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Father Figure

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~Lord Courtenay,

Word has arrived of the current residents of Carrington. No doubt having your sister’s son so close keeps your mistakes close to mind, not only at this time of year but at all times, and reminds you what your behavior costs your family enough to encourage you to repentance. Having also lost your father at this time of year due to such actions on your part, there is hope that such sentiment will move you to assist your mother in his memory, seeing as you have failed your relations so grievously in the past and can make up so few debts otherwise. Enclosed is a list of necessary requirements to that end and the appropriate agents.

Your speedy response is expected to meet a satisfactory resolution. ~

“She didn’t even write Simon’s name.” Courtenay says for what feels like the hundredth time, staring bleakly into the fire. "He's her grandson and she didn't even write his name."

“It’s better that she doesn’t. The last time she invoked his name it was to make you feel guilty about Isabella. No need for that, as this epistolary payload has already found its target in your contrition.” He plucks the letter off the table and studies the fine hand it’s written in, masculine and steady and very much not Mrs. Blakely. No surprise there. “You’ll be relieved to know I’ve already contacted those appropriate agents and instructed them to direct their inquiries to your solicitor in future. We shan’t be receiving another of these without warning. As for their demands-“

Courtenay’s dead-eyed gaze remains hollowly lost in the grate. “They’re not demands.”

“Aren’t they? ‘Oh Courtenay, you’re a terrible person and if you don’t give us all your money, well, we’re not going to forgive you anyway, but we’re going to remind you how badly you should feel, regularly, at sixes and sevens and twice on Sunday?’ Please.” Julian clicks his tongue in disgust. “I’m handling it. They shan’t have a penny more than they do and they’ll be receiving a strong warning of what will happen if one more missive of this nature reaches your eyes again.”

“I didn’t ask you to do that,” Courtenay murmurs without any sort of affectation at all.

“No you didn’t yet here I am. Doing it anyway.” He tips Courtenay’s head upwards and finds in his gaze the sadness he was expecting and hates it but is relieved to see it rather than the absence of feeling his tone carried. He’d do far worse than write a strongly worded letter to keep those green eyes clear of such pain and more to keep them engaged with him, present and alert even if they are aching. “Honestly,” he admits as he trails the strong line of his jaw with his index finger because that is what Courtenay does to him. Just looking at him pulls admissions from Julian’s soul like miners plucking gems from the heart of a mountain. “I don’t like what hearing from them does to you. Quite frankly, I’ll happily rip them apart before I allow them to distress you so.”

This, it seems, is not what Courtenay wants to hear from the way he bats his hand away and turns his face. “Stop coddling me, Julian.” And then so soft Julian barely catches it, “You’re not my father.”

Well, damn and double damn. This was not how he hoped this particular morning might go. A solid fuck on the settee, a few letters settled, perhaps a trip up to Carrington to see Simon’s progress winning Courtenay’s foal and to bicker with Radnor but no, all their plans for their morning are thwarted. Damn Mrs. Blakely had to torment his Courtenay’s raw heart like a harpy with a poor meal and leave him to collect the bloody pieces. Marvelous. “Darling, I cannot imagine your sire ever coddled you and you know I never coddle anyone, least of all you and your ridiculousness.” He sighs again, the second of what he imagines will be many today and pinches the bridge of his nose, willing Courtenay to understand what he’s going to say next. “What I’m doing is caring for you. I like to do it.” And isn’t that the understatement of the decade? He lives to care for Courtenay, to settle his affairs and tie his cravat just so and curl his toes with pleasure and wrap his arms around him until he exhales deeply and slumps back against him with the sort of relief that only comes from knowing that someone will hold you up if you don’t want to stand on your own anymore.

“Yes, you’ve said. I suppose I’m still baffled by that.”

“Well you needn’t be. I enjoy it. It gives me satisfaction and pleasure to see you well-tended to and at ease, and to be the one to see that it is so. Of course I can understand how that could remind you of a parent, but that isn’t what it’s about.”

“I know that.” Courtenay snaps, glowering and as irritable as a wet cat.

“Do you? Because I suppose,” Julian pauses, thinking it through himself now, “If thinking of me as a father figure helps you accept that I could do that for you.” He shrugs remembering some of the more ribald gossip from the circles Courtenay no longer frequented, and some of the courser tales he’d heard shared between sailors onboard during his passage from India. There had been rumblings of that sort of behavior at both ends of the gossip mill. “I heard rumors of such things, lovers calling each other things: daddy and mummy and the like. And you know I’m always interested in hearing whatever you want to ask for, no matter if it’s not the most common practice.”

He waits for Courtenay to roll his eyes or laugh the suggestion off or perhaps share an account of a exploit from his wilder days as he so often does when Julian attempts to fish for his tastes. He does none of those things.

Instead Courtenay stares at him with something in his expression that is akin to horror but a few paces to the left and perhaps upwards, towards hope. but edged in a different kind of fear. Concern over rejection perhaps or of being disappointed, or of being the one to disappoint or some combination. It is hard to tell sometimes.

“Courtenay, is that something you might want?”

Julian watches, transfixed, as his lover’s nimble tongue darts out to moisten his lips. It’s a rabbit-quick gesture that is nothing so much as display of pure nerves and for a moment, Julian thinks that may be all the response he’ll get. It’s all he’d be able to manage if faced with such a question. But Courtenay has always been braver than Julian with his truths, even when it’s difficult, even when it hurts.

“I don’t know,” he admits, his lips shining with his own saliva. “That is to say- I’m not entirely sure.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Not entirely.”

“Partially though.”

“It’s a difficult topic,” Courtenay says, then shrugs and casts his eyes down. “I can’t see how you could be comfortable taking on the role of being my father when we’re together intimately.”

Julian can concede the point that it might be odd, down right strange, to think about playing that sort of game, but the idea doesn’t repulse him. In fact, the more he thinks about it, the less he minds. In fact, he might even enjoy it, with Courtenay at least. Thus far, there has been nothing he has not enjoyed with Courtenay. He tips his head and studies his lover with what he hopes is not blatant curiosity and is more an inviting gentleness. He’s always been good at striking the right note; but then Courtenay has always been good at reading him. “Let’s assume for a moment, that I have no concerns or difficulties.” Courtenay opens his mouth and Julian holds up hand. “For a moment, do me the favor.”

“All right.”

“Assuming that I could step into that position, play the father to you when we made love with all due ease, is that something you’d like me to do for you?”

Courtenay’s breath hitches in his chest. Julian can hear it loud in his ears and feel it under his fingers in the way his chin jerks but that was no answer. They need to speak on this. Failing to do so on any topic of concern had never done anything but cause them both grief.

Of course, neither had forcing the issue. That is harder for Julian. He likes solutions, quickly, and his way. For this though, he can be patient.

“You don’t have to decide now, love.” He soothes, stroking his fingers over Courtenay’s jaw. “Think about it. Tell me should you decide it would be something you enjoy, alright? I think for me, it might be something I’d like to try.”

He’s only mildly surprised to find that he’s telling the truth.

The silence that stretches between them over the breakfast table weighs as much as one of the elephants that had filled the jungles of Julian's Indian childhood.

Courtenay contemplates throwing the marmalade at him but all he says is: “Pass the tea.”

“Oh. All right.” Julian looks stunned by the abrupt turn in the conversation but does as requested.

They don’t speak about it again that day. Courtenay leaves Julian to the dishes because neither of them particularly like to have the staff in their business any more than they absolutely have to and makes his way up to the main house and the stables. Simon is waiting for him in a pair of trousers and shirt that would be more suited to one of the village boys than the heir of an earl but which is absolutely perfect for tussling with a weeks-old foal. He accepts Simon’s hug gratefully and distracts himself watching his nephew with the small black and brown creature for far longer than is responsible. They’re both the same kind of light, tough, gangly, awkward, full of energy and joyful.

The foal, which Simon has named Madras after all of Julian, Eleanor and Standish’s stories of the place, is going to be his for life the same way Niccolo is Courtenay’s. Likely more so because Courtenay wasn’t there from birth for Niccolo the way Simon has been for Madras, gentling and nursing her every step of the way. She’s never going to be any kind of race horse but she’s already big for her age, built for solidity and speed and as devoted to Simon as he is to her.

Devotion, it seems, being a trait that comes fairly easily to their family. Peace, on the other hand, is harder to find. Simon still has traces of disturbance behind his eyes when he thinks his father or Turner or Courtenay aren’t looking. School didn’t agree with him, not that Courtenay can blame him, and neither did losing Isabella, but he’s doing so much better since coming to Carrington, likely since Radnor began to act the proper father.

Courtenay can’t stop thinking about his own father. His mother’s letter, vicious though it was, was not inaccurate. They were rapidly approaching the anniversary of his father’s death. Less than a week away in fact and he could feel the weight of every day pressing on him like a millstone around his neck. He wanted to do anything but remember his father’s eyes, as sad as they were angry with him, rheumy and exhausted, the last time he’d seen him alive.

“What did I do so wrong that you would do this to me, Jeremiah?” He’d asked, his disgust and despair with him genuine when Courtenay had arrived home from Oxford. “Do you hate me so much that you cannot restrain yourself from even the basest impulses?”

Courtenay had been without an answer then because there had been nothing his father had done that had sent him into the arms of the headmaster’s wife. She had been the cousin of one of his friends, only four years his senior, whom he’d known and fancied since he was 15, beautiful and 40 years younger than her husband. She had invited him in with a mischievous smile and an outstretched hand. He had been all of 18 and incapable of saying no to eyes like hers. His father had never entered his mind until after her husband found them together.

““Why must you always go so far out of your way to disappoint me when simple surcease of your destruction would in itself be a success?” Lord Courtenay had asked him the day he arrived home, proverbial hat in hand. “I ask so little if you Jeremiah, yet this is what you deliver onto my doorstep. Do you seek to break my heart, son, because that at least you are achieving with no small measure of brilliance.”

His father had never been an ally but he had been better than his mother. In fact, his discussion with Julian this morning had brought to mind some of the few occasions his father had actually seemed to enjoy his presence, Simon’s boyish laughter as he tried to coral Madras making him recall one in one in particular with almost violent clarity after years lost in the dark corners of his memory. He doesn’t know how he managed to forget it but is suddenly transported back to the very first time he ever rode a horse. He sat astride a monstrous beast in his father’s lap when he was still too young to have failed him. He had been small enough to fit in his father’s embrace almost twice over then and he thinks that it was the last time before finding Julian that he felt anything like safe and cherished. He had giggled and clapped utterly elated despite the rollicking speed and the savage cascade of motion of the charge beneath him.

His father had bent low and taken them over the grounds at a breakneck speed before Courtenay had been old enough to know or to fear risk. He thinks his father had ruffled hair and praised his bravery and he had wanted to feel nothing but this good again. He thinks his mother had screamed at them both afterwards. He knows that he began school not long after and was a catastrophic letdown to everyone in his life but Isabella.

He thinks knowing what his father’s affection was like and never attaining his approval might be worse that surviving beneath the flay of his mother’s loathing. She never loved him. For a time, his father had, and then he had become a stranger and adversary who had become a source of dread and grief that Courtenay never ceased avoiding even in his own mind.

Well he can’t escape now, not with Julian’s tawdry propositions haunting his every thought. He’s practically beside himself with the notion and his erection hasn’t gone down all day.

He doesn’t know what to do with himself. After all it’s not as if he ever wanted to fuck his father. He’s a degenerate but he’s not so far gone as all that and never has been. Not even the late Earl of Radnor, Simon’s other uncle and a man Courtenay had called a friend before those girls started dying so inconveniently in his company - including his own goddamn wife, was that twisted.

But goddamn Julian. He was likely on to something with this whole….parental play concept. He was so very often right when it came to pinpointing Courtenay’s desires, the brilliant bastard.

He doesn’t think it means he harbors any hidden longings for his own father. He was with a couple in Greece where the woman called her husband daddy once because the man had liked it and true, it clenched something in his stomach at the time but surely that was different. The gentleman had never seemed to want that from Courtenay. He was happy with his name when he was being fucked or “sir” when he was on top.

With Julian, it would be different. With Julian, everything was different.

So he must ask himself what then he finds so appealing in casting his lover in the role of father. If it consumes him so much that he cannot focus on Simon, and it does because when he and Madras are finished it comes as an ugly shock, then it is something that must be addressed. He shepherds his nephew back up to the main house, steels himself against his own fears, and heads back to the dowager cottage.

It should not be so difficult. This is just a new exploration of an old dance after all, and Julian, the partner with whom he can always find the right steps no matter how out of sync with the beat they begin.

As he walks back, he forces himself to focus on how Julian protects him from his mother like his father never had, stepping between them, keeping him safe and what sort of act that is. A lover’s is accurate but today, with the specters looming, it doesn’t seem to be enough. There is a bigger space that he needs filled when Julian takes care of Courtenay beyond professional duty, beyond romantic devotion, he makes him think maybe that place can whole like it never has been before if he just reaches for it, let’s himself explore. He’s always tried before.

Maybe it makes him ugly and broken that he likes when Julian’s behavior that cherishes him feels fatherly but he’s long stopped listening to any voices that tell him there’s something wrong with wanting the things he wants. He has permission for this. He has everything shy of a written invitation that could damn them both to want things for himself with Julian. He has blessing from the man himself to explore this odd desire specifically. Fear has never stopped his lust before. He turns the idea over and over in his head so that maybe hopefully when he sees his Julian again the words will make it past his lips without catching on the thorns of hesitation in his throat.

He is grateful that Julian isn’t there when he arrives because it gives him a chance to think about how he wants to arrange himself (comfortably) broach the subject (carefully) before Julian is done with business for the day.

When Julian returns to the dowager cottage, it is to Courtenay reading the latest notes the bailiff has sent on the estate. And his rough draft from the vampire pulp. And playing with the black kitten (which Courtenay will always think of as a kitten never mind that it is a full grown mouser in the terrible habit of delivering dead birds to the living room window sill for Julian’s perusal). And pretending to drink while in actuality wasting good spirits as is his habit. The scene would look terribly casual if he had actually done any of those things with any success.

Instead his space is chaotic and the cat is most displeased and the glass is full except for what’s spilled on his fingers and the papers. Julian wants to pull him away, lay him out on the sofa under a quilt, organize the desk and put out the kitten to hunt mice, then return to Courtenay and pet his face and hair and neck and shoulders and thighs and calves until his tension leaks away. Wasn’t that just the thing?

“All right there?”

“Yes fine. Just busy.”

“Not too busy for company I hope?”

The smile he receives is devastating in its warmth and genuine welcome. “Never for you.”

“Well then.” He tries not to be too flustered by this. “When you get to a good place to pause perhaps we might speak?”

“We can do that. This isn’t urgent.”

Courtenay knows Julian is giving him time by the way he strolls to the kitchen door with the cat. He chats with her like a person which he only does for show when he’s trying to set him at ease and Courtenay try and stash the drink somewhere that won’t cause an even bigger spill get to his feet.  He does better thinking on the move lately. So naturally Julian drapes himself deliciously over the sofa and pushes his boots off with his toes.

“What’s got your brain running you down so hard?”

“I think you know.”

“I might. But then again...” his relaxed shrug is infuriating. Damnit Courtenay is supposed to be the languid rogue here. “Our assumptions end rather poorly. we agreed to talk things out, especially in bed.”

“What makes you think-“

“You have brandy on your hands all the way to your wrist. Come here so I can clean you up.”

It is so easy to be pliable with Julian. He’s been what lovers want since he figured out what touch could be but it’s different with him. Julian’s care is as sincere as it is sensual and it disarms him every time. Once there would have been a question of his obedience but now he crosses to stand before his lover without hesitating, hand outstretched

“You’re a mess,” Julian observes.

Courtenay snorts. “Surely that’s not news.”

“Hush.” Julian scolds, turning his right hand this way and that in both of his. “It’s in your cuffs. Your laundress deserves better from you than this.” He admonishes before he lowers his mouth and licks a careful stipe up Courtenay’s wrist and over his palm before swallowing his thumb between his lips to the root.

Truly, he can’t be blamed for the way his knees give out. He wasn’t ready. He had no warning for the sudden heat of Julian’s mouth. He can’t be held accountable for the whimper he lets out when strong hands catch his waist and turn his collapse into a guided descent onto his lover’s firm lap. This is not talking after all.

Julian’s right hand stays steady on Courtney’s waist but his left reclaims his wrist, holding it in place as he pulls off his thumb to make precise work of the other four digits before setting to the task of licking his palm clean.

He’s clinging to his lover’s hair for balance, mouth smushed to his temple just to have somewhere to taste him. “Julian. Fuck.” He’s so hard from this alone he can barely see.

“Not right now,” Julian says into the flat of his hand. “After we talk.”

“How on earth can you expect me to talk after that?” Courtenay demands feeling rather hysterical. “Honestly.”

“Yes, exactly so.” Julian pulls on his waist, tugging him down to sit in his lap like a bloody child and he goes because he’s rather useless at the moment isn’t he. “We began a conversation not long ago and I’d rather like to finish it if that’s alright with you.”

“I don’t suppose I have much choice in the matter.”

“You always have a choice.”

“Not if it will make you stop I don’t,” he protests. “How do you do this? I find myself at my wits end with you time and again and yet never anything but pleased about the situation.”

“Are you?” Julian asks, “Pleased? Because I have been known to push a situation past the point of reasonability and when it comes to something as potentially delicate as this particular flavor of interests, I don’t want to push you if that’s not what you want me to do.”

“But it is.” Courtenay feels a bit like he’s flying as he confesses this into his lover’s skin. “I love it when you push me to the truth. No one else has ever wanted it let alone demanded it from me so. I’m simply not used to being…uncomfortable with what I want. That’s all.”

“I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.”

“Well that’s too bad as it seems to be what I need at the moment.” He swallows hard. “I don’t see you as a parent, Julian. You have to know that.”

“I don’t see you as a child. That’s not what I meant and I hope you can understand that.”

“So tell me what you meant.”

“I just…” Julian lets out a frustrated noise and drops his head to the crook of Courtenay’s shoulder. “I enjoy taking care of you, I suppose, in bed of course but out as well. Thwarting your mother was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done but the idea that I could satisfy more of your needs, that I could fill holes left behind where others failed you, your family especially… There’s an allure to that for me. I won’t deny it but only if that’s something you want.”  The warm trails of contact where his lips brushed as he spoke became more contentious as he pauses to press a kiss to the pulse point.

“What would that look like?” Courtenay asks. “I imagine I call you ‘Father’ and you…what? You take care of me? What does that mean?”

“Oh, Courtney,” Julian murmurs, pulling back so their eyes can meet. “It would mean that I would touch you much like I always do.” As if to prove his point, he reaches up to cup the side of his face gently, with all the love that he could bleed through his fingertips into Courtenay’s cheek. “And I suppose I would tell you how pleased I am with you, how impressed I am at everything you’ve accomplished, when I’m here and when I’m gone, and how very hard I can see you working and how much I can see you’re doing all the time for all of us and I imagine that would be for a start.”

Courtenay shudders and his hands tighten on Julian’s hair so tight it must hurt him. He can’t make himself let go. “Oh. Well, then. I suppose that’s alright.” He licks his lips and makes himself say it. Because he can. Because he wants to. “Father.”

“Very good.” Julian croons. “Well done, Courtenay. That was brave of you. You’re so brave. I don’t know how you do it.”

Courtenay doesn’t have any response that feels adequate. Instead he falls hard back onto his most basic etiquette reflex and is a little stunned at how naturally it slips free. “Thank you, Father.”

“Nothing to thank me for. You did it all yourself, Courtenay. You pulled everything together. You built a family, a life, a home. I’m just here to enjoy it and I do. I enjoy it very much. I enjoy you very much.” Julian kisses him then. He works Courtenay open slowly and carefully with the hand on his face as an anchor, lips and tongue acting as excavators until Courtenay is close to weeping from the slow deconstruction of his defenses. When he leans away to grant them breath, Julian is smiling up at him. “You’re so good to us - me and Simon and everyone here at Carrington.” His index finger moves to smooth over Courtenay’s eyebrow in a gesture of aching tenderness. “You amaze me.”

“Oh. I…yes. Please.”

Julian beams at him, pleased but a little impertinent. “Please what?”

“Please, Father.” Courtenay fights to keep the desperation out of his voice now that he’s managed to get his tongue around the title. Just saying it makes him impossibly hard and the kind things Julian has been plying him with are not helping his patience.

Julian laughs but there’s nothing mocking in it. “No, Courtenay, I mean, what are you asking for?”

Courtenay feels a little foolish at that but he’s in Julian’s lap for heaven’s sake. It seems like that should be obvious. He fists his hands in Julian’s shirt and tugs. “I believe it’s later.”

“So I should fuck you then?”

“Yes, Father.” There’s a definite whine in that. Courtenay feels heat flood his cheeks like he hasn’t felt since he was in school, not even with Julian. It’s actually a little intoxicating.

He tugs at the shirt and considers ripping it just for the hell of it but Julian takes pity on him and makes a move for his own buttons.

“I think I can do that.”

“Yes.” The word hisses out of him on a breath that feels like a leak. “God, please, Father, fuck me.”

There’s a pause at that and for a second, one terrifying moment, Courtenay is afraid that this was too much for them. He’s sure that this is too far into depravity for Julian to go and too far into filth even for his legendary deviancy to travel but then there’s a flurry of movement and he finds himself in the air being carried across the house and kissed of all things. The noise he makes is terribly undignified as he wraps his arms and legs around Julian. He tries to protest, a token one but he does try, Julian seems terribly smug in the way only a man of five and twenty can. He hauls him to the bed they share more often than not and deposits Courtenay on his back, covering him with his body before kissing him again, making quick work of his clothes to better fulfill his request in-between kisses and mumbled words that Courtenay finally manages to distinguish as “Anything you want, anything you want” over and over.

“Inside,” he manages to get out somehow in the barrage of sensation. “Want you inside me. ” He has to lick his lips again because it’s hard, it’s so hard to ask the way he wants but he does because Julian says he’s brave. Julian makes him brave. “Need you with me.”

“Courtenay, I’m here.” Julian soothes as he moves over him but it’s not enough. “I’m right here. I have you, love.”

He’s not matching the pace that’s been set by his promises. Courtenay has been driven to frenetic desperation, frantic and grasping even as Julian settles in him, pushing deep and stealing his breath. “Father, please, I- ugh. God.” His fingers dig deep into Julian’s shoulders as he bottoms out and jars his brain with the impact. “Need you, please. Please.” Courtenay doesn’t know why something in him cracks there but it does. A restraint that held itself tightly around a final piece of his dignity flings itself wide open and bleeding in his soul, with all the self-abasing promises he never allowed himself to make in his life before and he finds himself begging in a way he never would have dared to let escape. It’s as if each of Julian’s thrusts knock it loose along with a pained, choking sob. “I’ll be good. Please let me be good. I will, Father, please, Christ, please, stay. I can be good. Please, Father. Fuck, please. I-I- Ah-I’ll be good. Oh, please please please, let me, Jesus, I can do it if you stay with me. I can. I will be, just don’t leave me. I promise, please.”

Julian fucks him through it, gives him what he needs in hard touches and soft kisses and gently murmured words promising that Courtenay is loved, is good, that Julian will not leave him. It doesn’t feel like near enough and coming feels like dying, poured from his spine like molten steel from a forge leaving him red hot and empty.

He shakes like a fever victim with the aftershocks and Julian holds him. He feels fingers in his hair and lips on his temple and spend between his thighs and he wants to sleep. He doesn’t feel dirty exactly just…raw, as if he’s fallen and scraped every inch of himself but on the inside. It’s a strange and uncomfortable feeling but he was expecting that to some degree.

He’s not expecting it when Julian kisses the shell of his ear and says “I am so proud of you, love.”

The tears that had been a looming threat before make their presence known at that, pushing past his lashes and sliding down his aching cheeks. He has worked so hard these past few years not to hinge himself on Julian or Simon but Lord, to hear those words, that someone has pride in him, it’s like water after years of wandering in the desert.

He knows that he must look mad, to be crying and smiling at the same time, but there is only Julian looking at him now and Julian can see him.

As if determined to always prove the point even when he doesn’t know one needs to be proven, Julian nods at the sight of him in this sorry state and says “There you are.”

Courtenay laughs. He can’t help himself. Julian is smiling indulgently and Courtenay presses his forehead into Julian’s bare chest to brace himself against the cascade of emotions that buffet him from all directions. It is only moderately helpful as a great many of those feelings are for Julian. “I am so irredeemably in love with you,” he says, hoping that stating this fact will help with that particular aspect of it.

Clever fingers toy with his hair and the chest under his ear hums. “The feeling is terribly mutual so that’s always good hear.”

“I don’t know if I could do that regularly, Julian.”

“No. I don’t imagine so. It’s rather taxing. Besides, I don’t want you to be good. I want you to be you.”

Courtenay doesn’t have anything to say to that. If he opens his mouth he’s quite sure he’ll start crying again and that would be messy. He decides instead to nod into Julian’s collarbone and that seems to be a preferable response if the way Julian moves to stroke his hair is any indication. After half a minute of the soothing ministrations Courtenay feels collected enough to speak.

“Special occasions it is, then. I’m far better at being myself that I’ve ever been at reaching any benchmarks for goodness after all.”

“You’re plenty good,” Julian counters. “You’re just fine getting to it your own way. No need to do it for any reasons but your own.”

“I don’t mind making you happy.”

“Yes. And as I said, I like you as you are. So it all works out.”

Courtenay smiles to himself because this man. This man. He needs to sleep but when he wakes, he’s going to have a few things to say to this man. Nothing he hasn’t said before but it’s all worth saying again.