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Old Habits Die Hard

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“My boy. I’ve got you.”

The words hit Barry like a tranquilizer dart, sudden and unexpected, piercing the skin and flooding his veins with an instant sense of woozy surrender. He didn’t even know he needed to hear it until Fuches said it— but then again, Fuches has always been miles ahead of him, always knowing exactly what to give him even before Barry knows that he wants anything at all.

“I love you, man,” Fuches says, holding him close.

Barry squeezes his eyes shut, so grateful that he can barely speak. “Thanks, Fuches.”

“I really missed you.”

“I missed you too, man.”

Fuches has both arms around him like he’s never going to let go again. There was a time not too long ago when that thought would have chilled Barry to the bone. Now he can’t get enough of it, leaning hard into the embrace, his eyes still clenched tight. It occurs to him that he’s not falling off the wagon so much as he is willfully diving out the back, not even bothering to tuck and roll before he hits the ground. He only wishes he was small enough to crawl all the way up into Fuches’s arms and disappear.

He doesn’t know how long they stay like that. It’s vaguely uncomfortable, the two of them seated side by side on the shelf, their bodies craned at awkward angles so they can fit together like this. Even so, Barry doesn’t dare move a muscle. He doesn’t want Fuches to misinterpret any kind of motion as a signal to disengage. He wants to stay here as long as he can. It’s just— it’s been a while since he wasn’t the one who had to do the holding. When he’s here, he’s the one being held, contained so completely that he might as well be curled up in the palm of Fuches’s hand. He’d probably stay here all night if Fuches let him.

Then he hears the change in Fuches’s breathing.

Barry is aware of it in an instant, his whole body struck and humming like a tuning fork. When Fuches shifts his weight, he shifts his grip in the same movement, his arms winding up around Barry’s shoulders, one hand finding its way to the back of Barry’s neck. Barry opens his eyes, his gaze blank and unfocused.

“Fuches,” he says, reflexive.

“I know,” Fuches answers, low and soothing. “I know.”

Dazed, Barry screws his eyes shut again. When that’s not enough, he twists his head against Fuches’s shoulder, crushing his face into the sleeve of the older man’s jacket. Fuches uses the grip on the back of his neck to pin him there, forcing Barry to suck down a lungful of cologne so familiar that it sends him rocketing all the way down memory lane and zooming right back around again so fast that he almost gets whiplash. When he opens his eyes he can’t see a goddamn thing. Fuches has him surrounded.

“It’s okay, bud,” Fuches assures him. “I’ve got you.”

It’s the second time he’s said it but the tone has changed entirely. Every heavy exhale pulls the embrace a fraction tighter, slow and inexorable, like a boa constrictor. Or maybe Fuches is more like quicksand— one second you’re on solid ground, and the next thing you know you’re in it up to the neck. Barry doesn’t even realize that he’s got his fists clenched in the brown windbreaker until Fuches gives a throaty chuckle of approval, his breath hot against Barry’s ear.

“There we go,” he murmurs, so close that Barry can feel the words under his skin. “That’s what I thought.”

Barry makes an involuntary sound in the back of his throat, a sound so weak and embarrassing that he tries to muffle it in Fuches’s jacket. He’s afraid that Fuches will tease him for it— but it only makes Fuches squeeze him harder, fierce and possessive. His hand creeps from the back of Barry’s neck and up into the hair at his nape, the fingers just starting to curl towards a fist.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he growls. “My boy. That’s my boy.”

Struck and sinking fast, Barry sucks in a breath and turns his head to look up at him. He wants to say something but suddenly he can’t think of a single word that isn’t Fuches’s name. All he can do is stare at him like a goddamn idiot, his eyes huge and searching, desperate for some kind of cue. Fuches takes Barry’s chin in one hand and pushes the other over Barry’s forehead and into his hair, giving it a rough tousle.

“C’mon, Barry,” he breathes. “Show me how much you missed me.”

And that’s it. Barry exhales.

He’d almost forgotten how comforting it is to receive a direct order. Suddenly he doesn’t have to think anymore. He doesn’t have to look for clues or second guess or read between the lines. The command is simple and direct. All he has to do is comply. Barry licks his lips and swallows in anticipation.

“Do you… do you wanna go in the back?”

Fuches smirks and glances over at the wide open storefront windows behind them.

“I dunno, bud, you’re the one who’s into putting on shows these days. You sure you don’t want an audience?”

There’s a hot flush at the back of Barry’s neck and he looks away, flustered.

“C’mon, man, that’s not funny.”

Fuches is already holding his hands up in surrender. “I know, I know.”

“Don’t make it weird.”

“I know, I know.”

After a beat of silence, Barry stands up first, tense, his gaze still averted. In the corner of his eye he watches Fuches haul himself up beside him, his stance loose and relaxed, one hand reaching out to give Barry’s chest a reassuring pat.

“Okay,” he says, tossing his head towards the back of the store. “Dealer’s choice.”

Barry feels that jerk of the chin like a horse feels the kick of spurs, his body responding automatically, pivoting on his heel and taking point to lead them away from the windows. He doesn’t have to look behind him to know that Fuches is cruising in his wake, content to let Barry set the pace. Barry’s initial idea was to duck over into the dressing rooms, but halfway there he changes his mind, taking them all the way back to the manager’s office instead. Nicer chair in there.

Just as he’d predicted, Fuches gives a grunt of appreciation when he sees the seat, though it’s quickly followed by a vague gesture towards the wheels.

“Got any brakes on that thing?”

By way of an answer, Barry leans down to take the office chair by the arms, turning it and rolling it backwards until it butts up against the wall. When he turns around again he finds that Fuches has moved in so close that he almost bumps into him. The sudden proximity trips Barry’s combat training; he flinches and looks away as he bites down on his reflexes. When he looks back he sees Fuches smiling up at him, unfazed.

“Well,” he says. “Problem solved.”

Barry lowers his gaze and nods his head towards the seat.

“You wanna sit, or…?”

Fuches’s smirk widens. “Or.”

That doesn’t help. Barry opens and closes his hands at his sides, unsure of what he’s supposed to do next. Fuches just stands there, that look on his face, the usual smugness tinged with a hint of something almost sly. Barry’s mouth starts to turn up in answer, half amused, half curious.

“What’re you smiling at?”

“Nothing,” Fuches says. “I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Oh, y’know.” Fuches shrugs, feigning absent-mindedness. “Just, uh, if anyone can hear us, well— that would be their problem, wouldn’t it?”

Barry shakes his head, quick and decisive. “No, it’s okay, the store’s closed. No one’s here.”

Fuches nods in agreement. “Yeah, I know.” He reaches up to pat Barry’s cheek. “I was just thinking.”

He gives him another pat and then maneuvers his way around him. Barry turns with him as he goes, the pair of them moving together until Fuches is backed up to the chair with Barry standing in front of him. Before he sits, Fuches jerks his chin downwards, his brows raised in expectation.

There it is: a cue that Barry recognizes. Hurrying to answer, he quickly steps in and reaches down between them, his hands finding Fuches’s belt buckle on autopilot. Fuches huffs and shifts his weight as Barry’s knuckles brush against the tented front of his pants.

“Uh huh,” he mutters. “That’s it.”

Swift and practiced, Barry opens the buckle without ever looking down, his eyes fixed on Fuches’s face while Fuches grabs onto his biceps for balance, his own gaze locked on Barry’s hands moving between them. His breathing is already ragged by the time Barry gets to the button and fly, and when Barry hooks his thumbs in the waistband of his underwear Fuches is forced to sit down, collapsing into the chair with enough force to slam the back of it into the wall. The unseen leash between them yanks Barry after him, pulling him down to his knees in the space between Fuches’s open legs.

New position, same objective— undeterred, Barry switches his grip to try and tug Fuches’s pants down a bit farther to give him more room to maneuver. Fuches has the presence of mind to grab onto the armrests of the chair and lift up his weight.

“Thanks,” Barry mumbles, slipping the pants down around Fuches’s thighs.

Fuches slumps back into the chair, breathing hard from a combination of effort and arousal.

“Hey,” he wheezes. “I’m just holding up my end.”

He pushes up again so Barry can get the underwear out of the way, pulling the elastic out in front so he can slide it over Fuches’s erection, which bobs up as soon it’s exposed, thick and heavy with anticipation. Fuches chuckles as he settles his weight, his open hands framed around his cock, offering it as proof.

“See?” he pants. “I told you I missed you.”

Barry gives him a skeptical look, certain that he’s being mocked— but Fuches just holds his gaze, shameless and sure. He means it. Barry looks away again, vaguely embarrassed.

“Yeah, uh—” he fidgets. “Me too.”

And what’s really crazy is, he also means it— it just feels so weird to say it out loud, in this context. That’s not how they do things. After a moment Fuches relents, his hands retreating to the armrests as he leans back in the chair.

“Okay, okay,” he says. “I’ll shut up now.”

Barry tries not to overthink it. He tries to let autopilot take over again, his weight shifting forward onto his knees, one hand going right for the base of Fuches’s cock while the other settles on Fuches’s thigh. He almost dives right to work— but he feels bad, and he hesitates.

“Look,” he sighs, his gaze still locked on his target. “You don’t have to shut up. Just, c’mon— don’t— don’t get all—”

“All what?” Fuches challenges.

With enormous effort, Barry raises his head to meet Fuches’s eyes with his own.

“You really wanna talk about this right now?” he asks, quiet.

Fuches considers him, his gaze keen and searching, his mouth quirked with affection. It’s really not fair— he’s the one who said back at the start that it would never be like that, and yet he’s the one who always ends up testing the boundaries. Sure, they can miss each other— and sure, they can do this for each other— but those two things aren’t supposed to mix. It’s not supposed to be like that. And after a pause that goes on almost too long for comfort, Fuches finally smirks and shakes his head.

“Nah,” he says. “Guess not.”

Barry nods, half relieved— and, he realizes, half disappointed. He remembers feeling the same way back at the start, too.

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “I didn’t think so.”

Fuches clucks his tongue and leans forward to cup Barry’s face in his hands, giving his head a teasing wag.

“Hey, c’mon, buddy,” he wheedles. “We don’t need to talk about it because there’s nothing to talk about, is there? It’s just you and me, Barry. That’s all. Just you and me. And we don’t need to talk about that.”

Of course Barry could shake off those hands if he wanted. Instead he nestles his chin into Fuches’s grip, their eyes locked in understanding. Fuches is right. What they have is just like silence— to say its name would shatter it entirely. And right here, right now, Barry wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

“Fuches,” he says. “I really am glad you’re here.”

This time Fuches is the one to blink first, his gaze averted as he loudly clears his throat, caught in an uncharacteristic loss for words. Barry has him backed into a tight corner. His answer can’t be too sentimental. Finally he thinks of something, turning again to Barry with a knowing smile.

“Prove it.”

That’s more like it: a challenge and a command all in one. They’re back on track, now. After that it’s all muscle memory, as Fuches sits back in his chair and Barry leans in and obediently lowers his head, his mouth fastening onto Fuches’s cock without hesitation.

Fuches hisses and clenches his teeth— the sound floods into Barry’s ears while the taste floods over his tongue, warm and so, so familiar. It’s second nature to subtly tighten his grip on the base of the shaft, holding Fuches steady while he gets to work. He knows exactly how Fuches likes it, his head bobbing and his cheeks hollowed with effort, finding his rhythm and committing to it. The months of separation couldn’t put a dent in all those years of practice. It’s like field stripping a rifle; Barry could do it with his eyes closed.

“Ah, shit—” Fuches groans. “Yeah, that’s good—”

Barry hums in acknowledgment, completely confident in his ability to perform this task. In some distant corner of his mind, he can’t help but think about how different it is when he’s with Sally— how he still feels like he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing, his mind racing and his heart sinking every time the moans start to fade, forcing him to fumble for yet another new tactic. Compared to that, this is easy— this is instinct— he doesn’t even have to try. It’s been this way from the very beginning, right from the first time he clumsily slid down between Fuches’s legs and Fuches made no attempt to stop him.

God, they were so drunk that night. In the early days they needed the excuse, a pretense that they valiantly maintained until it went on long enough for them to stop pretending that the whiskey made them do it. It was something else, something that they somehow both understood— even though neither of them could explain how it got started in the first place.

It would be years before Barry stumbled onto the term during a late night deep-diving on wikipedia: touch starved.

It’s the closest he’s ever come to being able to describe what happened between them, back when Barry hadn’t left his house in months and Fuches came over with too many bottles of booze and the promise that he didn’t have anywhere else to be for a while. Sure, they kept a respectable distance for the first few drinks, but as the hours ticked on and the defenses lowered, that distance between them shrank and shrank until they were side by side on the couch.

Then— maybe Fuches was making a joke— maybe he was trying to make a point— but he threw his arm around Barry’s shoulders and pulled him in so— close

And he was so warm and so safe and so familiar and all of a sudden Barry needed to get even closer closer and it started with a hug but then Barry was clinging to him and Fuches was rubbing his back and saying it’s okay buddy it’s okay I’m here I’m right here and it still wasn’t close enough Barry needed to get closer if he could just get closer god he couldn’t ever remember needing something so much

And he didn’t even think about doing it— he just blindly swung his leg over and pulled himself into Fuches’s lap, crowding over him chest to chest, his face buried in the crook of Fuches’s neck. Underneath him he felt Fuches’s whole body go tense with shock, but Barry just held on for dear life, his own body shaking with desperation, past the point of self-control.

He remembers the strangled way that Fuches said: “Oh, Christ.” He remembers the first tentative touches on his back. And with his face plastered against Fuches’s shoulder, Barry’s ear was at the perfect angle to hear the unmistakable change in Fuches’s breathing.

Then Fuches slid his arms around Barry’s back and pulled him close.

It’s okay. It’s okay, Barry. I’ve got you.”

It was forgiveness. It was encouragement. Whatever it was, it allowed them to keep going.

And all Barry could think about was getting closer, closer, rocking his weight in Fuches’s lap while he nuzzled and whined on his shoulder, as helpless as he’d ever been in his life. Fuches was breathing so hard Barry could feel it on the back of his neck, heavy and hot, so hot that it crawled down his spine and lit up his nervous system like a highway at rush hour, the synapses all backed up and overloading. Pressure on his hips— Fuches’s hands, digging in and urging him on, coaxing his weight lower, just a bit lower— and then— he felt—

Jesus,” Fuches gasped, at the same moment Barry bit down on Fuches’s shirt to stifle his cry.

And it was good it was so good and Barry was alive and aching as they rocked together and Fuches just kept saying that’s good ah fuck that’s so good Barry c’mere Barry c’mon Jesus Christ that’s perfect and Barry just couldn’t believe that Fuches was there he was really there even though Barry was a violent piece of shit who probably still belonged back in that hospital in Germany. He thought about how he woke up that morning so, so alone. He wished he knew how to tell Fuches how much this mattered. He wished there was something he could do to show him.

And he didn’t even think about doing it— he just clumsily slid down between Fuches’s legs and Fuches made no attempt to stop him.

Some things never change.

“Jesus Christ,” Fuches pants in the here and now. “Ugh Barry that’s— fuck!

His voice breaks into a stifled howl as Barry drops his head to take the whole length of him, swallowing Fuches all the way down his throat before he pulls all the way off to catch his breath, a move that leaves Fuches dazed and wheezing.

Well, maybe some things do change— he couldn’t do that back at the start.

Giving his jaw a quick break, Barry sets in pumping with his right hand, his grip traveling easily over the generous coating of spit that he’s left painted all over Fuches’s dick. Fuches makes sure to groan appreciatively at the change in technique. He knows how much Barry craves constant feedback, hungry for every possible verbal and non-verbal assurance that he’s doing a good job. Proud and panting, Barry looks up at him, just to make sure he means it. Fuches groans again and nods his head.

“You’re doing great, bud. Shit, you have not lost your touch, that’s for goddamn sure.”

Barry grins, his tongue between his teeth, and adds a twist of the wrist to his ongoing strokes. He’s pleased beyond measure at the answering hiss of satisfaction— even more pleased when Fuches reaches out to roughly card his fingers through Barry’s hair, a graceless gesture that ends in a harsh, possessive tug.

“Yeah,” he says, low and hoarse. “That’s my boy.”

Barry wants to say: Yeah, I am. He wants to say: Call me that again. He wants to say: I can’t believe you can still say that after all the terrible things I’ve done. Because that’s what really blows his mind about this whole thing— that Fuches could know him so well, from Korengal to Cleveland and all the carnage that came after— and still want him anyway. Barry can’t believe he could be so lucky.

And he wouldn’t even begin to know how to say it out loud. All he can do is try to show him, so he keeps twisting his hand around the shaft of Fuches’s cock while he leans in to take the head of it into his mouth again, his tongue finding the slit and lapping hard. Fuches tightens his grip in Barry’s hair, his voice ragged.

“Oh fuck— Barry you’re killing me— Jesus you’re incredible.”

Barry whines in pleasure, gazing up at him so he can bask in the sight of Fuches’s face, all flushed and beaded with sweat. Fuches is clinging to an armrest with one hand and a fistful of Barry’s hair with the other, his balance suspended between the two. He looks like he never thought he was going to see Barry again.

“Look at you,” he says, his eyes wet and shining with some emotion that Barry can’t identify. “Just— just let me look at you.”

Barry squirms and averts his gaze. He doesn’t pull away, not till Fuches catches him by the chin and lifts it up to steer him into eye contact. Barry tries to look at him, but he’s not strong enough to hold the weight of that gaze and his eyes keep darting back and forth again, taking as much of it as he can stand. No one else has ever looked at him like that. No one else has ever really seen him— not like Fuches can see him.

So Barry lets him look. He lets Fuches watch as he starts pumping his hand again, slow at first but faster with every stroke, the momentum building towards the inevitable. Fuches bobs his head in rapid assent.

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s it, c’mon.”

He curses unintelligibly when Barry latches on with his mouth again, sucking hard as his hand keeps working, quick and relentless. Fuches has both hands in Barry’s hair now, goading him faster, faster, the words tumbling out of him in scattered bursts of coherence.

“Oh shit— oh shit— yeah Barry that’s— nnh— that’s so good— you’re so good— hah— c’mon— c’mon—”

He always goes quiet right before comes. Then there’s the telltale bark of “fuck!” and the subsequent warm rush at the back of Barry’s throat, the grip in his hair holding him down so he has to take it all. Not that he needs the encouragement— Barry gulps it down like water in the desert, eager to accept anything and everything that Fuches is willing to give him. He keeps his mouth fastened on until Fuches is past the point of comfort, his breath hitching at the last few greedy pulls.

“Okay,” he pants. “Okay, okay— that’s enough.”

Barry withdraws, embarrassed. He keeps his head ducked to avoid eye contact as he scrambles to stick to the routine, one hand still braced on Fuches’s thigh while the other reaches down to take care of himself.

Sometimes Barry takes the time to get his pants down. Sometimes he just rubs himself off through the fabric. And other times — like the first time — he reaches under the waistband to jerk off inside his pants. The first time he was wearing sweatpants; easy access. Today he’s wearing lululemon joggers; same easy access, plus he doesn’t have to worry about making a mess on the office carpet. Barry wriggles his hand down inside the stretchy black material and takes hold of his cock, stiff and sore with the need for release. He keeps his gaze averted as he starts jerking hard and fast.

Sometimes Fuches will lazily run his fingers through Barry’s hair while he finishes himself. Sometimes he sits back, wordlessly catching his breath. And other times — like the first time — he keeps up a stream of encouragement, the words thick and slurred in his post-orgasmic haze.

“There we go,” he mumbles. “You’re a good kid, Barry. You know that, right? You’re really something. Go on. Yeah, it’s okay. It’s okay.”

Barry groans and jerks harder, his other hand digging into Fuches’s thigh. He’s so close already, worked into a frenzy by his efforts with Fuches, the inside of his joggers damp and smeared with pre-come. His mouth hangs open, soundless, his eyes screwed shut—

“Okay,” Fuches says, sudden, sharp. “Okay, c’mere. I said c’mere.”

Barry opens his eyes in confusion as Fuches sits forward and grabs him by the elbows, yanking his hands up and tossing them around the back of his neck. The gesture hauls Barry from his hunched position and up onto his knees, his back arched as he holds on to Fuches for balance, his face once again buried in the crook of Fuches’s shoulder. Fuches keeps one arm looped around Barry’s back to support him, but the other hand— oh— oh

Fuches slips his other hand down the front of Barry’s joggers.

Shit,” Barry gasps, and he has to clench his arms around the back of Fuches’s neck to keep from collapsing to the floor.

“Easy,” Fuches rasps. “I’ve got you.”

Clumsy but determined, he fumbles his grip up and down, jerking Barry off while Barry wheezes and shakes and clings to him like a lifeline. It’s been a long time since Fuches did this for him. Ever since Barry took care of himself the first time, it just sort of became a part of the arrangement, unspoken but understood. Sometimes, in the early days, Fuches would let Barry sit next to him on the couch while Fuches finished him off, Barry clinging to his arm and trying not to moan too loud— but the offer grew more and more scarce, until finally he gave up offering it at all. Barry didn’t mind. Not really. Or, maybe once in a while, but hey, it’s not like they were ever going to talk about it. Besides, sometimes Fuches would lazily run his fingers through his hair, and that was already so much more than Barry deserved.

God knows he doesn’t deserve this.

“You like that?” Fuches grunts, his thumb rubbing inexpertly at the head of Barry’s cock. “Is that good?”

It takes a second for Barry to remember how to breathe. It takes him longer than that to remember how to speak, his head spinning and his tongue so tied that he has to consciously untangle it. He doesn’t bother trying to disguise the need in his voice.

“Yeah,” he whimpers in Fuches’s ear. “Yeah, Fuches, that’s— that’s good— mmh— that’s really good—”

He clenches both fists in the brown windbreaker and crushes his face against Fuches’s shoulder, his breathing rapid and shallow, his chest pretty much about to explode. Fuches keeps working him, faster now, finding a rhythm that he can sustain. His voice is as rough as his grip.

“C’mon, Barry. C’mon and give it to me. Let me have it. C’mon.”

“Fuches,” Barry whines. “Fuches please— please don’t stop— please— please—”

It doesn’t take long. Barry is so overstimulated at this point that a few more forceful strokes are enough to send him catapulting over the edge, his hips bucking and his wretched sob muffled in the windbreaker as he comes and comes in Fuches’s hand. Fuches rubs his back while he wrings every last drop out of him, the steady praise rambling on and on.

“There we go,” he murmurs with approval. “Good boy. Easy, easy. It’s okay, Barry. You’re okay.”

Barry gasps and pants over Fuches’s shoulder, his eyes wide and staring until he finally squeezes them shut with a clipped moan, at his limit. Fuches mercifully takes the cue and slows to a halt, allowing Barry to stay glued to his neck, shuddering and gulping for air. He doesn’t withdraw his hand from Barry’s joggers. His other hand massages a clockwise circle between Barry’s shoulder blades, coaxing his heart rate down, down. Barry is reminded, distantly, of the way Fuches used to rub his back when he was a kid, waking up from yet another nightmare.

“Shh,” Fuches soothes. “Deep breaths. There we go. See? You’re okay.”

Barry does as he’s told, deep breaths until his heart stops racing and he can support his own weight again, his grip on Fuches’s neck gradually loosening. After a while Fuches slides his hand up and out of the joggers, lingering just long enough to wipe his palm on the front of Barry’s sweatshirt. Then he gives Barry’s back a significant thump.

“Okay,” he says, and Barry knows that means it’s time to let go.

Reluctantly Barry withdraws his arms and sinks down to sit on his heels. Fuches slumps back into the office chair with an exhausted groan. He makes no comment when Barry gingerly rests his hands on his knees, still wanting to hold on to him, to stay close. They catch their breath together. It gets easier and easier as the minutes tick by. Dazed, Barry keeps glancing at Fuches for some kind of cue, but Fuches has his head tipped back and his eyes closed. Barry would give every penny he’s ever earned to know what he’s thinking right now.

He holds it in for as long as he can, until he feels like he’s going to crack and shatter like glass. Finally Barry can’t take the silence.


But as soon as he says the name, Fuches stirs and sits forward again, absently brushing Barry’s hands off of his knees as he clears his throat.

“All right, all right, I’m up,” he breezes.

With a loose sweep of his arm he shoos Barry out from between his legs, forcing him back into an awkward crabwalk so that Fuches has room to stand. Fuches heaves up from the chair while Barry scrambles up from the floor, bringing them face to face, just for a second. Then Barry turns away, his gaze averted whlie Fuches gets his pants up. He stares into the corner instead, wiping his palms reflexively on his thighs, his ear cocked towards the jingle of the belt buckle. He waits for Fuches to give him the all-clear.

“Shit, man,” Fuches says at last. “Don’t tell me you’re actually the manager of this Jazzercise R Us.”

“What?” Barry gives him a quick sidelong glance. “Uh, no.”

He sees Fuches standing with his hands on his hips, his critical gaze roving around the office like they only just now walked into the room. Barry scans the space in turn, suddenly self-conscious, wincing when they both notice the motivational corporate poster framed next to the desk. TEAMWORK. Fuches gives a snort of amusement.

“So, what, this is like some kinda hippie commune deal? Everyone’s a manager so nobody’s the manager?”

“No, we— we have a manager. And an associate manager.”

“Oh, an associate manager, huh?”

“Plus, y’know, some supervisors— why are we talking about this?”

“I was just wondering how the hell you had free rein of the place.” Fuches leans over the desk and nudges some papers around. “Can’t have been here that long. Or do they just trust any old dipshit with the keys?”

“Well I’m covering for Sash— for, uh, for somebody else, and she— they— usually closes. Close.” Barry crosses his arms, weirdly defensive. “But, y’know, it’s not like they’d just let anybody do it. I’m, y’know— I’m considered, uh—”

“Let me guess,” Fuches interrupts, pointing a finger at him. “A teacher’s pet.”

Barry squeezes his arms tighter across his chest. “Reliable.”

Fuches shoots him a knowing smirk. “Boy, I’ll give you that.”

Flustered, Barry looks away, swallowing hard. It’s not fair, it’s really not fair how Fuches can just say shit like that and get away with it. And he makes it looks so easy, too, so off the cuff, like he’s just blurting out whatever pops into his head instead of obsessively self-analyzing every little thing he’s about to say. God, Barry envies him for that. He’s never had a conversation in his life that wasn’t a constant, conscious effort, and with Fuches, the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. He spends so much time scrutinizing everything that comes to the tip of his tongue that, nine times out of ten, he talks himself out of saying anything at all.

He got sloppy, once, early on— kneeling in front of the couch, he looked up at Fuches, took his mouth off his cock, and said without thinking: “You taste good.”

Fuches furrowed his brow, his expression fading with confusion. “I— what?”

“You taste good,” Barry panted. “That’s all.”

He started to lean in again— but Fuches leaned back, his gaze averted and his jaw clenched.

“Barry,” he said, low and tense. “Shut the fuck up.”

A sinking feeling as Barry realized that he’d said something wrong, even though he didn’t know exactly what it was. And as his mind raced for a way to set things right, he made an assumption based on personal experience— Fuches must have thought he was being mocked.

Shaking his head, Barry scrambled to reassure him.

“No, no, I love it,” he blurted out. “I love the way you taste. I mean it, I’m not trying to—”

Then Fuches turned on him with a roar, his eyes dark and angry.

“For fuck’s sake, Barry!”

Barry shrank away from him in dismay, his eyes wide. He held his breath as Fuches visibly tried to calm himself, scrubbing his dry hands over his face and shaking his head to clear it. For a moment it seemed like it might actually work. Then all at once Fuches stood up and shoved past Barry without a word, stopping just long enough to grab his jacket before bolting out of the apartment and leaving Barry alone, both hands clapped over his stupid mouth.

It was a hard-earned lesson, but he took it to heart with the rest of his training: think before you speak.

Fuches, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about any of that. He can say whatever the hell pops into his head. There’s no danger— he knows that Barry would never walk out on him.

But you did walk out on him, Barry tries to remind himself.

Exept it’s kind of hard to believe that when he can still taste Fuches in the back of his throat.

“All right, then, Mr. Reliable,” Fuches claps and rubs his hands together. “I better let you get back to work. Those tracksuits aren’t gonna fold themselves.”

“There’s more to it than that,” Barry mumbles, but Fuches has already sauntered out of the office past earshot.

Barry catches up with him halfway to the front door, Fuches’s hands in his pockets and his demeanor just shy of whistling a jaunty tune. By contrast Barry feels so clumsy and disoriented that he might as well be wearing a blindfold, every step an effort not to trip over his own feet. He stares straight ahead as they walk side by side towards the exit.

“Hey, uh, Fuches?” He licks his lips, nervous, overthinking it. “I just— I really wanted to say—”

“It’s okay, man,” Fuches bulldozes over him. “We can talk more tomorrow. You got my number? Let me give you my number.”

“Can we just— hang on—”

Surprising both of them, Barry reaches out to grab Fuches by the arm, bringing them to a stop face to face. Fuches looks like he’s about to tell Barry to shut the fuck up. Barry doesn’t give him the chance.

“I wanted to say thanks.”

Fuches is already on his guard. “For what?”

“Y’know, for— for this.” Barry looks down at his shoes. “For, uh, for being here. With me.”

Fuches’s expression softens, his smile wry, his eyes almost sad.

“Yeah, well.” There’s a hoarse edge to his voice. “Old habits, huh?” He shakes his head and coughs. “Let me get you my number.”

“I have your number,” Barry says.

“You have my—?” Fuches looks up at him, surprised. “Wait, really?”

“I mean, yeah, unless you changed it.”

“No, no, it’s still—” Fuches cocks his head and smiles. “Huh.”

Barry squirms. “What do you mean, huh?”

Fuches is still smiling. “You kept my number.”

And Barry can’t stop the stung, stricken look he gives him, caught in a lie that he hadn’t even realized he’d been telling. Fuches just keeps smiling. He knew the truth all along: Barry could never walk out on him.

“Hey, Barry,” he says, his voice immeasurably fond. “Remember what I said.”

Now that’s a tough one. It’s a direct order, but it’s almost impossible to obey— Fuches has said a lot of things. He said: My boy. He said: I’ve got you. He said: It’s okay, Barry. You’re okay. And that’s just tonight— Barry remembers every word Fuches has ever spoken to him. All he can do is furrow his brow, wordlessly requesting specification. Fuches reaches out to tap a fist against Barry’s chest, the gesture accompanied by a conspiratorial wink.

“Braveheart, man,” he says. “Just think: Braveheart.”

Barry sighs and manages a weak nod.

“Okay. Sure.”

“All you have to do is ask yourself one question.” Fuches spreads his open hands. “What would Mel Gibson do?”

“Well, uh,” Barry screws up his face. “Maybe— maybe not the actual Mel Gibson.”

“Oh, for fuck’s—” Fuches rolls his eyes. “Fine. What would, uh— what would the guy from Braveheart do?”

Barry considers it for beat. “I guess that’s better.”

Fuches makes a dismissive gesture. “You’re gonna be fine, bud. Don’t get hung up on the details. They just want a good story.”

Barry nods. He knows the feeling.

“Call me tomorrow,” Fuches says, unlocking the front door to let himself out. “Or whenever. I’ll be around.”

“Okay,” Barry answers. He’s unsure whether it’s an acknowledgment or an agreement.

“Okay,” Fuches confirms. “Take it easy, Barry.”

“You too, Fuches.”

“I’ll see you later.”

“Uh huh.”

There’s a long moment where Fuches lingers in the doorway, looking back. He’s not really the type to look back. Barry shifts his weight, uncertain, while Fuches just stands there looking at him like he never thought he’d see him again. God, just once Barry wishes he had the guts to take a chance and say the first thing that popped into his head. Fuches breaks the silence first.

He says, “Still fits.”

Barry exhales. “Yeah.”

Fuches raps his knuckles on the glass door, his head bowed, sealing their words like a charm.

And Barry has about a million more things he wants to tell him—

—but then Fuches is gone, and Barry is alone again.

The door closes with a soft thud. Barry stands there in the dark, trying to find his bearings. It’s already late, but there’s still a few things left to do in the store if he wants to maintain that reliable reputation of his. He’ll have to get to work now or there’s no chance at getting out at a reasonable hour. But first things first— he needs a fresh pair of pants.

Fuches, as usual, left him an absolute mess.