BECAUSE I LOVE HIM
After a very close call during an evening spent burgling, Raffles decides something which he believes will be for the benefit of Bunny. However, he needs the help of his best friend from school to carry his plan through. The results are as Raffles had planned, except for the fact he wasn't quite expecting the effect they had on him. Things get even worse when he receives a telephone call at his club one evening.
An established relationship story.
Written: March 2013. Word count: 20,130.
Despite being back in my rooms, in my bed for over an hour, my beloved rabbit is still chilled, trembling and clinging to me in the way he hasnít clung to me since we were at school. All I can do is to hold him as closely and tightly as possible, murmur soothing words to him, stroke his hair and kiss him as I yet again blame myself for what happened earlier in the evening.
Despite the healthy state of our funds, despite the fact we had no need to take something that did not belong to us, despite the fact that Bunny asked me, even begged me, not to try to steal the necklace I had seen once (the necklace I confess I had become more than a little obsessed with) despite the fact I knew it would be a very high risk operation, despite feeling a sense of unease as we stood in the grounds outside the house waiting for the lights to all be extinguished, despite my rabbit's final 'please, Raffles', I nonetheless had insisted upon us breaking into the house and making an attempt to liberate the necklace.
I had even spoken a little sharply to my rabbit, telling him that if he was so afeared that we would be caught, he could wait for me outside the grounds in relative safety, he could even return to his flat in Mount Street. My words had been unfair, calculated even as I knew he would never leave me; he had accompanied me this far, he would see it though - as he always did. I knew my rabbit so very well; I knew just how to manipulate him; I knew just what to say to him; I knew just what tone to use; I knew when a hand on his arm would be enough to win him over and when it required my fingers on his cheek or in his hair; I knew exactly what promises to make to him of what we would do once we returned to the Albany; I knew exactly what to do, what to say and how to look at him - he was that deeply under my control, that intensely in love with me. I actually believed I could hand him my gun and tell him to put it to his own head and pull the trigger and he would do so.
I am not proud to admit it, but I did play on his love, his devotion, on how he was still almost as in awe of me as he had been when I had been the captain of the eleven and he my fag. And I had begun to play on it more and more as time went on. I even quite, quite deliberately tested him on more than one occasion, seeing what I would have to do to make him walk away from me - indeed was there anything I could do to make him walk away from me? He did leave my side a time or two, but he always returned. He was bound to me; I had made quite, quite sure of that.
My only defence is that I was as bound to him as he was to me. Had he once stood his ground and said 'no, Raffles' and truly meant it, I would have been the one who backed down, the one who succumbed to his will - but he never did; not once. I loved him, I adored him, I could not imagine my life without him in it and yet still on occasions I treated Parker better and with more respect than I treated my beloved Bunny.
And that is why he is lying trembling in my arms now. That is why I had splashed his overcoat with brandy from my flask so that I could have an excuse for quite how much I was supporting him, for why I had my arm firmly around him. That is why it was I who'd had to undress him and redress him in his pyjamas and that is why I had been unable to even leave him to visit the bathroom on his own - and for Bunny to allow anyone to do remain with him, even I whom he kissed, touched, made love with, was quite happy to watch me undress, bathed in the same bath as I on more than one occasion, showed just how affected he had been by what had happened. And it was all my fault.
We had gained entry to the house easily enough, even more easily than I had believed to be possible. Our route had taken us over the roof, down through a skylight into the attics where we had only to slip quietly down the attic staircase and into the master bedroom, which had been easily identifiable from outside and the necklace was as good as ours.
Except that hadn't happened. We did, as I said, gain entry into the house extremely easily, it had taken no more than a minute or two for us to be standing in the attic as I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark. I still do not know quite what happened, but one moment my rabbit was standing by my side, his arm brushing against mine and the next I heard a loud crack and I heard him cry softly. Instinct must have taken over as I found myself gripping his arm, holding his full weight as we both stared in horror. A part of the floor had given way, which in itself would have been bad enough, but rather than just open to the room below, it opened over the entrance hall.
Bunny's life was literally in my hands, in my strength, in my ability to not only hold onto him, but also to pull him back to safety. Had I let go, had I been unable to hold him, he would have fallen the entire height of the house, crashing down onto a marble floor and his life would have been extinguished. I would have lost my rabbit.
I am strong, I do have a fierce grip and Bunny is, given he is several inches shorter than I am, fairly slight, but the effect of his full weight on my arm was tremendous and even as I held him and told him he would be all right, I truly did not believe I had the strength to pull him to safety. But from somewhere I found it and after I do not know how many minutes had gone by, I only knew I was starting to lose all sensation in my arm, I finally managed to pull him to safety, where he collapsed, shaking, perspiring, breathing in what I thought was a dangerous way, his heart rate far, far faster than it should be as I held him with one arm and tried to regain some sensation in the arm that had been so abused.
Charlie had once told me that the body can do remarkable things; that in times of great danger we can do things we would not believe it possible to do under normal circumstances; that somehow the body manages to overcome its natural limitations - well that certainly is what happened earlier tonight.
Once Bunny was safe again I cast aside all thoughts of obtaining the necklace, indeed I wondered why I had ever been foolish enough to want it in the first place and concentrated on the not inconsiderable task of getting my rabbit out of the house, down to the ground and to safety.
If there is a god of cracksmen, if there is someone who has a soft spot for a rogue such as I, then that someone was on our side - not just in the house, but afterwards as I guided Bunny back onto the roof, down to the ground, out of the grounds and to a place where I could flag down a cab.
On more than one occasion I had believed he would either faint, collapse with shock, be sick or even have an accident, he was shaking so, he was clinging to me so tightly, I knew I would show bruises from the way he was gripping me. He was deadly pale, his eyes wide and seemingly unfocussed, his heart pounded, his face was damp with perspiration and I do not believe he could hear me, even though I talked to him all the time, reassuring him that he was safe, that I would take care of him, that I loved him - yes, I told him that over and over again, unconcerned that someone might hear us. And finally I managed to get him back to the Albany, up to my rooms and into my bedroom.
He pressed against me, trying to get closer and closer, as he hands clung to me, as his eyes stared at me in an unfocussed way, as I comforted him and tried to calm him, as I reassured him that he was safe, that I was with him and that I loved him. And even as I did all those things, even as I hushed him, called him my good boy, my dear rabbit, my beloved Bunny and assumed him time and time again how much I loved him, I made a decision.
This had to end; Bunny and I had to part company. I couldn't go on any longer putting his life in danger; I couldn't risk losing him to death; I had to lose him, but I had to know he was alive, safe, well and even happy. However, it would be of no use me telling him I no longer wished him to be by my side, in my bed, in my arms; it was no use me being the one to tell him to go. He had to be the one to walk away from me and it had to be because of something I did that even he could not, would not be able to forgive.
I had to hurt him; I had to make him hate me; I had to make him leave my side and my life - I had to do so, because I could not see him suffer any longer because of his love for me. And I knew exactly what I had to do. I knew just what would drive him from my side - the only problem was, I could not do it on my own and I wasn't completely certain my powers of persuasion would be enough to make the only person who would make my plan work agree to help me. But I had to; no matter what it cost me; I had to do it. And I would. I would make my rabbit walk away from me - walk away from me for good.
As Bunny finally began to tremble a little less, as his grip on me loosened slightly, as he felt just a little warmer I changed my own grip and gathered him more into the embrace of a lover and I dared to let my lips linger on his cheek for a moment or two until I heard him sigh with pleasure and move just enough so that I could put my mouth on his.
I do not believe I have ever made love to him quite so meaningfully, quite so lovingly, quite so gently, quite so desperately as I made love to him there in my bed, as I kissed him, touched him, stroked him to first one release then another and then another as he cried out his name. And then because I simply had to after his hand had closed around me and brought about my release, I tenderly asked him if he minded, which he didn't. I had always taken great care not to hurt my rabbit any more than it would always hurt, but that night I took even longer trying to prepare his body for the intrusion of mine - in the end he was begging me to enter him. I do not believe our lovemaking had ever been as intense, as full of love, as tender, as sweet, as loving, as beautiful as devastating and painful and soul destroying to me as it was that night.
TWO DAYS LATER
I sat by Charlie's side on his sofa, a glass of whisky on the table by my side, a Sullivan in my hand as Charlie stared at me. "You want me to . . . You are asking me to . . . A. J.!" And then to my surprise, he put his own cigarette down took my wrist with one hand and put his other on my forehead.
"What are you doing, Charlie?"
"Making sure you haven't go a fever and that your heart rate is as it should be." I sighed softly as I endured the ministrations of the doctor my boyhood best friend had become. "Well, you don't appear to be running a temperature and your heart rate is as it should be, but you must be unwell, A. J." He finally removed his hand from my forehead but he kept my wrist in his other hand.
"I assure you, Charlie, I am quite well."
He stared at me. "You can't be."
I closed my eyes for a moment as I sought for inspiration; I knew this would be, in many ways, the most difficult part of my plan, but I hadn't thought it would be quite so hard. "I am quite well, Charlie," I repeated.
"Then where is the A. J. Raffles with whom I was at school?"
I sighed. "He grew up, Charlie, a long time ago."
Charlie shook his head. "No. No, A. J., no one changes that much."
I frowned. "What do you mean?"
"When we were at school you spent a considerable amount of time and energy protecting Manders, keeping him safe and making sure no other boy got near to him. You went out of your way to ensure he wasn't hurt not by another boy nor by you. And yet you sit here asking me to help you do something that will not only hurt him it will destroy him."
"If you're tired of him, A. J., just tell him so. If you donít want him around any longer as your friend or your lover then be honest with him. I don't understand the need for this elaborate plan."
I closed my eyes shutting out the sight of Charlie's expression which was harder and more confused than I had ever seen it. "It's not that," I said softly. "I haven't tired of him; I don't want him to go; I want to keep him by my side now and forever both as my friend and my lover. I love him; I always have and I always will." I opened my eyes again and stared at Charlie, trying to make him understand. When we had been at school we had learnt to communicate without words, I thought maybe we hadn't lost the ability.
However, it seemed we had because Charlie just shook his head in clear confusion and stared at me as if he suddenly expected me to grow a second head or something. He opened his mouth to say something, shook his head and closed it again before trying for a second time. "Now I really don't understand, A. J., if you love him, if you don't want to send him away then why on earth are you . . . ?"
"Because it's for his own good." I spoke without thinking and the instant the words left my mouth I regretted them. "Charlie," I said quickly, reaching for his hand.
But he pulled back and shook his head. "Don't, A. J., not again. Do not presume you know better than someone else when it concerns what is for their own good. Don't do it, A. J., trust me no good comes of it."
"I'm sorry, Charlie," I said softly as I gazed at him, again trying to tell him without words just how sorry I was and how the apology went back years.
He sighed and took my hand. "I know, A. J.," he said, "I know." We sat in silence for a minute or two before he asked quietly, "Do you want to explain to me quite why you think hurting him in the way you plan to hurt him is for his own good? Why would you do it, A. J.? I really don't understand."
Of course he didn't; how could he? I let my gaze flicker away from him as I thought swiftly; if there was one person I had never wished to know the truth about me, it was the man who sat next to me now. I didn't want him to know what I'd become, but I knew I had to tell him. So I did.
He was silent during the entire time I spoke, telling him the whole sordid tale, and apart from his eyes growing wider and wider he didn't move. Finally I fell silent and forced myself to look at him. "A. J.?" he said my name in a mere whisper. "You're a . . . You're a burglar? A cracksman? You take what isn't yours?" I nodded. "But why?"
Somehow I felt I couldn't give him the almost flippant reply I had given my rabbit when he had asked me the same question, and yet I truly didn't have any other answer for him and yet I tried. "I'm not like you, Charlie," I said. "I never had a plan beyond going to Cambridge and playing cricket. I never cared enough about anything to wish to -"
"You cared. You cared very much, A. J., sometimes I think you cared too much."
I sighed. "I cared about you, Charlie, you and Bunny. But beyond that . . ." I shrugged.
"Can't you just stop? And find something else to do?"
"What had you in mind, Charlie?"
Charlie looked almost confused. "I don't know exactly. Maybe you could - I know! You always excelled at Latin; I know a number of people who would happily pay for private tuition for their sons who aren't doing as well at school as they should be. In fact one of my patients only today was saying how much he wished he knew someone who'd tutor his son - you could do that."
I smiled at him. "I could. But where's the risk?"
"You enjoy risk?"
I nodded. "Yes, Charlie, at least I must do, must I not?"
"Do you not consider your relationship with Manders to be enough of a risk? You could go to gaol?"
I shrugged. "Only if we're caught and I assure you, Charlie, we don't do anything in public. The porter at the Albany must, I am quite certain, wonder from time to time quite why Bunny spends so many nights in my rooms. However, he likes me and I respect him, so . . ." I shrugged again.
"But if you love Manders as much as you say you love him, can't you stop for him?"
I sighed and looked down at my lap. "No," I whispered. "You see, Charlie, I have tried and I cannot."
The single word sent a wave of pain through me. I touched his arm. "Charlie, what if the next time we are out and something happens as it did the other night, what if I am not able to . . . What if he dies because of me? Or what happens when Mackenzie finally does show himself to be more intelligent than I believe him to be and finally catches us and we go to gaol? Can you imagine what that would be like for Bunny? Or what happens if one night we are disturbed by the owner of the house who shoots first and asks questions afterwards? What -"
"All right; all right, A. J. Well, why don't you stop taking Manders with you?"
"Because he wouldn't agree. Charlie, he's walked away from me a time or two, not from me as such, but from the burgling, but he's always come back. And more than once I have tried to leave him behind, I have told him it is a one man job, but he always insists on coming. His argument being I might need him if something goes wrong."
Charlie stared at me and then put his hand over the hand I still had on his arm. "You've really thought this through, have you not?"
I nodded. "Yes."
He was silent for a moment or two and then to my surprise a slightly flush touched his cheeks. "But why me, A. J.? Could you not just . . . Find -"
"A prostitute?" Charlie nodded. "No, well I could but it wouldn't work."
"Because Bunny has to believe it is real and if he found me in bed with a man whom I was paying, he wouldn't believe it was real."
"He would forgive you?"
I sighed. "I believe so, yes. But with you . . . Look, Charlie, he's always known how close we were. You were my best friend at school and he always believed you and I did the things boys do."
Charlie widened his eyes. "Did he?"
I nodded. "Yes. And before you ask, no I did not correct his assumption; I should have done, but . . ."
Charlie looked at me. "Oh, A. J.," was all he said.
He shook his head. "It doesn't matter."
"So you understand why -"
"He'd believe it?"
I nodded. "Yes."
Charlie was silent for several long, painful seconds. Finally he took my hand and held it between both of his and stared directly into my eyes. "Did you give any thought as to what this would be like for me, A. J.?"
I covered both of his hands with my other hand and nodded. "Yes, Charlie," I said softly and with more honesty than I believed I was capable of. "I did. I gave more consideration to that than to almost anything else. If I could have thought of . . . I would have, Charlie. Please believe me. Hurting you is not what I want to do. But - But that's how much I love Bunny."
He closed his eyes for a moment and let his head fall forward a little. "Give me one good reason, A. J., one simple reason, one that doesn't have to do with you being a cracksman and enjoying risk and all the other complex things you've said, why I should do this for you."
"Because," I said, waiting until he lifted his head and opened his eyes and looked at me. "Because, Charlie, you care about Bunny. You always have."
He looked at me and for a second I feared I had destroyed my boyhood best friend. He was silent for so long I honestly did not believe he would speak again. "Very well," he finally said. "I'll do it. God forgive me, but I'll do it." I opened my mouth but he shook his head. "No, A. J.," he said swiftly, "don't thank me. Just tell me when."
"The day after tomorrow. I'll tell Bunny to come to the Albany rather than meeting me at the club; he has a key. When I don't answer the door he'll let himself in and . . ." I hated the dull look in Charlie's eyes but I could think of no way to take it away. "Charlie," I started to say but fell silent when I knew there was nothing I could say.
TWO DAYS LATER
I had less than an hour before Charlie was due to arrive and less than two hours before - Before I would completely destroy my beloved rabbit. Ever since I had returned home from persuading Charlie to help me I had barely let Bunny out of my sight, nor had I been able to keep my hands or mouth off of him.
We had spent all of yesterday in my rooms, most of them in my bed, as I stored up memories of the most wonderful, most perfect, most beautiful thing I have ever had - and would ever have. As I gazed at Bunny, held him, kissed him, made love to him, talked to him, pulled him onto my lap, kept him by me, I continually forced myself not to think of what I would do on the morrow; I just allowed myself to exist for the one day. To live for one day with my rabbit, with the man I had fallen in love with when he'd been a mere boy, with my Bunny. I took everything he gave and greedily demanded more and more, in an attempt to fill up what would be long empty days and nights when he was no longer by my side.
And not once did he seem curious as to why I was quite so demanding, quite so insistent that he not leave my side or my arms. Indeed he seemed more than a little happy, delighted even, to be the complete focus of my attention; he seemed more than willing to spend hours kissing and touching and sitting on my lap and being in my bed.
In many ways I knew I was being a fool; I knew how badly I was hurting myself, how I should have claimed I had a burglary to plan or something, anything to keep him from my rooms and out of my arms. But I could not. I had to have one last perfect day with him. And I did - no matter what the cost would be, I had it.
Finally it was he who after we had lunched today had laughed and said he really must go to his own flat to change out of the clothes he'd spent too long in - not that he had been dressed for a goodly part of the time - before he returned and we went out to dine. And so with one final kiss and an embrace I still do not know how I broke, I had let him go. I had watched him walk away from me, smiling, laughing, in good spirits and as I closed the door behind me I had come so very close to ringing Charlie and telling him I had changed my mind and that I could not drive Bunny away from me.
But then the memory of the night that had changed everything flooded back into my mind and again I saw Bunny hanging from my hand, hanging over a drop that would have been his death. And as I remembered I even saw it - only as I watched the scene replay out in my head I had been unable to hold onto Bunny; I had not been strong enough and he had slipped from my hand and fallen to an agonising, if his screams of pain were anything to go by, death. The memory, the vision, had been enough to still my hand as it had been about to lift the phone.
Instead I had retired to my sitting room, poured myself a whisky and soda which I had drunk straight down before going into my bathroom to bathe. Once I had bathed and changed and stripped and remade the bed with fresh linen I poured myself another whisky and soda and had drunk that a little more slowly.
I was just giving serious consideration to pouring myself a third, when something occurred to me; something I had not thought about before; something that could spoil everything. Parker! He would be on duty when Charlie arrived and the odds were fairly high that he would tell Bunny when he arrived that Mr. Raffles already had a visitor.
I hurried from my rooms, went down the stairs, pushed my hands into my pockets and trying to behave naturally, I strode towards the Porter's office. "Parker!" I cried once I reached it.
He touched his hat and stood up. "Good afternoon, Mr. Raffles. It's a very fine afternoon, sir."
Was it? Oh, yes, I remembered glancing out of the window and wishing that the sun wasn't shining and that the world wasn't so bright; it should be grey and dull and raining, there should even be a storm. However, I forced myself to smile. "Yes, Parker it is. Parker?"
"Yes, Mr. Raffles, sir?"
"I'd be obliged if you would do something for me, if you'd be so kind."
Parker smiled at me. "Of course, I will, Mr. Raffles."
"An old school friend of mine, a Dr. Edward Charleston, will be arriving shortly."
"Oh, that will be nice, sir."
"Yes, yes, it will be. The thing is, Parker, Mr. Manders was at the school at the same time as Dr. Charleston and of course myself, and so when he arrives, I'd be obliged if you didn't tell him Dr. Charleston was already in my rooms."
"I understand, sir, you want to give Mr. Manders a surprise?"
Well, that was one word for it, even though it wasn't the correct one. However, I once again forced myself to smile at Parker, hoping it didn't appear to be as forced as I felt it was. "Yes, Parker," I said, wincing slightly as I heard how overly bright my tone was. "I do indeed."
"He'll like that, sir. Mr. Manders, I mean."
No, he wouldn't. He really, really wouldn't. Of that I was quite certain. But again I forced a smile onto my face. "Yes, Parker, I'm sure he will."
"Well, don't you worry, Mr. Raffles, sir. I won't tell him." Parker smiled at me.
"Thank you, Parker," I said and made myself return the smile.
"Any time, Mr. Raffles, you know I'm always happy to do anything for you."
I nodded. "Yes, Parker, I do know that. Thank you again." And this time I turned on my heel and strode away, went back up the stairs, into my rooms and did indeed pour myself a third whisky and soda and lit a Sullivan as I waited for Charlie to arrive.
I had taken to pacing around my sitting room, glancing firstly at the clock which stood on the mantelpiece and secondly at my watch at extremely regularly intervals as I began to wonder if Charlie had changed his mind. I found it difficult to believe he would have done so; once Charlie gives his word, he keeps it; however, what I found impossible to believe that even had he for some reason changed his mind that he would not have rung me and told me.
I hoped it was simply that something had come up as he'd been about to leave his hospital and not that something had happened to him. Even as I thought that, I felt a modicum of guilt pass through me as I realised I was actually hoping that some person I did not know (or even did know) had been taken ill. I sighed and wondered quite how far I could sink, how much more despicable I could become.
The somewhat ironic thing was that when the doorbell rang five minutes later I had actually begun to hope that Charlie had changed his mind. I glanced around the room, found myself straightening a figurine that stood next to the clock before shaking my head and wondering quite why I was behaving as if this was some kind of romantic assignation rather than the means to hurt beyond measure the man I adored, and thus hurried out into the hall to open the door.
"I do apologise, A. J.," Charlie said, coming inside and handing me his hat. "Just as I was about to leave my home, Matron rang to tell me -" He stopped speaking abruptly, sighed and put his hand on my shoulder. "You don't need to know, but I do apologise for keeping you waiting. I hope you weren't worried I had changed my mind?" He put his stick down and put his other hand on my other shoulder and looked at me.
I sighed softly and even leant towards him a little. "It did cross my mind," I said softly.
To my complete surprise he slid his hands from resting on my shoulders and put his arms around me and pulled me into a loose embrace. "Would you rather I had?" he whispered. I said nothing; I just moved a little nearer and found myself emulating my beloved rabbit as I let my head come to rest for a moment on his shoulder. "I could go," he said softly, "or I could stay and say hello to Manders, just let him think I was passing and . . . What I'm trying to say, A. J.," he said gently doing as I had done to Bunny on more than one occasion and making me raise my head so that he could look into my eyes. "Is that it isn't too late to change your mind."
As he gazed down at me (Charlie's always been two or three inches taller than me) his eyes soft and full of affection as well as the love I've always known he's had for me, I wanted to say that I had changed my mind. I wanted nothing more than to just suggest we go into the sitting room, have a drink and a cigarette and wait for Bunny and in fact all go out to dine together. I knew Bunny would be very happy to see Charlie again; just as Charlie had been fond of Bunny, Bunny had always been fond of Charlie.
But I couldn't change my mind. I had resolved that I would do this and do it I would. I had to do it; I had to do it for Bunny's sake; I had to do it because I love him; I had to do it to keep him safe, which is what I had promised to do on the day we had met and I had taken him as mine. I had to do it no matter how much I hated myself and how much I would miss him. I had to; there was no other option. By the end of the evening, Bunny would have walked out of my rooms and out of my life.
Charlie's hand was tangled in my hair and thus I was forced to meet his steady, questioning gaze. I sighed, blinked hard and said softly, "No, Charlie. No, I'm not going to change my mind. I have to do this. But," I added because I knew I had to, "if you wish to change your mind, then please do say so. I won't mind; I'll understand." And I would because one of the other things I had given thought to since leaving Charlie's side two evenings ago was quite how unfair I was being to Charlie.
When I had decided to approach Charlie, to persuade him to do this thing I had allowed myself, nay I had convinced myself that the love he had had for me as a boy would have faded and changed; that he would no longer be in love with me; that he may even have found a gentleman who could love him as Charlie wanted me to love him.
However, during the time I'd spent with Charlie, I had realised I had been wrong. Despite everything he not only still loved me; he was still in love with me. I hadn't lied when I'd told him I had thought about what it would be like for him, but I hadn't been as honest as I might have been. I had thought about it, but maybe not quite as much as I should have done.
He stared at me. "Would you?" he asked, his tone flat.
I nodded. "Yes. Yes, Charlie, I would. Really I would."
He frowned for a moment. "But I thought I was essential to your plan? I believed you told me it had to be me so that Manders would truly accept what he saw."
I sighed and nodded. "Yes, you are and I did. But - Charlie, I won't force you."
He gave me a faint, somewhat grim smile. "I'd like to see you try, A. J. Don't forget I always have been stronger than you - do you recall a time you ever bested me when we wrestled?"
"Well, no, I don't, because there wasn't one. But that's not quite what I meant."
"I know it isn't. I'm sorry," he said and pulled me back into a loose embrace. We stood in silence for a moment then I heard him sigh softly. "No, A. J., I haven't changed my mind and I won't. I should, I really should, indeed I did give serious consideration on more than one occasion to ringing you and telling you I simply could not do it. But . . . Well, a promise has always been a promise between us, has it not?"
"There are some promises for which forgiveness can be given if they are broken," I said softly.
I felt him shrug. "Not between you and me, A. J.," he said firmly. "I've never once let you down; I'm not going to start now. Besides -"
I raised my head which I realised had again come to rest on his shoulder. "Besides?"
He flushed slightly and shook his head. "It doesnít matter." He spoke softly and for a second his gaze flickered away from me before coming to rest on me again and I understood what he'd stopped himself from saying. "Oh, Charlie," I whispered, putting my hand on his cheek. "For what it's worth, I nearly rang you more than once to tell you I'd changed my mind but . . ." I shrugged.
I wondered if he'd say something but he just looked down at me before sighing and putting his hand on my cheek. We stood for another moment or two in silence before he took my hand and said, "Well, if we are going to do this we had better do it. Where's your bedroom?" I stood unmoving for a moment as with the question the enormity of what I was about to do hit me. "A. J.?"
I swallowed shook my head and instead led him determinedly though my rooms and into my bedroom. Once there he let go of my hand and we turned and gazed at one another. We both just stood in silence, unmoving - for the first time ever I felt out of my depth whilst in a bedroom with another person.
Suddenly to my surprise, shock even, Charlie laughed. I felt my eyes widen a frown creased my forehead as I stared at him. "Charlie?" I winced inwardly at how sharp my tone was.
"I'm sorry, A. J.," he said, moving toward me and taking my hand. "It's just, look at us? How many times have we undressed in front of one another - and I'm not just talking about the times we went to bed together or touched one another."
I found myself laughing as well as I realised how foolish we were both behaving. It's quite possible over the years, given we were at school (and in the same houses) together for ten years and played cricket together, that I've seen Charlie naked more often than I'd seen Bunny unclothed - in fact I know I have. I gave him a rueful look and removed my coat and tie. "You're quite right, Charlie," I said, nonetheless as I started to remove my cuff-links I realised my hands were shaking slightly.
"Wait here." And before I could say anything, Charlie strode out of the room only to return with two glasses of whisky and soda. He handed one to me and waited until I put it to my lips and took a long swallow. He emptied his own glass, locked gazes with me and his eyes never once leaving mine he stripped. After a second or two, I began to remove the rest of my clothing.
I pulled the bedcovers back and stared down at the clean, fresh linen and I felt Charlie's hand on my shoulder. I looked around. "We can do this one of two ways, A. J.," he said softly.
"Cold, detached, clinical sex, as if we don't know one another; we forget what happened when we were school boys. Or," Charlie paused and swallowed, "We remember the past and . . . It's up to you, A. J."
I hesitated for no more than a second, before I reached for Charlie's hand, pulled him towards me, put my hand behind his head and pulled it down. My lips found his just as his found mine. We kissed, arms around one another, bodies already reacting, for several seconds before Charlie tripped me and together we fell onto the bed where hands and mouths began to remember what they'd done all those years ago at school - and how good it had always been.
As we kissed and touched and finally began to touch far more intimately, I made certain it was Charlie of whom I was thinking. Never once did I let myself imagine it was Bunny moving under my hands, Bunny I was kissing, stroking, being touched and stroked by. I'm many things, but to do such an abhorrent thing is not something even I would do. I cared about, I respected and I loved Charlie too much to do that.
To my faint surprise I felt completion race through me and as my body released into Charlie's very experienced hand I cried, "Charlie!" before I found his mouth and kissed him hard enough to graze his lip.
Charlie gasped slightly, but pulled me even nearer to him as his hands now moved over my back, fingers sliding up and down my spine. The last time we had done anything together we had been boys, both fairly experienced, very experienced even, but both still boys. Now we were both men, both even more experienced and with Charlie's additional knowledge of anatomy and the human body - it was incredibly intense.
I'd never had to hold back with Charlie; I'd never had to stifle my strength, because Charlie could and did match it and not only match it but surpass it. My lovemaking with Bunny had always been more gentle, more tender; I had never dared touch or kiss him in the way I was now touching and kissing Charlie for fear of hurting him, nor had he ever touched me in quite the way Charlie was doing.
Part of that was down to experience; Bunny had never touched or kissed a man other than me and everything he knew about the physical love between two men he had learnt from me. And he was a good student, a very good student and I loved the way we kissed, touched and made love - but I was also enjoying the way Charlie was loving me. The way he touched me, kissed me, knew me, I was completely safe with Charlie, just as I always had been; I trusted him, utterly, totally and completely.
I pulled away from him just far enough so I could move my hand down his body and I took him into my hand, gripping him tightly, securely just as I knew he liked and within seconds my hand was damp, he was moaning and gripping my shoulders and pushing his body up into my hand. "A. J.!" he cried mere seconds later as my hand became very wet and sticky. "Oh, A. J.," he whispered, gazing at me, before pulling my head towards his to kiss me in a far gentler way than we'd kissed that afternoon. Damp bodies pressed against one another, we kissed as hand slowly and lightly travelled over the other's bodies and our breathing gradually began to become calmer and steadier.
I'm not quite certain how much time went by when all we did was kiss and touch lightly before I heard the sound of the doorbell. We both froze and Charlie gave me a look that clearly said, 'it's your last chance to stop this'. My answer was simply to put my mouth back on his and my hand around him; as I began to stroke him I felt him begin to harden in my hand and a moment or two later his hand closed around me.
I vaguely heard the front door opening and closing and then I heard Bunny's voice. "Raffles? Where are you?" Charlie's hand tightened around me even more, so much so I gasped whilst at the same time pushing up into the fierce grip. "Are you in the bedroom? Raffles?" For the first time that afternoon I closed my eyes and despite the beauty of Charlie's kiss and touch, I began to count the seconds until -
"Raffles!" Bunny's shocked whisper reverberated around the bedroom as both Charlie and I froze; we hadn't pulled the bedcovers over us, not at all, and so not only did the way we were holding one another show clear evidence of what we were doing, the bed showed evidence of what we had done. "How could you?" I heard Bunny say.
I turned my head. "Bun-" I fell silent as I saw it wasn't me he was staring at; it wasn't me to whom he'd addressed those words. It was Charlie. I let my gaze flicker from Bunny's white, shocked, anguished face forcing myself not to push Charlie away and gather my badly trembling rabbit into my arms and hold him and instead looked at Charlie who was staring at Bunny. The look on his face was one I wished I hadn't ever had to witness.
For what seemed like hours, but quite clearly was nothing more than a second or two, we all just remained frozen, now completely silent, we even all seemed to be holding our breath. I'd once again turned to look at Bunny and my heart seemed to snap as I saw tears fill his eyes, tears he didn't even try to stop from falling as he tore his gaze from Charlie and looked down at me. "Raffles?" his voice shook, his entire body trembled. I had broken him; I had completely broken the man I loved. It was clear in his gaze, in his voice, in the way he trembled and shook, in the way he looked so confused, so utterly and totally devastated, lost and betrayed.
I wanted to say something, but I didn't; I couldn't. I just stared at him, once more wishing I could pull him into my arms, hold him and find a way to make it all right. But I didn't. He held my gaze or another second or two before he once more looked at Charlie. "How could you?" he said again, sounding like a lost, confused, young boy. And with that he turned on his heel and moving very slowly, I watched him place one foot in front of the other he left the bedroom.
My instinct was to get up, go after him and tell him the truth; tell him why I had done what I'd done and beg on my knees for his forgiveness and I truly believed had I done so that he would have forgiven me. I stayed where I was until I head the front door opening and closing again.
Then I turned my head to look at Charlie. "Charlie -"
"Don't. Don't say anything, Raffles." I gasped in horror at the look in his eyes, the tone in his voice and the fact he called me 'Raffles' and not 'A. J.'. "I honestly do not know who disgusts me more," he said getting out of the bed and moving to the chair where our clothes were, "you or myself."
I sat up. "Charlie -"
Again he interrupted me. "No. Don't call me that. Charlie's dead - you killed him Raffles," then he added, his voice just a little less harsh, "well, we both did." He began to dress and I watched him. For the first time ever I had no idea what to say to him. He didn't bother putting his cuff-links on, his just pushed them into his coat pocket. "You know, Raffles, I always wondered if you could ever do anything to make me stop loving you, make me fall out of love with you. I honestly believed you couldn't - I was wrong." He knotted his tie swiftly, before putting his boots on and buttoning up his coat.
"Don't ever contact me again, Raffles. Do not ring me, do not - Just don't. I never want to hear from you or see you again. Never. Goodbye, Raffles."
He turned quickly, but not quite quickly enough to hide the tears that had sprung into his eyes, and strode out of my bedroom. Seconds later I heard my front door opening and closing again. I sat in the bed, the bed of betrayal and tried to cry myself; tried to cry for the loss of my beloved rabbit and my boyhood best friend - but I couldn't. I was too numb, in too much pain, too disgusted at what I had done, too empty to be allowed the freedom or the comfort of tears.
Finally I got out of bed and stripped it and remade it for the second time that day before going into the bathroom and drawing a bath for myself in which I stayed until the water turned not only cool but cold.
When I finally got out of the bath, I was shivering and as I dried myself I tried to feel something. I tried to feel sorrow for what I had done and what I had lost; anger with myself, maybe irrationally with Charlie and even with Bunny; relief that all had gone to plan; anything at all - but I couldn't. It was as if I had suddenly lost the ability to feel - well except to feel empty because that was all I felt; a deep, devastating, all encompassing, soul destroying, frightening emptiness, that as I went back into my bedroom I feared would never leave me.
I dressed for an evening at home when I was not expecting company, pulling on a jumper over my shirt and trousers rather than a waistcoat and coat before I went into my sitting room where I stoked up the fire, grabbed the whisky decanter and a glass and sat down on the sofa.
I have never been what many would call a 'drinker'; of course I enjoyed wine with lunch or dinner and often something before and a brandy or liqueur afterwards and even a whisky once I had returned to my rooms - but that was all; that was a perfectly normal, acceptable amount to drink. However that night I emptied the whisky decanter and refilled it and worked my way down half of it before finally falling asleep on the sofa where my dreams were far from pleasant.
FOUR MONTHS LATER
For four months I had done the things a gentleman about town does, I had done the things I always had done. I accepted every invitation to a ball or dinner or to play country house cricket, even those had they come before the night I had lost everything worthwhile in my life I would not have accepted, I now accepted gladly. The less time I had to spend in my rooms, alone, where the quietness mocked me and reminded me of what I had done and what I had lost, the better.
It was not just the fact I no longer wished to be alone that made me accept each and every invitation, it was because part of me dared to allow myself that Bunny would be invited to the same place as I had been and even if he ignored me, at least I would see what he was alive and well.
However, he never appeared; he seemed to have vanished completely. I even took to haunting Mount Street in the early hours of the evening, watching his flat, staring up to see if I might see him - but never once did I see him. The curtains were opened and closed just as one would do, but for all I knew someone else might have been living there.
And yet whilst I didn't see Bunny, people asked me about him all of the time. Bunny had always believed he had been invited to places because he was my friend (my insignificant little friend to be precise) and yes, whilst I could not deny that was the case with some (maybe a lot of) invitations as it had become known that the surest way to get me to attend a ball, a dinner or a country house cricket match was to invite Bunny as well, it wasn't the case for all places. I was quite certain that some of the dinners and balls I attended that Bunny would have been invited - but if he was he never accepted the invitation.
"Is Mr. Manders not with you tonight, Mr. Raffles?" "It is strange to see you without Mr. Manders, Mr. Raffles." "Is Mr. Manders unwell, Mr. Raffles?" "Is your friend not with you tonight, Mr. Raffle?" These and many other things were asked of me on many occasions until finally people, for the most part, stopped asking me about Bunny.
I must have disappointed many a young lady during those four months because whilst I did attend balls and parties I did not dance - unless it was with the hostess as some of them expected every man to dance with them. But beyond that I did not take to the floor.
Once I had taken Bunny to my bed for the first time and had realised that was where my heart and future lay, my dancing with the young ladies of our acquaintance was down to expectation and what was proper as well as, it has to be said, providing a cover for someone who just might look twice at Bunny and I and wonder just why we spent quite so much time together, just why I did make certain he came with me everywhere - when he was neither a cricket player nor a dancer. I had no desire to dance with the perfumed, jewellery bedecked, prettily gowned ladies, but it was expected; so I did it. With Bunny no longer by my side or in my life, I no longer felt obligated by expectation - no matter how sweetly a lady would smile at me or how blatant her attempt to get me to ask her to dance was.
And as well as not dancing I did not take anyone to my bed, nor did I go to another's bed. I did go home with Frankson one night when the loneliness became too much for me to bear. However, as soon as he put his arms around me and his mouth met mine, I had pulled away and offered an apology; assuring him it was not he but me. Thankfully we were good enough acquaintances for him not to be offended and so he'd simply shrugged, offered me the drink which had been the reason he had given me for inviting me to his rooms - even though we had both known what 'a drink' had meant and we never spoke of it again.
Not since I first began kissing and touching boys (well to begin with a boy: Charlie) all those years ago at school, had four months gone by, had even a month gone by, when I had not bedded or at least touched someone. But now I simply could not; I had no desire to so; it was an outcome of my plan which I had not expected.
I played cricket for my country, my county and many country house matches and I played well, in many ways I believed I played better than I had ever played. However, I played without any enjoyment, without any hint of the passion I had always had for the game, I played for one reason and one reason only: to win. Winning was all that mattered and I had never before had that attitude, not as a school boy, a college young man or an adult. I had always played to play the game and I had been known, especially during my school days and whilst playing country house cricket, to moderate my game and my skills, to give a fair chance to boys and men less able than I. But I did that no longer; I played for one reason and one reason only: to win and if that meant I ruthlessly took three wickets in succession against men whose ability was often not a great deal better than Bunny's had been, then that is what I did.
And I ignored the looks of disapproval and consternation just as I ignored the comments made in my hearing, but not addressed to me, as to how much Bunny was missed and he was the only completely trustworthy and decent score keeper around. My England and Middlesex team mates for the most part seemed to miss Bunny and most seemed puzzled as to why he was not by my side; one or two dared to ask me if he was unwell and when he would be attending the matches with me again. John, persuaded no doubt by Lucy, actually went as far as to asking if we had had a row. I told him we had not; which was true, no argument had happened between us, and had walked away before he could press me further.
I did notice that as the time went on fewer people spoke to me, outside of the usual greeting or a passing comment about the weather or the state of the cricket pitch or anything else you might say to someone who was a mere acquaintance. And also Bunny's name was mentioned less and less until finally people ceased to mention my rabbit at all.
On the one hand it suited me not to have to hear his name, not to have to either ignore a comment pertaining to him or mutter something indistinguishable. On the other hand I found it perturbed me, because if people stopped mentioning him, then I did not get to hear his name. And as much as it pained me to hear his name, I needed to hear it - partly because it did cause me pain to hear his name spoken.
I missed Bunny, I missed him far more than I had believed, that I had allowed myself to believe, that I would miss him. It wasn't just that I missed him in my bed, nor that I missed having someone who always did as I bid them do, nor that I missed being the constant focus of someone; it was partly those things and many more. But I missed Bunny, I missed the man who had become my best friend and my lover and my partner in crime; the man who had at times been (or at least tried to be) my conscience. I missed the way he used to look at me, the way he said my name, the way he smiled at me, the way he blushed, the way that even after all the time we had been lovers, he still from time to time trembled with I touched him; I missed the way I was everything to him. I missed his company, I missed conversing with him, I missed holding him, kissing him, dining with him, burgling with him; I missed him. I missed him so much - the emptiness I had felt on the evening I had driven him from my side had not even begun to fill.
And I not only missed Bunny; I missed Charlie too. For he was someone else I had not seen since the night he had left my rooms ordering me never to contact him again. I had never expected to see Charlie at most balls or dinners, but London isn't actually that large a place, not really, and I'd been used to bumping into him on occasions - but I had not seen him, not even in the distance, since the night he had left my rooms.
I had lost them both; I had driven them both away; it was all my fault and the worst thing was I was now far more concerned about the welfare of my beloved rabbit than I would have been had he still been by my side.
I began to take more and more risks when I went a-burgling; I did foolish things; very foolish things. It was only one evening when I had literally been a second away from being caught, when I returned shaking more than a little to the Albany that I realised I had to stop; stop burgling or at least stop not taking care. I had no desire to go to gaol, but if I were not careful that is where I would end up - there or dead as the gentleman of the house into which I had broken had had a very large pistol and I had no doubt he would have used it.
I could not stop burgling, I had no other way of obtaining money, but I did take more care, I returned to being as careful as I had always been before I had driven my rabbit from my side. More than once I gave consideration to ringing Charlie and asking him to put me in touch with the parents of boys who needed additional tutoring in Latin - yes, I really did give consideration to doing that. However, I did not; I could not because Charlie had told me never to contact him again. I truly believed I would live out the remainder of my days (however many they might be and I was hoping they would be far fewer than I had at one point in my life hoped for) alone, without ever seeing or hearing from either Bunny or Charlie again.
I had dined at my club a little earlier than I usually did and was sitting in the smoking room sipping brandy, smoking a Sullivan and ignoring the general talk that surrounded me. Whilst I preferred to be in the company of other men, I had no desire to actually converse with them. I must have let my mind wander as suddenly I heard the sound of a throat being cleared in a way that told me quite clearly the person had no need to clear his throat.
I looked up to find Jenkins sanding in front of me. "I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Raffles," he said, "but Mr. Easton asked me to tell you there is a telephone call for you."
"For me?" I was surprised.
Jenkins nodded. "Yes, sir. I believe it is a Dr. Edward Charleston."
I was even more surprised; why would Charlie be ringing me at the club, why was Charlie ringing me anyway, given he had made it quite clearly he never wished to see me nor speak to me ever again. Nonetheless I rose to my feet instantly and followed Jenkins to Easton's office. I tried to not to let myself think as to why Charlie was ringing me, least I ended up being disappointed.
As soon as appeared in the doorway of Easton's office, he stood up and nodded to me. "I shall leave you to take your telephone call, Mr. Raffles," he said, before leaving his office and closing the door behind him.
I swallowed and for a moment hesitated before I picked up the phone. "Hello," I said, quite deliberately ensuring I did not address Charlie as 'Charlie' but pointedly refusing to call him 'Charleston'.
Silence greeted me for a moment and I began to think he had either hung up or it was all some elaborate game that Easton had been playing. As soon as the thought came into my mind, I dismissed it; for one thing he was far too respectful of the members of the club to which he was secretary and for another, he did not know Charlie.
I was just about to speak again when Charlie said, "Hello, A. J."
To my surprise I found my hand began to tremble slightly as he called me by the name he had always used and I dared to allow myself to wonder if he had somehow found it in himself to forgive me; that I might regain the friendship of one of the two men I had hurt. I dearly wanted to answer him and call him 'Charlie' but I felt that wasn't yet my right to do so. Thus, I made some kind of muted noise and said, "How are you?"
Charlie was silent for a moment and then he sighed and said softly, "I'm quite well, thank you. A. J. And yourself?"
I hesitated and then said as softly as he had, "I'm -" But I fell silent; the lie wouldn't come; I had never lied to Charlie (except on occasions by omission) and I wasn't about to begin now. "Is there something I can help you with?" I hated how stilted, how formal I sounded, but I no longer knew how to talk to the man I had known for some twenty years.
"A. J., I need you to come to my hospital." Charlie's voice was flat.
I felt my hand began to tremble again, my throat became dry, my breathing increased and as I gripped the telephone I knew; I knew something had happened to my rabbit. "Charlie?" I whispered, quite forgetting I had decided I would not address him thus until he actually gave me permission.
"Manders was admitted a fortnight ago - No, A. J., let me finish. He had been attacked, beaten, robbed and left for dead. I'll explain more when you get here."
I still gripped the phone, clamping down on my instinct to ask him why he was only just calling me, if Bunny had been in his hospital for a fortnight. I reminded myself I had no rights over Bunny any longer; that I had driven him away from me; that Charlie had no reason to call me. And then it hit me. "No," I whispered. "No, oh, no, he's not -"
Swiftly Charlie interrupted me. "No, A. J.," he said, his tone soothing. "He is alive, I'm sorry. Look, A. J., just come, please. I'll explain fully when you get here."
I knew Charlie well enough to know that was all I was going to get from him. "I'll leave instantly," I said. "I'll be there as soon as I can be."
Charlie paused for a second then said softly, "Take care, there's a good chap."
"I will." And I put the phone down and hurried out into the hall. I collected my hat, coat, gloves and stick from Haroldson and hurried out in the damp night, flagged down a passing hansom cab and promised the driver two sovereigns if he got me to Charlie within twenty minutes. It was a challenge for him, I knew that; I was asking him to risk his horse maybe even his life, but as I'd flagged him down I believed I had seen something in his eyes that told me he was a risk taker.
Eighteen minutes later with no damage done to horse, driver, pedestrian or other horse-drawn vehicles we arrived outside Charlie's hospital. I handed him not only two sovereigns but also a half one as well as I raced up the steps and into the hospital. I came to a skidding halt (why do they insist on polishing the floors quite so much in such places?) in what I presumed to be the reception area which was being manned by an elderly man in a uniform who looked up at me and raised an eyebrow.
"I want to see Dr. Charleston," I said.
"Do you now, sir?"
"Yes. He is expecting me."
"Is he now, sir?"
I was starting to become impatient and a little aggravated. However, just as I was about to say something else, a woman, dressed in what I immediately identified as a Matron's uniform appeared. She barely gave me a glance before looking at the man. "Is something the matter, Aitkin?" he asked.
"This gentleman, Matron, said he's here to see, Dr. Charleston, ma'am. He said the doctor is expecting him."
She nodded and turned back to look at me. She studied me for a moment, looking me up and down, before saying, "If you are here to visit a patient, you cannot; visiting hours were over some time ago. If you are a patient, given you do not appear to be in any immediately danger, I must ask you to come back in the morning."
I took exception to her dismissive tone, but somehow managed to curb my temper and instead fell back on the manners my parents and my school masters had instilled in me. "I am quite aware that it is past visiting hours, Matron," I said calmly. "However, Dr. Charleston is expecting me. Indeed it was he who asked me to come here, it is in respect of Mr. Manders," I added.
She stared at me but did not move. She was about to speak when a voice I knew so well called out, "A. J.!" I turned to see Charlie striding towards me.
Matron turned. "Do you know this gentleman, Dr. Charleston?"
"Yes, Matron. This is Mr. Raffles; he is here to see Mr. Manders."
"Visiting hours were -"
"Yes, Matron, I am quite aware of that." I was somewhat surprised that Charlie not only interrupted her, but that his tone was somewhat crisp as he did so.
She pulled herself up to her full height, which was about a foot shorter than Charlie, pursed her lips together and said, "It is really highly improper, Dr. Charleston. The patients have all been settled down for the night. I will not have my -"
"It is my hospital, Matron, and if you find you are unhappy with my decisions then I suggest you might consider looking for another position. I will of course give you excellent references."
I'm not certain who was the more surprised by Charlie's words, spoken in his crisp, very formal tone, Matron or myself.
I watched her cheeks flush and watched her gaze dart away from Charlie. She put her hands together in front of her and stared at the floor for a second or two, before she raised her head. "I do apologise, Dr. Charleston," she said. "I meant no offence, sir. Of course it is your right to make any decision you wish to make. I shall leave you and Mr. Raffles to your business." She turned and began to walk away.
"Matron?" Charlie's voice was much softer.
She stopped and turned back. "Yes, Dr. Charleston."
"Please be good enough to tell Sister Patterson that once I have spoken to Mr. Raffles that I shall take him to see Mr. Manders."
She stood for a moment or two and I wondered if she was again about to argue. However, she simply inclined her head and said, "Yes, Dr. Charleston." Once more she turned and began to walk away; this time Charlie didn't stop her, he simply stood and watched her walk away.
Then he turned to me, touched my arm, before putting his hands into his pockets and beginning to walk in the opposite direction. "Come with me, A. J.," he said.
I followed him walking by his side until we reached a door with his name on it; he opened it, waved me inside, followed me in, closed the door behind us, turned and leant against it as he studied me. "Oh, A. J.," he said softly and then to my surprise he held out his arms to me.
I hesitated for no more than a second before I quickly put my hat and stick down on a chair and moved towards him, letting him put his arms around me and embrace me. Carefully I put my arms around him and held him in a loose embrace.
However, he pulled me closer to him, tightening the grip he had on me and I found myself doing what I'd done on a few other occasions when he'd held me thus: putting my head on his shoulder (just as Bunny always used to put his head on my shoulder when I embraced him). And I heard him whisper, his lips close to my ear, "I'm sorry, A. J., I'm so very sorry." As I let him hold me and as I tightened my own grip on him I wondered for what he was apologising. I bit down on my fear that he was telling me Bunny was dead and told myself not to think that way until he actually said the words.
Finally, he gently pushed me away from him and held my hands loosely in his as he stared at me. I watched him frown as he gazed at me and he shook his head. "Oh, A. J. Come on, sit down and have a cigarette and I'll tell you about Manders."
But I stayed where he was. "He is still alive, is he not, Charlie, I mean -"
"Charlie's quite all right, A. J.," he said swiftly. "It's more than all right. And yes, Manders is alive, I promise you, A. J., he is still alive. It's just -"
A knock at the door silence him. "Come in."
The door opened and Matron swept in, a terribly young girl, dressed in a nurse's uniform carrying a tray followed her in. "I thought you and Mr. Raffles might like a cup of tea," Matron said. "Put it down on Dr. Charleston's desk, Capper, then you may go."
The young nurse, her cheeks red, did that thing. She kept her eyes firmly affixed on the ground as she turned and hurried out of Charlie's office.
"Thank you, Matron," Charlie said.
She paused, moved the cups slightly, then nodded and smiled at him. "You are very welcome, Dr. Charleston." Then she glanced at me and inclined her head. "Mr. Raffles."
"Thank you, Matron." She hesitated for no more than a second or two, before turning and sweeping out of the room, closing the door behind her.
"Would you like a cup of tea, A. J.?" Charlie asked, "or would you rather have a brandy?" I raised an eyebrow and he opened his desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of brandy and two glasses.
"A brandy would be very nice, thank you, Charlie." He smiled, moved the tray of tea from his desk to a side table, poured brandy into both glasses, before taking out his cigarette case and offering it to me. I took one and accepted a light from the match he struck and held for me.
"You know she's in love with you, don't you?" I said, suddenly aware I wanted to delay having the conversation about Bunny for as long as possible.
"Matron?" I nodded. Charlie sighed. "Yes, I do." He swallowed some brandy and looked at me. "I haven't encouraged her in any way," he said swiftly.
I smiled. "I never thought you had. What are you going to do about it?"
"Nothing," he said firmly. "I know she's somewhat outspoken and definitely a modern woman, but she won't say anything. And anyway what could I do or say, A. J.?"
I shrugged; he was of course correct; there wasn't anything he could say to her. I considered suggesting that maybe for the sake of his career he should consider marriage, but given he owned the hospital, I didn't really think it was a logical suggestion. And whilst some men whose preferences laid with other men, would marry a woman if only for the sake of appearances, I know Charlie well enough to know he wouldn't do that to anyone, and certainly not a woman whom he respected, and I knew he respected Matron.
We sat for a few minuets in silence; the comfortable silence we'd always been able to share - the comfortable silence I had feared at one stage we would never share again. "What happened to Bunny?" I finally asked softly.
Charlie sat a little more upright and even though he was still smoking his cigarette, I noticed my friend slip a little more into doctor mode. "As I told you when I rang, he was attacked, beaten and left for dead. Indeed were it not for a local," Charlie paused for a second and then said, "prostitute, I fear he would indeed have died in the alleyway in which he was attacked."
Charlie nodded. "Yes. She was, I believe, on her way home after . . . Well, I'm sure you know and she came across him. Rather than just walk by as I believe many people would have done, she hurried out into the street and persuaded, by virtue of a coin or two, a passing cab driver to fetch help. He insisted on looking at Manders, decided he'd do more harm if he tried to move him into his cab and came here as it was the closest hospital."
"Who was she?"
Charlie shrugged. "I have no idea, A. J. She didn't stay around once the cab driver said he would fetch help. I did make one or two discreet enquiries, but they led nowhere."
"She gave money to help a perfect stranger?" Charlie nodded and then glanced away from me for a moment. "Charlie?"
He looked back at me. "I was just going to say that had it been anyone other than Manders, I would have suggested she may not have been a perfect stranger. But unless he has changed so much since our school days . . ."
"Or since I drove him away," I whispered.
The comfortable silence faded for a moment and became somewhat tense. Then Charlie leant forward and took my hand. "I'm not going to say 'don't blame yourself, A. J.', but what I will say is what happened, happened, you can't go back and change it, no matter how much you may wish to - all you can do is deal with what happens next."
"He will live, will he not?" Although he left his hand over mine, Charlie once more glanced away from me. "Charlie! I asked whether or not Bunny will live."
He sighed before letting go of my hand and moving around his desk to sit on the edge of it where he put his hand on my shoulder. "I had two reasons for ringing you tonight, A. J., both of them were connected with Manders. The first reason is," he paused and reached for another cigarette. I endured him taking one from his case, offering one to me and lighting both; I know Charlie and pushing him is never a good thing. "He's given up, A. J.," he said softly.
"He seems to have lost the will to live."
"You mean he was that badly injured?" I deliberately pretended not to understand him.
Charlie gave a soft sigh. "He was badly injured; he was very badly injured, but he could have been a lot more badly injured. I believe they may have planned to," he paused for a moment and looked at me, his gaze became harder. "Abuse him." Again he looked at me and I knew just what he meant. "But they didn't get that far, I can only imagine something interrupted them, maybe they heard the person who helped him. I don't know. But he was unharmed in that respect."
I gave him a quick nod, letting him know I did understand. "However, his other injuries were quite serious. His leg was broken, badly broken; I sincerely doubt he will ever walk again, at least not outside of his home, without needing to use a walking stick. He will always have a large scar on his forehead, but that will be covered by his hair. He was beaten very badly and the bruises still haven't healed and the beating caused a degree of internal bleeding which thankfully we did manage to get under control. Oh, and assuming for a moment he does live, due to the damage to his leg and the way it was broken, I do not believe you will ever be able to . . . again." Once more he looked at me; once more I indicated I understood.
"It doesn't matter," I said softly. "It was never that important." Then I frowned and said, "You're also assuming that he'll forgive me."
Charlie shrugged. "The second reason I rang you tonight was that he has been saying your name ever since we admitted him." I clamped down on my instinct to demand to know why he had left it until now to contact me. "But it has become far more often during the last two days, especially today. He calls your name, A. J., and . . . Look, I didn't hear it myself and sister couldn't swear to it, at least not under oath, but she is as certain as she can he that he said 'Just tell me why, Raffles."
I stared at him, suddenly not certain what I felt. His hand, which I realised was still on my shoulder, tightened and he handed me his glass and stared at me until I drained it. "Charlie?" I whispered. For a moment neither of us spoke then I remembered what he'd said and asked, "You said he had lost the will to live; what did you mean?"
"I have seen patients far more badly injured and closer to death than Harry is and they have survived, because their will was so strong; they wished to live. I have also seen those far less badly injured who for whatever reason choose not to fight and so they die. A. J., we may have moved out of the dark ages as far as medicine is concerned, but there is still so much we do not know and medicine and the skill of a doctor can only go far. Much of it is in the hands of the patients and for whatever reason Harry seems to have stopped fighting. He seems not to wish to live."
I stared at him. I wasn't entirely certain I understood fully, but then I wasn't a doctor. But I understood enough. "What can I do?"
Charlie was silent for a moment before saying, "Come along," he said standing up and putting his hand under my elbow to encourage me to stand up, "let's go and see him." For a moment I hesitated; I wanted nothing more than to go and see my beloved rabbit; I wanted nothing more than to brush his hair back from his forehead, to take his hand, to touch him, to talk to him, to tell him how sorry I was, to tell him how much I still loved him. Yet at the same time a part of me was afraid to do so.
However, Charlie had made a decision and as he is still quite a lot stronger than me, I had no choice but to go with him, especially as he put his arm through mine and kept it there until we were inside the room in which Bunny lay, still, silent, dreadfully pale and breathing so shallowly I feared Charlie had been mistaken about him still being alive.
Sister had made her displeasure of my being allowed to visit quite clear; in wasn't that she said anything, she didn't. It was the way she stood and the way she looked; Charlie chose to ignore her or rather to act as if she wasn't showing how displeased she was. She had become even more upright and tight-lipped when he had told her firmly we did not need her to escort us into Bunny's room. But other than a 'yes, Dr. Charleston' she hadn't spoken.
Charlie stared at Bunny for a moment or two, before putting his hand on Bunny's forehead and then on his wrist over his pulse; he then lifted his eyelids and looked into Bunny's eyes; he frowned and sighed.
"Charlie?" I didnít try to hide the concern I felt.
He looked at me and tried to smile. "He just seems to be a little more deeply unconscious than he was this morning," he said.
Even I knew that was not good. "What can I do?" I asked, certain that I could do nothing; if Charlie and the nurses couldn't do anything to help Bunny what could I do?
"Hold his hand, talk to him, just let him know you're here. And before you remind me he's unconscious and ask how he could know or how he could hear you, I don't know, A. J., I just know I've seen people talking to loved ones and seen the patients respond to someone's presence even if they aren't conscious. Harry always seemed to know when you were nearby, even if he didn't actually see you, when we were at school, if anything that should only have become stronger."
"Even after what I did to him?"
Charlie shrugged. "He's been calling your name, A. J.," was all he said.
I left Charlie's side went around to the other side of the bed, pulled the chair as close to the bed as I could get it, sat down and took one of his cold, pale and mottled with fading bruises hand from the bed and held it gently between both of my hands. "I'm here, Bunny," I murmured. "I'm here, my rabbit, and you are quite safe. You can wake up now, Bunny." I wasn't quite sure from where the last part had come, it had just felt right.
Just as it felt right to take one of my hands from his and carefully brush his hair back from his forehead. I swallowed a gasp at the sight of the ugly, stitched wound that still had specks of dark, encrusted blood around it. My fingers hovered over it but I paused and looked up at Charlie who was now standing leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets watching me.
"Can I hurt him?" I asked softly, trusting Charlie to understand quite what I meant. He shook his head. So I let the tips of my fingers brush over the puckered wound, touching it gently, soothingly, as I fought the urge to find the men who had done this to my rabbit and make them pay.
"There had to have been several of them, A. J.," Charlie said, reminding me that the bond we had had as school boys, a bond that allowed us to somehow understand one another without the need for words, still remained. "And even though I would be more than happy to help you make them pay, I honestly think you getting hurt would not help and it is not what Harry would want - of course always presuming we could find who they were."
I glared at him, even though I knew he spoke the truth and he just smiled back at me. We locked gazes for a moment before he pushed himself upright and said, "I'll leave you alone for a while; I have a few things I need to do in my office. Talk to him, A. J., just talk to him, tell him - well just tell him what he means to you."
"Won't sister object to you leaving me alone?"
He shrugged. "Yes, but as I told Matron it's my hospital."
I smiled at him. "Thank you, Charlie," I said softly.
He stared at me for a moment and then said firmly, "I shouldn't have left your rooms as I did."
I shook my head. "You were right. I -"
"No, A. J., I wasn't. I behaved like -" He paused and sighed softly before saying, his tone quite firm, "I did what I did out of choice; I should not have taken my anger out on you, especially not at a time when you probably needed my friendship more than you ever have needed it." Years of knowing Charlie told me not to say anything; he hadn't finished and I knew I had to wait until he had. "You see, I'd envisaged many things happening when Manders walked in and found us - I really believed I had thought of every thing he might say or do, but I hadn't."
Again I just sat holding Bunny's hand and brushing his badly in need of being washed fringe from his forehead. "Everything I had thought of concerned Manders being angry with you - I even considered him trying to attack you physically - or him showing you how hurt he was and telling you how much you had betrayed him. I never actually considered he would . . . No one has ever looked at me in the way he looked at me, A. J., and no one has ever made me feel like the worst person in the world - certainly not from three words. Nothing has ever shaken me so much, nothing, A. J."
I held his gaze as in that instant it was as if we were back in my bedroom on that day, when Bunny had looked from me to Charlie and asked him quietly, but with so much pain, sense of betrayal, confusion and disappointment and many other things I couldn't name in his voice when he'd said 'how could you'? I honestly didn't know what to say and I believed I knew Charlie well enough to know he actually didn't want me to say anything.
Thus instead of words I took my hand from Bunny's head and held it out to Charlie who, after a second or two moved towards the bed and took it. Once more we just stared in silence at one another, before he smiled, gave me a nod of what I knew was thanks and repeated softly, "Just talk to him, A. J." And then, after squeezing my hand again, letting the back of his fingers rest for a moment on Bunny's head, he left the room.
FIVE DAYS LATER
I was beginning to get very tired of sitting on the same chair in the same room, watching the same silence and stillness from my rabbit, enduring the looks of displeasure which Matron, sister and all the other nurses, with the exception of one, showed me each time one of them came into the room.
Several times a day I was made to leave the room whilst they did whatever it was they did to my rabbit they deemed would upset or trouble me so much they could not let me stay. I took advantage of those occasions to visit the lavatory before going to Charlie's office where I would smoke a cigarette and ask him yet again why my presence wasn't having the effect he had expected it to have - why Bunny hadn't regained consciousness yet. Why he still looked so deathly pale, remained so awfully still, and seemed as close to death as he had been on the first evening I had seen him.
He had assured that that wasn't the case and that actually Bunny's level of unconsciousness had lessened somewhat. I would never accuse Charlie of lying, but I did wonder more than once if he was telling me that because he needed to hear it; needed to believe it - maybe even more so than I did.
Charlie had suggested I stay with him in his house, pointing out that it seemed silly for me to travel back and forth across London each day given quite how many hours I spent by Bunny's side and given that his house was close to the hospital. Thus, I had returned to the Albany, told Parker I would be absent for an indefinite period, packed a bag and was now ensconced in the rooms Charlie had had as a boy.
It was good to be able to spend time with Charlie again; in fact it was very good. The only thing that would have made everything so much better was Bunny waking up - and of course being prepared to forgive me or at least listen to me. However, I wasn't holding out much hope of that, but I had told myself that knowing he was alive would be enough - maybe if I told myself it enough I would even begin to believe it.
Charlie spent some time each day with me in Bunny's room, sometimes talking to me, very occasionally working, but mostly just giving me his silent support. I knew he wasn't there just to keep me company and to give me moral support, nor was he there just to appease Matron, I also knew it was because he cared about Bunny.
"You're sighing again, A. J.," he said, looking up from a report he'd been reading.
I sighed. "I'm sorry, Charlie. It's just -"
"I keep telling you, his level of unconscious in quite a lot less since you've been here. Don't look at me like that, I'm telling you the truth. You can ask Matron and we both know how fond she is of you."
I smiled and even laughed softly. Most people, men or women, I could win over, usually without even trying to and if I did try well . . . Let us say I cannot remember the last person I couldn't persuade to my way of thinking - maybe Inspector Mackenzie, but of course he knew I was guilty of the burglaries of which he accused me, he just couldn't prove it. However, Matron was quite a different matter. It wasn't simply that she didn't approve of me being allowed access to Bunny as often and for as long as I wanted it, it was also that she quite clearly disliked me. I don't know quite why, but I suspected it had something to do with her feelings for Charlie.
"He's definitely been a lot more peaceful since you've been here. And sister told me only today, albeit reluctantly, that he becomes less peaceful and somewhat more obviously troubled when you are not here. But no," he said swiftly, "I'm afraid that does not mean you can be with him at all times. As much as it pains me to say so, A. J., I do rather need Matron and sister - even if I've told both of them if they don't like my decisions they know what they can do. Harry knows you are here, I'm sure of that - just as he always did when we were at school."
I still wasn't but . . . "Charlie?" Suddenly I had an idea.
He raised an eyebrow. "Yes, A. J.?"
"You do trust me, do you not?"
Charlie put down the report he'd been reading and stared at me. "You know I do, so why are you asking?"
I swallowed. "Because I want to try something."
Charlie widened his eyes. "And does this 'something' require me to leave the room?"
"What? No! Charlie, really. But I do need you to stand in front of the door."
Charlie's eyes widened even more. "A. J., what exactly do you have in mind?" Rather than answer him I moved from the chair and sat on Bunny's bed, Charlie stared at me. "You know Matron doesn't approve of visitors sitting on patient's beds," he said. However, even as he spoke he'd moved and was standing in front of the door as he watched me carefully. Then before I could respond he asked again, "Are you quite certain you don't need me to leave?"
"Charlie! What exactly do you think I'm going to do?"
"Well, as it's you, A. J., I have to confess I'm not entirely certain."
I sighed and simply stared at him. I put my hands on Bunny's arms, holding him in a fairly loose grip as I didn't want to risk hurting him, glanced at Charlie again and the back at Bunny. I had no idea if what I had in mind would work; indeed why should it? I was still convinced, no matter what Charlie told me, that Bunny couldn't hear me, wasnít aware that I was here. But if there was any chance he could, I hoped my idea just might work.
In the two years Bunny had been my fag, I had never once raised my voice to him. However, I had on a few occasions spoken to him in a fairly firm voice, a different tone from how I usually spoke to him. It wasn't because I had been angered by him or irritated with him, more because he was being even more reticent and even more a rabbit than he usually was. For example, he'd decide I really didn't want him in my study whilst I was talking to Charlie or someone else from the eleven and so would try to leave. I would order him to stay where he was and he always had stayed.
Thus, it was that tone I was going to use now; I was going to order him to open his eyes. I glanced at Charlie again who was watching me carefully, swallowed once more, moistened my lips and said firmly, "Bunny, you are going to wake up. You are going to open your eyes and look at me. You are not going to die. Come along, Bunny, you know you have to do whatever I wish you to do, and at the moment I wish you to open your eyes and look at me." I paused and stared hard at him; his eyelashes were definitely fluttering a little and he made a soft sound. I glanced at Charlie who nodded. "Do you hear me, Bunny?" I said in the same tone. "You have to do was I tell you; so be a good boy and open your eyes for me."
"Raffles?" His voice was low, somewhat muffled and not at all as I was used to hearing it but it was his voice.
I swallowed hard and took my hands from his arms put one on his head and took his hand with the other as I leant over him. "Yes, Bunny, yes my beloved little rabbit, it is I."
His eyelashes fluttered again and I watched him moisten his lips as he again made a soft noise. "Raffles?" I stoked his hair back and gazed at him willing him to open his eyes. Just as I was about to speak again, his eyelashes did more than flutter they actually opened and he lay blinking as he gazed up at me. "Raffles," he whispered. "You are here. Oh, Raffles." And then to my horror is eyes filled with tears and then they slipped down his face. I quickly pulled out a handkerchief and wiped them away.
"Oh, Bunny, my dear rabbit, please don't cry. It'll be all right.
He stared at me and blinked some tears away and then he turned his head and stared at Charlie who had moved from the door to stand by Bunny's bed. I glanced at Charlie and saw a wary look in his eyes. However, Bunny just sighed and looked back at me. "Just tell me why, Raffles," he said his tone soft and flat. "Just tell me why you did what you did."
So I did.
His eyes widened as I spoke and the look on his face changed from scepticism, to disbelief, to shock, to bemusement for a fleeting second, before finally settling for being stunned. I realised I was still holding his hand, or rather I realised he hadn't taken his hand from mine and that small thing allowed me to hope. During my explanation I noticed that Charlie had not moved, he'd remained exactly where he was, standing next to Bunny's bed, looking down at him, silent and unmoving, indeed at one point I began to fear he wasn't breathing.
Eventually I fell silent and just stared at Bunny, waiting for him to reply - even if it was only to tell me to get out of his room and that he never wished to see me again. However, he seemed so stunned, he appeared to have lost the ability to speak - or maybe he simply didn't know what to say; I wasn't sure, had the situations been reversed, that I'd know what to say.
I watched him swallow a time or two, watched him partly open his mouth only to close it again as he stared at me, a slight frown creasing his forehead - but still he hadn't taken his hand from mine. In fact I realised suddenly he was no longer merely letting me hold his hand, he was gripping mine in return, it was only a very loose grip, but his fingers were definitely curled around mine - nor had his gaze shifted from my face.
Finally he moistened his lips, swallowed again and turned to glance for a moment at Charlie, before looking back at me. "May I have a drink of water, please?" he said both to my relief and slight consternation.
I glanced at Charlie. "If I fetch sister she'll insist on A. J. leaving you, Manders, whilst she does things nurses insist on doing without anyone to witness them."
Bunny paused for a moment and then said quietly, "I am rather thirsty, Charleston." The lack of 'Doctor' before Charlie's name gave me a degree of reassurance, not just on my behalf but also on Charlie's and from the look that flashed through Charlie's eyes I believe he felt the same. "You don't mind, do you, Raffles?" he asked suddenly. "I really would like a drink of water."
I squeezed his hand. "Of course I don't, m- Bunny." I stopped myself from calling him 'my rabbit' as I had no right to address him as being mine. I let go of his hand and stood up, as I did I noticed a flash of disappointment pass through his gaze and for a moment I saw his hand move slightly towards me.
"You will come back, won't you?" he asked, as I moved the chair I'd been sitting in back against the wall.
"Just as soon as sister lets me, Bunny," I said softly and then because I couldn't stop myself, I let my hand move into his hair and lightly brushed his fringe back from his forehead. He gave me a very small smile.
I don't know exactly what sister, the young nurse (the one who didn't appear to dislike me) and even Matron, who had been talking to sister when Charlie and I had left Bunny's room, did to and with Bunny, but it was nearly an hour since we had left his room before Matron herself knocked on Charlie's door and told us Mr. Manders was presentable and if Dr. Charleston insisted (which he did) I would be allowed to visit him for a few minutes.
Charlie came back with me but hesitated as I was about to open the door to Bunny's room. "Maybe you should go back in there alone, A. J.," he said. I stared at him. "Look, this isn't about me, it's about you and Harry."
I sighed softly. "I believe, Charlie, that in many ways it is as much about you - but let us ask Bunny." Charlie hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded.
I opened Bunny's door to find him now sitting up in bed in what appeared to be a clean pair of pyjamas; his face was slightly flushed, his chin free from hair and the front of his hair appeared to be damp and pushed back from his forehead which showed the flecks of dried blood had finally been removed from the jagged wound. He had a jug and glass of water on the locker next to his bed and the curtains over the window had been fully pulled back. He looked towards the door as I opened it and smiled a little as I appeared and again his hand moved slightly on the bed. As he stared at me I saw a hint of relief cross his face.
I went into the room, leaving the door open and moved closer to the bed. "I told you I would return, Bunny," I said softly.
"Bunny, do you wish to see Charlie as well?"
"As my doctor?"
"No." He shrugged but as he hadn't said 'no' I took it as assent and nodded at Charlie who hesitated but came into Bunny's room and closed the door, which he then leant against whilst I went around the bed, moved the chair from against the wall and sat back down next to the bed.
Silence descended over the room and I found myself wishing he had never asked for a drink of water but had made some reply or comment on what I had told him. As the silence continued I got the feeling that Bunny was almost wishing that as well. I was beginning to feel more than a little uncomfortable and a quick glance in Charlie's direction showed me he was too and looking back at Bunny showed he was not exactly comfortable either.
Finally, just as I was trying to think of something to say, Bunny reached for the glass of water on the bedside locker, took a sip and then held the glass as his gaze became firmly affixed on me. "You wanted to keep me safe," he said softly.
I nodded. "Yes, Bunny, that had been my only reason. And I failed. I drove you away from me for no reason because I didn't keep you safe, did I?"
He sighed. "It wasn't your fault, Raffles. No," he said when I opened my mouth to argue. "It wasn't your fault. You didn't drag me into the alleyway and hurt me. You didn't make me go to that part of London and stand in the dark for hours. You -" He fell silent and a hint of colour touched his cheeks as he gazed at me. I could see from the look he was giving me, he was asking me, pleading with me almost, not to ask quite what he had meant when he'd said 'stand in the dark for hours'. And for now, at least, I was prepared to allow him not to explain.
"No, Bunny, I didn't. But you wouldn't have been there had I not . . . Had I not done what I did." He shrugged. "I was wrong, Bunny," I said softly.
He looked at me. "Yes, Raffles," he said, his tone harder than I had ever heard it. "You were. You were not only wrong you had no right to assume what you assumed. It is not for you to decide what is best for me; I am no longer your thirteen year old fag. Maybe I do behave as if I am at times, maybe I am too compliant, maybe I am too willing to go along with your wishes, maybe you do still see me at time as the thirteen year old boy you took care of." He paused sighed and then said more softly and with a hint of humour in his tone, "In fact I know you do, because, Raffles, I still at times see you as the handsome cricket captain who took me as his own and protected me," he shrugged and then to my surprise he held out his hand to me.
I took it and held it gently in mine. "You are quite right, my dear rabbit," the phrase came out without me meaning it to. I paused and glanced at him to see he objected to the possessiveness of the term, but instead he gave me another faint smile. "There are times when I do indeed still see you as my fag; it's not intentional, Bunny, you have to believe that. And I assure you most of the time I do not see you in that way - I do not see you in that way at all."
"But you do still see me as someone of whom you have to protect and take care of, do you not? Someone for whom you will make all the decisions." His tone was still low and the hardness had faded completely.
"Is that necessarily such a bad thing?"
He shrugged, sighed and tightened the grip he had on my hand. "For the most part, no, Raffles, it isn't. You may not believe this, but were it so, if I was not quite happy for you to do so, I would have told you so by now." I stared at him and his cheeks flushed just a little. "I would have done," he said just a little indignantly.
I smiled at him and once more without me consciously deciding to do to, my hand drifted to his head and even though I had no need to push his hair back as it was still pushed back. I let my fingers linger for a moment on his forehead before slipping them into his hair where I left them for a moment or two as he sighed softly.
We sat in silence for a short time, the silence was far less strained than it had been, but it still wasn't quite the comfortable silence I was used to sharing with him. Once more I felt it had to be Bunny who broke the silence. "You were wrong, Raffles. You were very wrong. It's one thing deciding where we will dine or which house we will break into or all other day-to-day things you decide. But you have no right to decide what you believe is best for me."
"I know," I said softly.
"And it's something you should have learnt by now, do you not agree, Charleston?" To my surprise and to Charlie's by the way he reacted, Bunny turned to look at Charlie.
Charlie glanced at me and swallowed. "As a matter of fact, Manders, I do - but then A. J. knows that." His gaze settled on my face. Bunny nodded and turned back to look at me.
Had it been under any other circumstances I would have been rather amused by the fact my boyhood best friend and the man I loved were joining forces against me - but despite Bunny still holding my hand, despite the way he was looking at me, despite the fact he didn't seem angry any longer, I couldn't relax until I knew he was mine again - or if that was not possible then until he forgave me.
"Don't you understand, Raffles, I really don't care what happens to me as long as I am by your side. I could even survive going to gaol if you were there too. I don't want to be safe if it means being somewhere other than by your side. And I'll thank you to remember that in the future." The last sentence was said in a very low voice.
I swallowed hard as I felt my back become damp with perspiration. I truly hoped I had understood my rabbit. "Bunny," I said carefully, "are you saying," I hesitated, suddenly unable to go on.
"That I forgive you?" I nodded slowly. "That I want things to return to how they were, well as far as our personal life goes?" I nodded again. He was silent for a moment or two as he just stared unblinking into my eyes. Then he sighed softly and put the hand I wasn't holding onto my face. "Yes, Raffles. Yes, I am saying that. I do forgive you."
I swallowed and dared to ask, "And Charlie?"
His face hardened for a second and he sighed again as he turned from me to look at Charlie. "Will you give me an honest answer to a question, Charleston?" Slowly, after a quick glance at me, Charlie nodded.
"Was the reason you did what Raffles asked you to do purely because you have always cared about me and was persuaded by Raffles that making me leave him was the only way to keep me safe?"
Charlie's gaze flickered from Bunny to me and I saw a hint of fear in it. And at that moment I knew what he was going to say and I desperately, almost more desperately than I had ever wanted anything, wanted to stop him. You see Charlie is a terribly honest man, just as he was a terribly honest boy and Bunny had asked him to give him an honest answer - and that is what Charlie would do.
I watched as Charlie glanced swiftly at me again, flashed me a silent 'I'm sorry, A. J.' before turning back to Bunny. I watched him moisten his lips, pull himself up just a little straighter and swallow hard. "No," he said softly and swallowed again. Bunny neither moved nor spoke; I forced myself to stay where I was. "No, Harry, it wasn't - not entirely. I hope you will believe me, although there is no reason why you should, when I tell you my affection for you and A. J.'s insistence it was for the best, was the main reason, the over-riding reason, I did what I did. But," Charlie paused for a second, moistened his lips and said quietly, "I will not lie to you and say it was the only reason."
I waited for Bunny to say something or maybe even try to attack Charlie whom I knew would offer no resistance or defence. However to my amazement and definitely to Charlie's, Bunny instead smiled softly and held out his other hand to Charlie who after hesitating for a mere second carefully took it.
"Thank you, Charleston," Bunny said his tone very formal. "And yes, I do forgive you."
Charlie swallowed very hard and I could have sworn I saw a touch of moisture glisten in his eyes as he put his other hand over Bunny's and squeezed it. "Thank you, Harry," he said softly.
He then turned back to look at me. I waited; he may have told me he forgave both me and Charlie, but I still had no idea what he wanted from our relationship, whether indeed he wished us to return to being lovers or if that was definitely over. His next words surprised me. "Does the Albany have any sets of rooms with two bedrooms?" he asked.
I thought for a moment before saying, "A few, I believe," I paused but he seemed disinclined to go on. Thus it fell to me to ask softly, "Why do you ask, my rabbit?"
"Because I am tired of in effect sneaking around, Raffles. I am tired of having to leave your rooms in the morning still dressed in my evening attire simply to go home and change before I return to you. I am tired of wondering if Parker will ever ask quite why I spend so many nights with you when I have a flat nearby - or rather I am tried of wondering if some other gentleman at the Albany will notice and ask. I actually do not wish to go to gaol, Raffles. Gentlemen share rooms all the time, do they not?" I nodded. "Well then, I believe that is what we should do - that way no one will wonder, no one will ask and I will not have to walk through the streets during the day dressed in evening clothes. So will you speak to Parker?"
I stared wide-eyed at my suddenly forceful rabbit. "You wish us to share rooms?" I said quietly.
He nodded. "Yes, Raffles. Yes, I do. In fact I believe I am going to insist on it."
"Are you now?"
"Yes, I am. And I am quite sure we can find plenty of things to do with the second bedroom, I do have quite a number of books of my own, you know."
I swallowed hard as he gave me the answer to the question I still hadn't been quite certain he would answer. "I know you do, Bunny," I said softly, and quite forgetting Charlie was still there I brought Bunny's hand to my lips and kissed it.
Charlie cleared his throat and we both turned to look at him. "I was merely going to say that if you cannot find suitable rooms immediately, you are both quite welcome to stay with me until you can find something. As A. J. knows I have a set of rooms in my house that in effect are quite separate from the rest of the house whilst still being a part of it. You would never actually have to see me, unless you wanted to of course," he added. "A. J. can explain later," he said looking at me and giving me silent permission to share something that only I had known.
"Thank you, Charlie."
Bunny turned and smiled, "Yes, thank you, Charleston," he said, and then a strange look came over his face and he once more turned to look at me. "Raffles?"
"Yes, my rabbit?"
"If I asked you not to see Charleston again, would you?"
I was more than a little surprised at his question, given he had said he'd forgiven Charlie. I glanced swiftly at Charlie and saw surprise and wariness in his look; I also saw him tell me to be honest. I mentally crossed my fingers, put my hand on Bunny's cheek and said softly, "No, Bunny, I'm afraid I wouldn't."
He smiled and pushed his cheek into my hand. "Good," he said and then added swiftly, "I won't ask you to; I don't want you to, and I think that if there aren't any sets of rooms with two bedrooms available at the Albany immediately, that we should accept Charleston's offer to stay with him - because I do not want to go back to my lonely, empty flat, Raffles."
I could no longer just sit and hold his hand. I moved from the chair to the bed, put my arms around him and gathered him close to me. As his head came to rest against my shoulder I heard Charlie say, "I'll just go and wait outside for a moment."
As I heard the door close behind him I gently pushed Bunny upright and carefully, slowly, gently put my mouth on his and kissed him. Half a second later he began to kiss me back as he tightened his arms around my body and moaned softly into my mouth before parting his lips for me. Still taking more care than I usually did, I slipped my tongue into his mouth and felt even more relief and happiness as he once more made a soft noise of pleasure and pushed himself even closer to me until it was impossible to tell where my body ended and his began.
He was back; my rabbit was back; not just from near death but he was back in my arms, back in my life, back by my side where he belonged. And as I went on kissing him, tangling my fingers in his hair I made a silent vow that I would never let him go from me again By my side was not only where he belonged it was where he would stay.
And as fingers began to caress the back of my neck, I made a second silent vow: I would give up burgling; I would talk to Charlie about his suggestion that I become a private tutor. Charlie was quite right, loving Bunny was a big enough risk; I didn't need anything else - I had Bunny back; I didn't need anything else.
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