. I do it because it arouses me and you. And given that you love it, it'd be a pretty damn stupid punishment anyway."

He stared at Gray, hoping Gray understood, and was relieved when Gray nodded after a moment.

"Fine," Charles said, exhaling. "We're getting somewhere."

"Somewhere that we're back together?" Gray asked hopefully.

Giving into the inevitable had never been so tempting. "Do I have any choice?"

"I'd like to say 'no', but, yeah, you do." Gray was silent a moment before meeting Charles’s gaze. "It was too easy for us, wasn't it? Meeting, hooking up, everyone but Carl being supportive."

"Not every relationship has to be as fraught as Romeo and Juliet's."

"No, but it doesn't hurt to get a taste of what it's like without each other, and I hated it, Charles."

"Me too," Charles admitted without embarrassment. "You're addictive, you know that? I missed you."

Gray looked smug. "Better believe it."

"I'm still not spanking you until I'm sure I'm not angry with you."

"That's my punishment, is it?"

Charles grinned at the knowing look on Gray's face. "No. Maybe. Oh, come here, will you?"

Gray was wrapped around him an instant later, mouth hungry, hands moving over him in quick, hard sweeps. Charles had to brace himself, knocked off balance, but it gave him all the excuse he needed to grab Gray and hold on tight.

Kissing Gray felt as intense as fucking him, as impossible to stop as the final thrusts of a climax. He heard the sounds they made, impossibly distant and deep in his head at one and the same time, hoarse, harsh murmurs of need and mutual reassurance.

God, so good to do this again, to feel Gray's energy sweeping through him.

The wall hit his back and he realized Gray had walked him back, purposefully. He dragged his mouth clear of Gray's for long enough to gasp out something that sounded vaguely like a question and got another kiss in reply before Gray sank down on his knees.

"You don't have to worry." Gray panted, the heat of his mouth soaking through Charles’s pants. "Don't have to touch me if you're scared you're still mad at me."

Gray unzipped and tugged Charles’s pants out of the way to get access to his cock. Charles stared down at him, his gaze going between the blatant eroticism of his cock circled and enclosed by Gray's lips and Gray's disheveled hair, falling into his face. Slowly, deliberately, he ran his hand through the soft fall of dark hair, pushing it back so he could see the inward curve of Gray's cheek, hollowed as he sucked, rounded as he licked.

Then, as Gray began to speed up, one hand clamped on Charles’s hip, the other curved, palm up, caressing Charles’s balls, Charles took a handful of hair and tugged on it sharply.

It probably hurt, but it did the job. Gray stopped, pulling back, glancing up.

"Hands behind your back," Charles told him. "Stay still."

There was a flash of gratitude on Gray's face. Charles wondered if it would still be there later.

He ran his fingers over the slick, spit-wet length of his cock, working it casually, noting the way Gray's breath caught; the flick of his tongue over his damp lips. Then he brought Gray's face close enough to rub the head of his cock over Gray's mouth, parted and ready. Gray licked tentatively at it when he could and Charles’s hand tightened in Gray's hair.

"No. Still. Absolutely still."

Gray made a sound so utterly involuntary that Charles smiled. Oh, yes. Lovely little whimper. He wanted to come, ached for release, but this was too important to rush.

Because he wasn't angry.

If he'd been angry he'd have sent Gray away or fucked him, fast and easy and meaningless.

But he wasn't angry.

And Charles was going to give Gray exactly what he needed; something he could label punishment if he wanted, although it was nothing of the kind, and something Gray would get off on, something that pushed their limits.

In a slow, calculated tease, he rubbed off on Gray's face, sliding his cock across the smooth skin of Gray's cheek, down to the rougher scrape of the chin, shadowed with stubble. It hurt the sensitized, blood-flushed flesh but that really wasn't a problem—more of an incentive. And he could always push inside the waiting, soothing warmth of Gray's mouth, past the ripe swell of Gray's lips, bruised by the friction and the less than gentle bump of Charles’s cock as it traveled across them.

He marked Gray, with scent and cum, marked his hair and throat while Gray moaned, shivering, eyes closing, utterly compliant. The way Gray changed at moments like this left Charles stunned. The combative, restless energy was channeled into this waiting, content acceptance. Gray knew what he wanted with a certainty Charles envied and he embraced it once achieved. An hour from now, Gray would be animated, smiling, incorrigible; here, in this moment, he belonged to Charles.

Too much. Too long since he'd done this, too fraught a time in between. Charles’s climax surged through him and put his hand against the back of Gray's head, holding him exactly where he wanted, and coming, with his cock a bare, scant inch from Gray's mouth, cum spattering the gasping, open lips. He closed his eyes, but as soon as he could, he forced them open, his body suffused with pleasure, loose and relaxed. Gray's eyes were screwed shut in agonized determination not to lick his mouth clean and Charles grinned, feeling a primal triumph in Gray's obedience.

He took hold of Gray's shirt in two hands and hauled him to his feet, kissing the messy, deliciously debauched mouth, forcing the taste of his cum past Gray's lips, shuddering with an unexpected aftershock as Gray lost control and stabbed his tongue forward savagely, moaning and biting and licking.

Charles drew back a second later, meeting Gray's eyes in a charged, wordless communication, before drawing the back of his hand across his mouth, then the palm across Gray's.

Gray's eyes were glazed and he was sobbing for breath, his hands still behind him, his body straining toward Charles.

"Let me come, please, let me come—"

Charles eased his half-hard cock back into his pants and fastened them, leaving them both fully dressed. He had to think about what to do next; this wasn't exactly a planned scenario and he was still dealing with the way his evening had been turned on its head with Gray's appearance.

With an inward shrug he decided to do whatever the hell he wanted as it seemed to be working so far. Somehow, he thought Gray would approve of anything apart from a command to wait. Which would normally have made that the first words out of his mouth, but he wanted to talk to Gray and that wouldn’t happen with him in this state.

Changing over their positions, he put Gray up against the wall, facing it, his palms at shoulder height and his legs spread a little. Gray arched his back, his fingers flexing against the painted surface, his head thrown back as he murmured Charles’s name pleadingly.

Gray was wearing a loose blue shirt over black jeans; easy for Charles to slide one hand up under the shirt and find smooth skin, heated and damp. He worked his hand up to the back of Gray’s neck and let his other hand hover over the solid shape of Gray's cock, trapped behind denim, where it would stay.

Then he drew his thumbnail sharp and hard down Gray's spine, scoring the skin. "You can come any time," he said into Gray's ear, leaning in but not letting his body touch Gray's. "Now would be good." His hand clamped down over Gray's cock and squeezed it, giving Gray something to rub up against, his hips jerking.

His thumb reached the waistband of Gray's jeans as Gray came, and he cupped Gray's backside, feeling the muscles tighten abruptly as Gray cried out, riding his climax.

He kept his hand pressed against the leap and twitch of Gray's cock until the wetness seeped through enough for him to feel it, then leaned in, kissing the back of Gray's neck through the fall of dark hair, finding skin and biting it possessively.

"I want you naked," he said to Gray. "Now."

"Couldn't have wanted that before I came in my pants?" Gray said, a gratifying shake in his voice despite his words.

Charles grinned and swatted that bitable, fuckable arse. "I did. So?"

"Did anyone ever tell you that you're a—" Gray began, easing the button open on his jeans and turning his head enough that Charles could see him grimacing.

"Gray? Naked. Now."

"You too," Gray demanded.

"When we get upstairs."

Which wouldn't be for a while, but Gray didn't need to know that yet.

 

 

Chapter Eighteen

The noise of the crowd that had swelled after the crack of the auctioneer's hammer died back to an expectant quiet as the next painting was brought out and placed on a waiting easel. It was midway through the auction and the smaller, warm-up items had come and gone, bought for double or triple their worth.

It really was a weird way to raise money, Gray thought, looking around at the lushly comfortable room filled, mostly, with rich people wanting to spend money and, more importantly, be seen to do so.

He would have been slightly ashamed of his cynicism if he didn't know it was shared by Drew's wife Margaret, a briskly friendly woman with humorous eyes who had entertained him with some sotto voce asides after he'd endured a few conversations with people who thought they knew a lot about art and didn't. Not that Gray was an expert. He painted, yes, he followed the trends, sure, and he knew something about the history of art because the ink on his degree was still wet, comparatively speaking, but expert? No.

But enough of one to know when someone was talking out of their fucking ass about color, composition, and light.

Seeing his painting up there, greeted with an interested rustle of programs, made him gulp and grope blindly for the hand already waiting for his. He squeezed it briefly, then released it, giving Charles a grateful look, momentarily distracted by the way Charles looked in black tie, all crisp and clean. Immaculate. Stern. Thank God, Charles, unlike Gray, owned his dress clothes because Gray planned to get them creased and crumpled. He wanted to get put over Charles’s knee while Charles was still wearing this outfit, wanted to feel the smooth, black fabric against his skin, the brush of a cuff, stiff and scratchy, as Charles positioned him.

Charles nudged him with his knee, giving him a puzzled look and nodding toward the stage.

Where the auctioneer was smiling with polite satisfaction because the bidding on Gray's painting had turned into a well-bred tussle between three bidders and the amount was—whoa—

"It's not worth that much," Gray hissed in Charles’s ear, trying to keep his expression blandly calm and failing utterly. "Charles, it's not."

"It bloody well is, now shut up," Charles hissed back.

His palms hurt because he was pressing them together hard and he was blushing, sweat prickling damply over his body. This sucked. Big time.

"I want to get out of here."

"As we're in the middle of the row, that's not such a good idea." Charles’s hand, cool and firm, closed over his. "Gray? Calm down. Now. It's gone well beyond the amount we hoped for, and anything else is—"

"Gravy?"

Charles chuckled. "Exactly."

"Right. I'm calm. Totally." Gray leaned back in his chair and focused on the distant square of canvas. His painting. Selling for more money than every painting he'd ever sold times two. Going.

Times three.

Times—

Oh fuck, that was too much!

He said it again and got a look from Charles that silenced him.

Gone.

He spent the rest of the auction in a daze, jolted out of it only when Charles applauded, nudging Gray with his elbow, and he realized that Margaret was getting presented with some flowers accompanied by an equally flowery speech.

Even from where he was sitting, he saw the amusement in her eyes.

"I need a drink," Charles said in his ear. "Want to risk getting trampled and head for the bar?"

"Sure." Gray stood when Charles did, doing it too fast, so that the room spun giddily for a moment. He put his hand out and grabbed Charles’s arm to steady himself, surprised, but pleased, when Charles slid an arm around him until Gray had found his balance. "Thanks. Got up too fast."

"And you've had nothing to eat all day."

"I ate!" Gray protested. He couldn't resist the downward flick of his eyes. "Want me to remind you what it was?"

"Brat," Charles told him, sounding resigned. "Behave. You're about to meet some fans, including the woman who bought your painting."

"Huh? Who?" Gray had registered the hand waving a bidding flag with an imperious snap had been female, going by the glitter and sparkle of rings and bracelets, but that was it. And he didn't know anyone, so seeing her face wouldn't have helped.

As he made his way to the aisle, which was emptying rapidly—looked like Charles wasn't the only one in need of a drink—he kept an eye on the advancing woman. For someone who came up his shoulder and was rail-thin, she was doing a good job of making the people part and let her through. She paused in front of him, scanning him in a swift glance that definitely took in Charles as well, although her eyes stayed on Gray, then smiled.

"So you're the young man who means I'll be redecorating a room shortly." She looked at Charles, arctic-blue eyes gleaming. "It's a deadly shade of brown," she confided. "His painting would be lost against that, and we can't have that, can we?" She pierced Gray with a look. "Well?"

"No, ma'am," Gray said, feeling as if he should bow and click his heels together, kiss her hand. Something.

She was pretty scary.

"Thank you," he added belatedly. "I'm glad you, uh, liked it."

"Well, don't sound so surprised!" She poked him with her rolled-up program. "You should tell me I got a bargain."

"Oh God, no, you didn't!" He knew Charles was rolling his eyes, he knew it. "That is—it—the charity needed it, so it wasn't a—you didn't pay way too much—"

"Ellen, leave Gray alone." Margaret appeared at the woman's shoulder and gave her a kiss on the cheek and a small, reproving shake. "He was a sweetheart to donate and I want another next year, which I won't get if you scare him off."

"Next year?" Ellen snorted. "I won't be able to afford him next year."

The tips of his ears burned. "I—" Charles’s hand found its way unobtrusively to the small of Gray's back, resting there for a brief, reassuring moment. It was all he needed.

"Ma'am, I'd be happy to paint you a picture to match any of your rooms, any time you like." He inclined his head in an abbreviated bow and got a delighted chuckle from the two women.

"You're a polite young man," Ellen said, giving him an unwinking stare. "Makes a change. I might take you up on that, but you should paint what you want, you know."

"I always do." Gray bowed his head again. "Any room, any color."

"I'd think you were flirting if I wasn't old enough to be your grandmother and you weren't—" The sharp gaze went to Charles and back to Gray, "Spoken for."

"I'm not," Gray said. "Flirting, I mean. Definitely spoken for. I'm grateful. I was wondering if I'd have to buy it myself."

Ellen gave another snort. "You'd better lose the self-deprecation if you want to get on."

Gray shrugged, feeling trapped and helpless. He'd been as polite as he could and now he wanted to get back to the hotel room he and Charles had barely seen, and grab on to Charles until the shaking stopped.

"Ellen, I came to tell you; they're calling for you in the reception area. Todd Hunter wants to talk to you about the donation you made to the homeless shelter his group runs."

"Todd's here?" Ellen's face set in determined lines. "I've been trying to get hold of that man all week. Never answers his phone. Never." She turned away without saying goodbye, leaving Margaret to grimace apologetically before following in Ellen's wake.

"Now, I really need a—"

"Let's go," Gray said, panicking in case someone else got between them and the door. "Can we sneak out the back, maybe?"

"You make a habit of that, don't you?"

Gray grinned, remembering. "Good thing I did last time."

"I suppose it was."

"So can we go? Please?"

"When could I ever resist you begging?" Charles murmured.

"Every single time," Gray informed him bitterly. "You've got, like, superhuman powers of resistance."

"Want to know a secret?" Charles led the way out of the room, heading, thank God, for the main exit. "If you pout, not a deliberate one, when you can't help it, well, I'm a total sucker for that. Gets me every single time."

"I don't pout!" Gray said indignantly. "God, that's so fucking… I don't." Charles glanced at him, his lips curling into a knowing smile and Gray groaned. "I'm not doing it now. Am I?"

"We're leaving, aren't we?"

"Yes, but—" Gray noticed some people glancing at him, then at their programs which contained a fairly accurate photograph, and abandoned the argument. "Okay, I pout, and it's effective. Good to know and I promise I won't abuse it."

Charles looked skeptical, but since he kept on moving toward the door, Gray didn't care.

 

 

Epilogue

"It's too late to call a birthday present now." Gray ran a fingertip across the top edge of the frame, giving Charles a sidelong glance. "Call it an early Christmas present."

"It's not quite the same as the first one," Charles said quietly. He looked a little pale, but his arm was warm and comfortingly heavy across Gray's shoulders.

"You can't paint the same thing twice. You can't."

Charles nodded. "I once lost three chapters of a book I was writing. The three which replaced them bore little resemblance to the originals. I can understand that." He sighed, a long, contented exhalation. "It's good, Gray. Thank you."

"Welcome." Gray grinned. "Are you done looking at it? Can you tear yourself away and thank me for real?"

"No, if I must, and I'm looking forward to it, in that order."

"Sweet."

They turned away from the easel in the center of Gray's studio, Charles giving the painting one last look, Gray already planning the next one he was going to do as he flicked off the light.

In the rich dimness that surged forward to fill the room, a fading sunset coloring the dusk, the two men in the painting retreated into the shadows, waiting for the light to illuminate them again.

Gray, face-down on a bed, his head turned so that his profile was a clear, sharp question mark, his gaze fixed on Charles, sitting beside him.

Who was smiling at Gray, his hand cradling Gray's face. And in the shadowed black, grey, white of the scene, their bodies pale in the diffused, indistinct light, one splash of color: the wash of red across Gray's skin where that hand had come to rest again and again.