JUST ONCE MORE

 

By

 

Nikki Harrington

 

Raffles is bored and persuades Bunny to turn their hand once more to burgling. However, it has consequences even Raffles could not have foreseen.

A first time story.

Written: May 2013. Word count: 10,935.

 

 

 

NOVEMBER

 

"Happy Birthday, Raffles," I said, not for the first time, and held up my glass.

 

He smiled at me and picked his own glass up and touched it against mine. "Thank you, my rabbit," he said as he stared intently at me.


It was a look I knew well of old, but one I hadn't seen in some eight years and one I wished I would never see again. I smiled at him and sipped my champagne as I deliberately tried to ignore the look and instead find a topic of conversation which would engage Raffles and take his mind off what I knew he was thinking about.

 

However, the harder I tried to think of something to say and the more I tried to ignore the look, the more impossible it became. Unless you have ever been stared at by Raffles in the way he was staring at me, you cannot understand how difficult it is to ignore him. At the age of forty years and three months, I was still as much under the spell he (unwittingly I am sure) cast on me on the day we met some twenty-eight years ago.

 

For a moment I closed my eyes and sighed softly as I made a final attempt to find a topic of conversation with which to distract hm. However, the second I opened my eyes again I saw he was still gazing at me with that look. I sighed again, this time more loudly and said, my tone low and with a hint of a plea in it, "Do we have to, Raffles?"

 

He smiled, as only he knows how to smile, and covered my hand with his and I knew I was lost; utterly and totally lost, just as I had been since that day we had met. He was going to get his own way; he was going to bend me to his will; I was going to say 'yes' when I desperately wanted to say 'no'. "Oh, come along, Bunny," he said, his hand still over mine as he leant forward just a little. "Be a good chap and say 'yes'."

 

Despite knowing how futile it would be, I did try to put up a little resistance. "But, Raffles, it's late and cold and we don't need to, do we?"

 

He frowned for a moment and then said, in a tone I do not ever recall hearing before, a tone I couldn't quite fathom out, "Well, no, my rabbit, we do not need to; it is just that I wish to. Come along, it is my birthday after all."

 

I shook my head a little at the less than subtle attempt at mild blackmail. Surely he knew he had no need to resort to such cheap tactics? Surely he knew me well enough to know only too well that I would, later if not sooner, bow to his wishes; just as I always had done. I think he did realise as his cheeks became a little flushed and he fumbled as he picked up his cigarette case and held it out to me.

 

I took one and allowed him to strike and hold a match for me to light it, before he lit his own. "Thank you," I said softly, as I stared into his eyes and read the apology he would not voice. "Raffles -" I started to say.

 

He however, interrupted me. "Look, Bunny, I'll make you a promise: this really will be the last time. I will never ask you again, my rabbit. So how about it, just once more? And that really will be it, I promise you, Bunny; just once more. Oh, do say, yes, my dear rabbit, please."

 

What could I say? I sighed softly once more and said, "Very well, Raffles."

 

His smile seemed to light up his face and for a moment I truly believed I had never seen him look quite so happy. His hand was still, I realised, over mine and he tightened his grip as he said, his tone low, "That's my beloved rabbit. We'll have fun, you see if we don't."

 

I smiled at him and forewent telling him that fun was the last thing I believed we would have. "Do you have a particular house in mind?" I asked instead.

 

He shook his head. "I -" he broke off as the waiter arrived on silent feet and deferentially served our next course and poured more champagne into our glasses. "Thank you," Raffles said, "and please bring another bottle."

 

"Yes, sir," the waiter said and glided away as silently as he had arrived.

 

I waited until he had come back with the second bottle and had once more left us alone before I returned to what I'd been asking before he had interrupted us. "If you do not have a particular house in mind, Raffles, why do you wish to," I paused and even though we were in a private room, leant across the table a little and murmured, "break in into a house?"

 

He sighed softly and a look I could not quite identify appeared on his face. And then he shrugged, put his glass to his lips, took a sip and said, his tone almost dismissive, "I am bored, Bunny. I wish for some excitement, that is all. I do not wish to steal anything, not unless we actually come across something that really captivates me. I just wish to . . . See if I am able to do what I once did almost as easily as breathing." He once more covered my hand with his and then said, "You do not have to come with me, my rabbit, if you really do not wish to."

 

I shook my head as my mind went back to the first few years we had been together once we had become reacquainted, and the number of times he would say the same words to me, always knowing what my reply would be. Just for a fleeting second, I gave consideration to actually taking him at his word and saying I would go home and await his return.

 

However, the past, if not he, had such a tight hold over me that there was only one thing I could say. "No, Raffles," I murmured, taking a sip from my own glass, "Of course I shall accompany you."

 

His smile made me feel warm inside and made me, despite myself, pleased I had agreed. "That's my good boy," he said, squeezing my hand before picking up his knife and fork and beginning to eat.

 

My cheeks were slightly warm and it was a moment or two before I picked up my own cutlery and began to eat. I am really not certain how many forty year old men would be happy to let another man call him 'my good boy', but then I doubted any other forty year old man, or indeed any man at all, would allow another man to call him 'Bunny' and 'my rabbit' - and I happily let Raffles call me both.

 

We ended our meal with brandy and cigars, chosen of course by Raffles, and I settled into my chair to just watch him through the smoke. I took more time than usual over my brandy, as I really had no desire to leave the warmth of the room in which we dined and go out into the cold London streets (especially as our waiter had informed us it had begun to rain) on a November night and wander around the streets until Raffles found a house that appealed to him. I would far rather just take a cab back to our rooms at the Albany.

 

However, I had said 'aye' to Raffles and nothing would prevent me from being at his side when he proved to me (as I knew he would) that his skills were still every bit as good as they had been some eight years ago. I watched him watching me over the rim of his glass and for a moment I thought I saw a hint of wariness in his gaze, almost as if he was waiting for me to tell him I had changed my mind and that I would go home and await his return.

 

I did not wish him to doubt me and my word, thus I drained my glass, stubbed out what remained of my cigar and stood up and gazed down at him. His smile of genuine happiness together with a hint of relief warmed me, but also troubled me just a little as I wondered just when he had begun to doubt me and my loyalty to him.

 

It was he who, when we collected out hats, overcoats and sticks, helped me on with my coat, before donning his own, pulling on his gloves and putting his arm through mine and leading me out of the relative warmth of the hallway of our club into the bitter November night air - where although it had ceased to rain, the air was still damp and the chill began to seep through the layers of my clothing.

 

For a moment, once we were a short distance from the club, he paused and turned to look down at me. By the light of the street lamps I saw him frown a little as he made a gesture he had been doing from the moment we had met - he brushed my hair from my forehead. "Maybe we should go home, after all," he murmured. "It is rather cold and damp and . . ." He trailed off and for a moment touched my cheek with his finger.

 

As I gazed up at him, I knew to what he referred. The injury to my leg, caused by a bullet in my thigh, had not been as bad as we had initially feared; indeed for the most part it troubled me very little. However, there were occasions when I did actually need to use a stick to help my balance, but those occasions were few and far between, usually when I needed a little extra support, Raffles's arm was more than enough. However, the cold and the damp tended to cause me some trouble and my leg appreciated neither.

 

I knew that all it would take was for me to say it would be better for me if we went home and we would do that thing. I knew full well that he would agree and flag down a cab and in a short time we would be greeting Parker before going to our rooms, where he would throw more coal onto the fire and we could sit together in our sitting room drinking whisky and soda and smoking Sullivans before we bid one another goodnight.

 

However, I could not; indeed to my slight chagrin I found I did not wish to do so. It wasn't the fact that I wanted to break into a house into which I had no right to break; it wasn't that I wanted to see if there was anything which caught Raffles's eye; burgling, even when we had needed the money, had never appealed to me, as it had appealed to Raffles. I had never enjoyed the challenge or the risk; it had simply been a means to an end. Thus, one might wonder why on earth I did not take the excuse he had given me. Well, the simple fact was: I wanted to be with Raffles, and if that meant breaking into a house with him, then so be it. And whilst his words had implied that he would accompany me home I wasn't entirely certain he would do so. Besides, it was after all his birthday and a man should have the right to do what he wished to do on the day of his birth.

 

So I smiled up at him and shook my head. "No," I said, "let us continue with our plans."

 

"Are you quite certain, my rabbit?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, Raffles, I am." And with that, it was I who slid my arm through his and turned. A moment later it was he who began to walk, altering his stride to match mine as he had done since the moment we had met.

 

As we walked along, he paying more attention than he normally would to the houses we went by, I allowed myself to ponder, not for the first time, how had it not been for the war Raffles had decided he wished to fight in, we would not be walking arm-in-arm along the streets of London; would not have dined openly at our club; would not be sharing rooms at the Albany; would not be invited to dinners and balls and country house cricket matches; would not be welcome at Lords or other cricket grounds. War truly does change many things and many opinions.

 

To this day there are still times when I believe Raffles had not intended to come home from South Africa and not only that, but that he had not intended to live. However, he did both. I still do not know if it was my injury that kept him alive, if only to ensure that I was cared for or if, when faced with the nearness of the final bullet that went by him so closely he told me later he heard it and felt the air as it passed him, he decided he did not wish to die after all - but live he did and return to London we did.

 

I had been somewhat concerned about our return, quite certain we would be arrested and thrown into gaol which I had endured once and probably could do again. However, what I am quite certain I could not have borne was he still being imprisoned after they had released me. Thus, I asked, even begged him, to go elsewhere other than England and London. However, it was he who had insisted that we return to the scene of our crimes, where we were greeted, if not quite as heroes, then as if our crimes had never been found out.

 

Indeed once we had taken up residency at the Albany Inspector (or I should say Chief Inspector) Mackenzie was out first visitor. When I heard Raffles greet him, I was deeply afeared that he had come to arrest us both - or worse, just Raffles. However, he came into the sitting room, accepted a whisky and soda from Raffles, before shaking us both by the hand and telling us we had both been brave men. He didn't stay long, but as he was leaving he made mention of certain files going missing from Scotland Yard's archives; files he truly hoped would never need to be found and reopened.

 

Raffles had, on the boat home, made a vow that if London accepted us back, we would burgle no more. London had not only accepted us, it seemed to embrace us. The secretary of our old club contacted us and invited us to once more become members; old acquaintances invited us to dine with them at their homes. If that had not been enough of a forgiveness for our sins, a fortnight after our return we had gone down to breakfast one morning in the hotel in which we were living until we found a permanent home, to find a telegram waiting for us which informed us that rooms had become available at the Albany and the management hoped we would take up residence.

 

Given since Raffles's return to London, over a decade ago, under the guise of Mr. Maturin when I had become his male attendant and shared rooms with him before he once again faked his death and we moved to Ham Common before going to fight the Boars, we had in effect shared rooms, it seemed logical for us to continue to do so. Thus, I had taken up residency in the place I had spent many happy hours and Raffles had returned to the place where we had become reacquainted.

 

In the early days of our return my leg did trouble me more than it did now, and thus more for something to do than for any other reason, I picked up my pen and began to write. Eight years later I have eight books to my name and a very healthy income. Our income was added to by an inheritance when Raffles's uncle and god-father died, leaving him his entire estate and fortune - hence the reason why we did not need to return to our old game.

 

"Of what are you thinking, my rabbit?" Raffles's voice interrupted my musings and I started just a little and tightened my grip on his arm. "Have you decided that you wish to return to our rooms after all?"

 

"No, Raffles, really I have not. I was just -" I broke off as Raffle came to a stop and gripped my arm with his other hand. We were standing slightly under a street lamp and I turned to look at him. He was staring at a house with an intensity that told me this was the house. Quite why he had chosen it, I knew not; it did not look any different from the other houses in the street - but clearly to Raffles it did.

 

He turned to me and put his hands on my shoulders. "Well, Bunny," he said, as he gazed down at me, his eyes shining in the lamp light. "Is my rabbit still game?"

 

I swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes, Raffles," I said as I nodded.

 

He brushed my cheek with the tips of his gloved fingers as he squeezed my shoulder before sliding his arm through mine and leading me around the corner on which the house stood. "That's my good boy," he murmured, as he led me into the back garden.

 

It seemed like very little time had gone by before we were inside the house; as I had expected, eight years certainly had not had any impact on Raffles's skills. After all, he had not played cricket for many a year following his first faked death, and yet upon our return to London, once he picked up a ball again he was as accurate as ever - even if he hadn't got quite the speed around the field as he had once had.

 

I do not know quite what happened, I can only presume the cold and damp air had caused my leg to stiffen and not to be able to bear my weight as it normally did, as one moment we were standing at the top of a short flight of stairs leading down into the main part of the house and the next I was crying out as I fell down them and landed very heavily at the bottom injuring (or worse) both my right wrist and ankle.

 

Instantly Raffles was by my side, on his heels, my hand in his, his other hand over my mouth as I tried hard not to cry aloud at the sharp pain in my ankle, wrist and thigh. "Are you all right, my rabbit?" he whispered, his mouth on my ear.

 

I tried to nod, tried to reassure him, but I could not. I gasped, a noise that even his hand could not cover completely, as I bit my lip so hard I know I made it bleed and rested against him. My head throbbed, my pulse was racing, my back was damp with perspiration and I feared I may vomit from the pain as I clung to his arm with my uninjured hand.

 

"Oh, Bunny," he murmured and for a moment I believed I felt his lips on my forehead, something he had done from time to time during our two years at school. "I am so sorry, my rabbit, it is all my fault."

 

I shook my head. "Not your fault, Raffles," I managed, though gritted teeth.

 

"Well, we can debate just whose fault it is later. Now we need to -" Raffles fell silent as we both heard footsteps and saw a light from a candle coming towards us. Raffles glanced towards a door which was next to where I lay, but one look back at me clearly had him dismissing his idea. Instead he sat on his heels, kept his hand over mine and we waited.

 

"Are you armed?" I whispered.

 

He shook his head. "No. And even -" Once more he fell silent as a youngish man holding a candle appeared; he stopped a few feet from us and stared at us as we looked back at he. A valet, a footman or a very young butler, I decided, before ruling out the latter. A butler wouldn't come himself to see what was amiss; he would send one of the other members of staff - which made the footman a much more likely option.

 

Raffles moved his hand to his pocket and the man took a step back and seemed ready to run or hide behind the corner, should Raffles produce a pistol. However, I saw a flash of gold and then the look of distain on the man's face, which had Raffles instantly pushing the sovereigns back into his pocket.

 

A moment later, after looking hard at us, in particular me and the way I was crumpled on the floor, the man turned and began to walk away. I had no doubt in my mind he had gone to fetch his master or the butler, who in turn would fetch his master, who in turn would no doubt ring for or instruct the footman to ring for the police.

 

I clutched Raffles's arm. "Get out, Raffles," I said quietly. "You can get away; leave me and save yourself. Go," I took my hand from his arm and stared imploringly at him.

 

For a second his gaze flickered up the short flight of stairs down which I had fallen before it came to rest once more on me. "No," he said firmly but softly. "No, my beloved rabbit. I shall not leave you; I did that once before - I will not do so again." And he again took my hand in his and put his other arm around my shoulders, pulling me towards him and encouraging me to rest against him.

 

"But, Raffles," I murmured, "you'll be - please, Raffles, save yourself."

 

"No, Bunny," was all he said. His tone was the one with which I had never argued - not that it was a tone I had heard many times, but when I had, going back some twenty-eight years, I had never argued with it.

 

As I heard two sets of footsteps and saw two candles flickering I sighed softly and without consciously deciding to do so, turned my head away and rested against Raffles.

 

I heard a faintly muffled voice and for a moment I thought I recognised it, but public school vowels are public school vows, all gentlemen tend to sound very similar. As I rested my head against Raffles and felt his arm tighten just a little around my shoulders, I closed my eyes and wondered if gaol would be as it had been all those years ago and if Raffles and I would be sent to the same one and if so, if we would see one another.

 

I heard the footsteps come to a stop and pressed myself just a little nearer to Raffles. Seconds later I heard the man whom the footman had fetched gasp aloud. "A. J.?"

 

"Charlie!" Raffles's tone was a mixture of surprise, shock and fear. "Charlie," he whispered, as he tightened his grip on my shoulders even more.

 

The next moment I heard Charleston say, "And I am guessing Manders?"

 

A split second later, Raffles loosened his grip a little and gently encouraged me to raise my head. I really did not wish to do so; I did not want to look up and see the disgust on Charleston's face. However, Raffles is physically much stronger than I am and his will is considerably stronger, thus after a moment or two I sat up, and still leaning against Raffles, still letting him take some of my weight, I stared up into the face of the man I hadn't seen for twenty-six years.

 

"Hello, Charleston," I said, hoping he hadn't heard quite how badly my voice was shaking.

 

He stared at me for a moment, his gaze hard, but then it began to soften and puzzlement replaced the hardness. He glanced at Raffles who was still sitting on his heels by my side before looking back at me and sighing softly. "Hello, Manders," he said, his tone unreadable.

 

For a moment we all just stayed still and silent. Finally, it was Raffles who broke the silence; he glided to his feet in the elegant way I have always envied, put his hands in his pockets looked directly at Charleston and said softly, "Bunny's injured, Charlie."

 

Charleston shot him an unfathomable look, before once more looking down at me. "Yes," he said, "Timpson told me one of you was injured." He fell silent before sighing again and dropping to his heels. "Let me have a look," his tone was now soft and friendly in the way I remembered it from our years at school.

 

He took my wrist in his hands and ran his fingers over it before manipulating it gently. I bit my lip hard and tried not to make a noise and blinked hard in attempt to force back the tears that sprang to my eyes from the pain. He paused and looked at me. "I'm sorry, Manders," he said, putting his hand on my shoulder for a moment, "I do not wish to cause you any further pain, but I do need to check you have not broken anything."

 

I nodded my understanding and went back to biting my lip and blinking hard and I felt a little better as Raffles's hand came to rest on my shoulder. "Well, I do not believe there are any broken bones in your wrist or hand, you have just sprained it very badly and it is going to become even more painful." Charleston looked at me, and I saw more than a hint of compassion in the gaze that was a mixture of the professional doctor I knew he had become together with the memories of a kind of friendship we had formed during our time at school.

 

"He hurt his ankle as well, Charlie."

 

Charleston didn't look at Raffles; he merely nodded and turned his attention to my ankle. As he ran his fingers over it before being to move it I couldn't prevent myself from making a noise. He paused, gave me a sympathetic look, once more touched my shoulder before murmuring his apologies and returning to examining my ankle.

 

"Well," he said a few minutes later, gently putting my foot back on the floor and brushing his hands together. "I do not believe you have any broken bones in your ankle either, Manders. However, as with your wrist, it is badly sprained and it's already swelling quite badly. I doubt you'll be able to put much if any weight on it for a day or two at least and quite possibly longer."

 

"Thank you, Charleston," I murmured, because I didn't know what else to say.

 

He gave me a faint smile, before looking up at Raffles. "How did it happen?"

 

"Bunny?"

 

"My leg gave way under me and I couldn't regain my balance before I fell down the stairs," I said.

 

"Do you have something wrong with your leg?"

 

I turned my head and looked up at Raffles who gave me a small nod. "It was injured by a bullet," I said.

 

Charleston widened his eyes and then frowned. "And what exactly were you doing to make someone shoot at you, Manders? Breaking into someone else's home?" For a moment his tone became very harsh.

 

I opened my mouth to reply, but it was Raffles who spoke in a far sharper and harder tone than I had ever heard him use on Charleston. "No, Charlie, it happened when we fought in the Boar War," he said.

 

Charleston stared at Raffles before looking back at me. "You fought in the Boar War?" he asked.

 

I have never really believed I had 'fought', at least not as such, but I had gone with Raffles to South Africa, even if I had been an extremely ineffectual soldier. "Yes," Raffle said, the harsh edge to his tone had gone and I was glad.

 

For a moment Charleston just stared in silence and shook his head as he stared at me. "Well, Manders," he said, "it is an evening for surprises, is it not? I believe had anyone asked me the least likely person to do such a thing, I would have said 'Harry Manders'."

 

"I went with Raffles," I said quietly.

 

He flashed Raffles a look and then turned his attention back to me and gave me a strange smile. "Well, that does explain it, at least to an extent." We once more remained silent for a moment or two before Charleston spoke again, "Does your leg often let you down?"

 

I shrugged. "No, not often. It mostly causes me very little trouble, well not unless I -"

 

"It was my fault," Raffles said quietly, interrupting me.

 

"No, Raffles!"

 

"A. J.? What do you mean?" Charleston's look as he glanced up at Raffles was hard.

 

Suddenly Raffles dropped down onto his own heels, joining Charleston and I on the floor. He brushed my fringe back for me and said softly, "Yes, my rabbit, as I said a short time ago, it was my fault. I was the one who insisted on us venturing out after our meal into the cold and damp night, did I not? I was the one who wished to -" he broke off and shrugged.

 

"I went with you willing," I declared. "You told me more than once I could go home and wait for you. I chose to go along with you. I - It wasn't your fault, Raffles."

 

Raffles again brushed my fringe from my head. "Ah, but, Bunny, I know my rabbit so very well, do I not? I knew you would not leave my side; I knew you would accompany me. So, really it is my fault."

 

Charleston looked from Raffles to me and back again as he shook his head. "Well," he said his tone low and tinged with humour, "I see that some things have not changed. However, putting fault aside for a moment, do tell me more about your injury, Manders, and quite how your leg came to let you down as it did."

 

I shifted slightly; it was getting fairly uncomfortable sitting on the floor and my wrist and ankle were beginning to hurt even more. However, given Raffles and I had been caught breaking into a house and not just anyone's house, but Charleston's house, I didn't feel in a position to object. "Well," I started to say.

 

However, it was Charleston who interrupted me. "What on earth am I thinking? We need to make you more comfortable and then you can tell me. Timpson," he called.

 

The next moment the man who had caught Raffles and I appeared. "Yes, Dr. Charleston? Do you wish me to ring for the police, sir?"

 

"What? No, of course I do not. Please fetch me my medical bag, Timpson, and tell Mary to make up the fire in the room next to mine, turn back the bed covers in order to air it and then get out some clean towels."

 

Just for a moment I saw the usual servant's calm demeanour vanish as Timpson stared in hastily covered up surprise. "Yes, sir," he said, his tone contained only the merest hint of disapproval as he glanced at Raffles and me. "Of course, Dr. Charleston," he added, before turning and walking swiftly away.

 

"You know, Charlie," Raffles said, "You really shouldn't shock your servants like that."

 

Charleston looked a Raffles and smiled; his fond, affectionate smile; the way he looked and smiled at Raffles was the way he'd always looked and smiled at Raffles all those years ago. "He really did not approve, did he?"

 

Raffles shook his head. "He's probably telling Mary and anyone else who'll listen to him that their master has gone quite mad."

 

Charleston laughed and then reached out and put his hand on Raffles's arm. "Oh, A. J.," he said softly, "I have missed you all these years."

 

Raffles put his hand over Charleston's. "And I, Charlie, have missed you - in fact I believe we both have, have we not, Bunny?"

 

I nodded. "Yes," I said softly. And then because I had to; because one of us had to, I stammered, "I'm sorry, Charleston, I'm so very sorry."

 

Charleston turned his attention from Raffles to me and stared at me in silence for a moment; his expression gave nothing away. Finally he sighed and then to my surprise and to Raffles's slight annoyance (I least, given how he became slightly tense and his hand tightened on my shoulder, I believe it to be annoyance) he brushed my fringe (I had been meaning to get my hair cut for the last fortnight, but somehow hadn't got around to it) back for me. "It's all right, Harry," he softly. He'd only ever called me by my Christian name once - on Raffles and his last day at school.

 

Then he glanced at Raffles and his look quite clearly said that he knew full well that were it not for Raffles, I would not be where I was now. I would never have broken into a house. I felt Raffles shift slightly and then heard him clear his throat. "Charlie," he murmured his voice low. "I -"

 

He fell silent as Timpson reappeared; he was carrying Charleston's doctor's bag. "Here you are, sir. Mary is laying the fire and airing the bed."

 

Charleston stood up and took the bag. "Thank you, Timpson. Please tell Mary that as soon as she has finished the fire she may go back to bed."

 

"Yes, Dr. Charleston."

 

"And you may also return to bed, Timpson."

 

"Thank you, sir."

 

"But before you do, please relight the fire in the library and turn on the lights."

 

Timpson inclined his head. "Very good, sir," he said, casting Raffles and me a look that was heavy with disapproval.

 

Charleston clearly saw the look because he frowned and for a moment I thought he was going to say something. However, he didn't and once Timpson had turned and walked away again, Charleston knelt down on the floor next to me and opened his bag. "Right," he said, "I'll get your ankle and wrist bandaged and strapped up, and then we'll get you to bed and I'll give you something for the pain as well as something to help you sleep."

 

I glanced swiftly at Raffles before saying, "Thank you, Charleston. It is kind of you."

 

Charleston gave a shrug and began to untie my shoe. "I'm not entirely certain you'll think that once I begin to bandage you, Manders, it will cause you more pain, I'm afraid."

 

He was correct it did. At Raffles's insistence I had taken his hand and as Charleston bandaged my ankle and wrist I gripped it tightly, so tightly he made a soft noise more than once. Apart from handing me a piece of cloth at one point, Charleston very kindly ignored the tears that not only sprang to my eyes but fell down my cheeks.

 

"There," he said finally, straightening up. "That's done. How does it feel, Manders?"

 

Now the dreadful pain which had caused by him bandaging me had subsided a little, my wrist and ankle actually, now that they were supported, felt a little better. Of course that was relative, and the pain was indeed still severe - in many ways it was a more insidious pain than that caused by the bullet in my thigh. "A little better, thank you, Charleston," I managed.

 

He put his hand on my shoulder. "I am sorry that my ministrations caused you more pain, but as I said a few minutes ago, once we get you to your bedroom I'll give you something to help with the pain and a powder to allow you to get a good night's sleep."

 

"Thank you." I was a little surprised that Raffles had made no objection to us staying the night with Charleston, but then I decided given we had been caught breaking into Charleston's home, that maybe even Raffles hadn't got the courage to object.

 

Charleston closed his bag and stood up. "I'm sure we can manage him between us, A. J."

 

Raffles stood up. "I can manage him on my own, Charlie," he said softly.

 

Charleston stared at him. "Are you certain, A. J.? He's no longer thirteen, you know."

 

Raffles smiled. "I am quite aware of that, Charlie. But, yes, I am quite certain; it won't be the first time I have carried, Bunny, will it, my rabbit?"

 

I shook my head. "No." Apart from the time in the very early days of our partnership in crime when he had carried me across the gravelled drive, before he had taught me how to move silently, it had in fact been Raffles who, singled-handedly, had carried me from the field of battle to the hospital tent.

 

Charleston glanced at me again and back at Raffles before shrugging and saying, "Very well. I shall show the way." He picked his bag up and Raffles bent to pick me up; he settled me carefully and securely in his arms and then with Charlie leading the way, he carried me to what I presumed to be Charleston's guestroom where a fire blazed and bed looked very inviting.

 

Raffles put me down onto the bed and straightened up. Charleston put his bag on a table by the door and took out two packets. He took a powder out of one of them and poured it into a glass of water before handing it to me. "This will give you some relief from the pain; I'll wait until you are actually in bed before I give you the sleeping powder as it is quite strong."

 

I took the glass, "Thank you, Charleston," I said and drank the contents before handing the glass to Raffles.

 

"Right, well I'll go and find you both some pyjamas and a toothbrush each."

 

"Thank you, Charlie," Raffles said and I smiled.

 

Charleston was back very quickly, so quickly that Raffles had only had time to remove his dining jacket and empty his pockets. He handed the pyjamas and toothbrushes to Raffles. "I'm afraid they'll be rather long on you, Manders," he said.

 

"They'll be a little long on me, Charlie." Given Charleston was a few inches taller than Raffles, who was several inches taller than me, I know he spoke the truth.

 

"Right," Charlie said. "I'll leave you to get ready for bed. Once Manders is in bed, A. J., you can give him this," he poured the contents of another small packet into another glass of water and put it down on the bedside table. "You'll fall asleep fairly quickly, Harry," he said, "in about ten minutes or so."

 

I smiled at him. "Thank you, Charleston."

 

He smiled back at me and then looked at Raffles. "Once Manders is asleep, A. J., do feel free to join me for a nightcap in the library."

 

Although it was phrased as an invitation, it was quite clear to me that it was far more of an instruction. Raffles smiled. "I'd like that very much, Charlie."

 

Charleston smiled at him. "Good. Well, I'll say goodnight, Manders, and I'll see you in the morning."

 

"Goodnight, Charleston, and thank you again."

 

He nodded. "Oh," he said, turning to Raffles, "The bathroom is to the right of this room and my bedroom is on the other side."

 

"Thank you, Charlie."

 

"As a doctor I would advise that Manders doesn't put any weight on his ankle and instead . . ." He trailed off a moment before smiling a little ruefully and saying, "But I can't imagine he's changed that much over the years." I felt my cheeks flush a little and I glanced down at my lap. "Do at least make him use this to help him and stay with him, A. J." I looked up to see that Charleston had handed Raffles a sturdy walking-stick.

 

Raffles took it. "I shall. And I will join you in the library shortly."

 

Charleston hesitated for a moment before saying quietly, "If you can persuade him to be sensible, there is a chamber-pot under the bed." And with those words, he turned and left the room, closing the door behind him.

 

Raffles stood and watched him leave, before turning back to me. "Right, Bunny, let's get you undressed and ready for bed and then -"

 

"You may assist me to the bathroom," I said firmly.

 

Raffles sighed a little and put his hand on my head, letting his fingers slip into my hair and tangling it around them for a moment. "Oh, my rabbit," he murmured. "You know when you were in hospital -"

 

"That was different," I said a little harshly. "I am not in hospital now. I merely have -"

 

"A very badly sprained ankle and wrist. But we shall do as you wish, my rabbit." Raffles's tone was calming and conciliatory.

 

I sighed softly and ignored the small part of me that almost wished he would have been a little more persistent. "Thank you, Raffles."

 

"I trust you will make no objections to me assisting you to undress and put your pyjamas on?"

 

I shook my head; I certainly didnít. Not that I would have objected because whether he realised it or not, Raffles's tone had been the same as Charleston had used when he'd 'invited' Raffles to join him for a drink once I was asleep.

 

TWENTY MINUTES LATER

 

As Raffles pulled the covers up and handed me the glass containing the sleeping powder, I regretted more than a little my stubborn foolishness, especially as the pain which had begun to diminish just a little after Charleston had given me the other powder, had returned with a vengeance.

 

"Oh, Bunny," Raffles murmured, pushing my hair back from my slightly damp forehead, "my dear little rabbit." He stood for a moment or two as I emptied the glass before taking it from me and encouraging me to lie down.

 

Once I was settled he began to undress and I found myself watching him in a way I was quite certain was not entirely proper for one man to watch another man undress, no matter how intimate and close their friendship was. I had, of course, seen Raffles naked on many occasions, but one cannot stare when in the Turkish baths, indeed I do not recall ever having the desire to stare at him. However, for some reason I found myself unable to take my gaze away from his unclothed body and given he was standing and I was lying down, my gaze fell quite naturally on one area of his body in particular.

 

I tried to make myself look away, but I could not. I told myself I should not look, it wasn't right, it wasn't proper; it wasn't a thing a gentleman did. However, even as I told myself that, I reminded myself that he knew I was in the room with him, he knew I was in the bed and he wasn't troubling to turn his back on me or make any attempt to cover his body as he stripped - thus it was as much his fault as it was mine that I was staring at him.

 

I also told myself that my desire to stare and my inability to look away was because I was starting to feel a little light-headed from the pain powder Charleston had given me and now the sleeping draft, and that I was warm and fairly comfortable and the bed was just the right balance between being soft and hard. Everyone knows that when you are unwell or in pain that you do do things you would not otherwise do.

 

To my slight embarrassment I heard myself sigh softly as Raffles pulled on his pyjama trousers and I hastily turned it into a cough as he glanced at me. "Are you all right, my rabbit?" he asked his voice soft, as he pulled on the dressing-gown Charleston had also left for him. He came across the room to the bed, sat down and took my hand.

 

"I'm a little sleepy, Raffles," I replied, gazing up at him and admiring his handsome face and his once again naturally ebony hair, that was admittedly now a little streaked with grey. However, rather than detract from his looks, it merely added to them; he really was (still was) the most handsome man I had ever seen. At the age of barely thirteen upon seeing him for the first time I had compared him to a Greek God and in many ways that is still what he looked like.

 

"Well, you close your eyes, Bunny, and once you're asleep I shall go and have a drink with Charlie."

 

"You will come back, won't you?" I said, blinking hard as I gazed up at him.

 

"Of course I will, my rabbit," he said, brushing my hair back from my face for me.

 

I sighed with pleasure and then something occurred to me. "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Why has Charleston put us both in one room?"

 

He was silent for a moment as he stared down at me. Then he smiled, a smile I had never seen him smile at me before, and took my hand between both of his. "Well, my dear Bunny," he said softly, "I believe it is because believes we do this." And then to my amazement as well as to my delight, he lowered his head and put his mouth on mine and kissed me for several seconds before he sat upright again and returned to gazing at me.

 

"Raffles?" I managed. "How . . . I mean . . . Are you sure he does? What makes you think . . . Raffles?"

 

He smiled at me and laughed softly, before bending his head and kissing me again. "I am merely speculating that he believes thus, my rabbit. Had he not done so, I believe he would have given us a room each, or at least one with two beds and not just one. Besides," he said lightly, pausing only to kiss me again, "he is not the only person to think we are - more than just close friends."

 

I felt my mouth fall open as I stared up at him. "Is he not?" I exclaimed.

 

"No, Bunny, he is not. There are several of our acquaintances whom, I am fairly certain believe us to be," he paused for a second before saying lightly, "lovers."

 

I stared up at him. "But why? Why would they?"

 

"I think it has something to do with our never being apart from one another, as well as having both reached the age of forty, and in my case forty-five, and not having taken a wife."

 

"But surely . . . Raffles, it's against the law."

 

"Why, yes, my rabbit, I am aware of that fact."

 

"But then why haven't they . . . You know?"

 

Raffles shrugged. "Because I believe they believe it is no-one's business but ours. And it's not as if . . . Well, I'm quite certain you know."

 

I wasn't all together certain I did, in fact given how hard it was becoming for me to keep my eyes open I wasn't at all sure I did. But I did know one thing: I wanted him to kiss me again; I wanted him to kiss me and go on kissing me. "Raffles," I murmured.

 

His fingers slipped into my hair and he began to lightly stroke my cheek with his fingertips of his other hand; I sighed with pleasure and smiled up at him. "Yes, my beloved rabbit?"

 

"Can I - may I," I corrected, remembering the times he used to correct me all those years ago when we had been school boys together, "tell you something."

 

"Of course, Bunny."

 

I glanced towards the door and then back up at him. I tugged on his arm a little and he bent nearer to me. "I've wanted you to kiss me from the day we first met at school," I said solemnly.

 

He smiled, paused to kiss me again, before he said, "Have you now, my rabbit?"

 

I nodded. "Yes. But you never did, not at school nor in all those years we spent together after I returned to you. But I wanted you to. I used to dream of you kissing me; I even occasionally dared to imagine you kissing me. But you never did," I sighed.

 

"Well, I have done so now, have I not?" And he smiled and kissed me again. There was something subtly different about the kiss and I moaned softly with pleasure and shifted a little in the bed, as my body began to react to his kiss and to his closeness and his scent.

 

He lifted his head and smiled as he again brushed my hair back. "Close your eyes, Bunny," he murmured. "Close your eyes and go to sleep. I'll be here when you wake up."

 

"Do you promise?" My voice was more than a little slurred and my eyelids wouldn't stay open.

 

"Of course I do, my rabbit. That's it, close you eyes. You're safe and warm and you're mine."

 

"Am I?"

 

"Oh, yes. You always have been, Bunny. That's it, go to sleep." His mouth touched mine again and then with his fingers lightly stroking my cheek and head I fell asleep.

 

THE NEXT MORNING

 

I blinked as I awoke and for a moment wondered where I was. And then, as I remembered the previous evening, I felt a rush of embarrassment and sorrow for being caught breaking into his house by a man who as a boy I had admired and looked up to. I sighed and wished it had never happened; as pleased as I had been to see Charleston again, as much as I was looking forward to seeing him again, I wished sincerely it had been under other circumstances.

 

And then I remembered what else had happened and despite the feelings of embarrassment and sorrow, I found myself smiling as I remembered Raffles kissing me. And as I recalled the feel of his lips on my, the very possessive way he had kissed and held me, I remembered that I had awoken on one occasion during the night to find Raffles in the bed next to me with one arm over me, holding my securely and yes, possessively, so very possessively.

 

The bed next to me was empty and I presumed Raffles was either in the bathroom or with Charleston. I was giving consideration to getting out of bed myself, despite the insidious pain in my ankle and wrist, when the bedroom door opened and Raffles came in; his hair was damp and he was dressed in the dressing gown Charleston had leant him.

 

He smiled at me; it was more than a little intimate and meaningful in a way I had never seen before. I felt my cheeks grow a little warm as I smiled at him. "Good morning, Bunny," he said, coming over to the bed, sitting down and sliding his fingers into my hair. "And how is my dear rabbit today?"

 

"Hello, Raffles, my ankle and wrist hurt, they hurt a great deal," I added and saw him frown and even saw a hint of guilt cross his face. "It wasn't your fault, Raffles," I said firmly.

 

He gave me a half-smile, "Ah, but, my rabbit, it was." He bent his head and kissed my forehead. "I'm afraid it really was," he added softly.

 

I sighed softly and went on gazing up at him as sought around for something to say. "Did you and Charleston have a pleasent talk last night?"

 

He smiled. "Believe it or not, Bunny, given the circumstances under which we became reacquainted, we did."

 

"Oh, good." I smiled at him. "And has he, well you know."

 

"Forgiven us?" I nodded. "Yes, I am pleased and relieved to say that he has. I believe his happiness at us meeting up again, over-rode any negative feelings he may have had about the way we became reacquainted."

 

"Good. I am glad," I said.

 

"I am too, my rabbit. He'll be along in a little while to see how you are and in case you thought he may have forgotten, he wants to examine your thigh and talk to you about the injury and any lasting problems. Don't look like that, Bunny, I know you're a little tired of doctors, but this is Charlie."

 

I smiled a little. "I know, Raffles." And I found that actually didn't really mind the prospect of Charleston examining my thigh and asking me questions. We sat for a moment or two in silence, he was gently caressing my scalp and I was simply lost in the love I had always had for him. I believe we may have gone on just sitting and gazing at one another had it not been for my body making me aware of something.

 

I sighed. "Raffles," I began to say.

 

He gently interrupted me. "I really do think you shouldn't get up until Charlie has examined your ankle again, Bunny," he said.

 

I opened my mouth prepared to argue and heard myself saying, "Very well, Raffles." My ankle really was hurting me a great deal and the prospect of putting weight on it, even assisted by Raffles did not appeal to me.

 

He smiled, brushed my hair back and kissed my forehead. "That's my good boy," he said.

 

FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER

 

I was sitting up in bed, Raffles having very kindly fetched me a bowl of water so that I could wash my hands and face and brush my teeth. I told myself not to be embarrassed and that Raffles had been unconcerned, so I shouldn't be. Raffles was partly dressed having put on his trousers and shirt and was once more sitting on the bed.

 

"Bunny?" he said, his tone low.

 

"Yes, Raffles?"

 

"Did you mean what you said last night about having wanted me to kiss you from the moment we first met?"

 

Against my will my cheeks grew a little warm and I nodded. "Yes, Raffles, I meant it."

 

He stared at me for a moment or two and I gazed back at him. "And did you just wish for me to kiss you?" he finally asked.

 

Once more I cursed quite how easily I blushed. He had one hand on my cheek and thus I couldn't lower my head as would have been my instinct. "Well," I said, "when we were at school, yes, because, well . . . I didn't . . . You know . . . So, yes, I only ever thought about you kissing me."

 

"And since then?"

 

I moistened my lips and let me gaze leave his face for a moment or two, before making myself look back at him. "I'd like you to do more than just kiss me, Raffles." He smiled at me and then gave a half laugh and a half sigh. "Raffles?"

 

"I was just thinking how much time we have wasted."

 

"What do you mean?"

 

"Well, you see, Bunny, just as you wished for me to kiss you from the moment we met, I confess I rather wanted the same. However, I always vowed I would not do such a thing whilst we were at school; I just couldn't, my rabbit, no matter how much I wished to do so. And then when you arrived at my rooms and I saw you for the first time in ten years, well, let us just say that I was quite certain where you would be spending the night."

 

I widened my yes. "But you never . . . Why didn't you, Raffles?"

 

"I truly believe had the evening gone as I thought it would, that I would indeed have taken you to my bed. However, when you told me of your predicament - I . . . Oh, I do not really know, my rabbit. All I know is that it changed things and I once again felt unable to take you to my bed, least you agree simply because I had helped you."

 

I frowned; I understood what he was saying, however, a number of years, seventeen to be exact, had gone by since that evening so why hadn't he said or done something?

 

"Because, my beloved Bunny," he said, seeming to be capable of reading my mind, "it just became a habit not to. I don't know that I can explain it; I do not know I even understand my own rationale. But - Oh, Bunny," he said and suddenly he wasn't speaking any longer, instead he was kissing me and I was kissing him back and I was in his arms and my arms were around him, and despite the pain from my ankle and wrist, I knew I had never been happier.

 

I do not know quite for how long we went on kissing before I heard a soft noise. Raffles must have heard it too, as he took his mouth from mine and looked up. "Charlie," he said, sounding not in the least bit embarrassed at having been caught in the act of kissing me. I of course had reddened cheeks and was trying hard not to fidget. "You might have knocked."

 

"You mean as you and Manders did last night?" Charleston replied and began to laugh. A split second later Raffles joined in and after another second or two, I too joined them and we all laughed.

 

"I really have missed you, A. J.," Charleston said when the laughter died down. Given he had said the same words the evening before, I got a feeling for quite how genuine they were, quite how much he had missed his boyhood best friend.

 

"And I, my dear Charlie, have missed you as well. We never should have let so many years go by without contacting one another." Just for a moment they stared at one another with an intensity I hadn't seen since Charlie had come to say goodbye to Raffles on their final day at the school. I believe we all knew why Raffles had let the friendship drift away; despite everything he said about the burgling, he would never have wanted Charleston to know about it.

 

It was Charleston who broke the stare and the silence. "And how are you this morning, Harry?" He came closer to the bed and looked down at me.

 

"I'm afraid my wrist and my ankle in particular are very painful, Charleston," I said.

 

He frowned. "I think I'd better examine them again. Maybe I did miss a small fracture or something. Does it feel strange at all?" He stared at Raffles until he stood up and then pulled the bedcovers down and began to take the bandage off of my ankle.

 

"No," I said, "it just hurts rather a lot. I really don't think it's broken."

 

"Charlie's the doctor, Bunny," Raffles said firmly.

 

"Yes, Raffles," I replied in my obliging, obedient tone and made all of us smile as no doubt it made both Raffles and Charleston recall our school days as well.

 

"Well," Charleston said, after carefully examining my ankle for quite some time. "I believe Harry is correct; I am quite certain nothing is broken. I think you really have simply sprained it very badly and the pain may well be linked with the long term damage to your thigh - which I still wish to look at and talk to you about."

 

"Very well, Charleston," I said obligingly.

 

He smiled at me and undid the bandage on my wrist and examined that. "Again, I'm quite certain nothing is broken. I'll give you another dose of the pain relief powder I gave you last night, that should help. And you must stay off of your ankle and use your wrist as little as possible."

 

"Yes, Charleston," I said and then added quickly, "as you've taken the bandages off, might I bathe before you put them back on?"

 

He glanced at Raffles and raised an eyebrow and I saw what I'd seen many times during the two years we'd spent together at school: they had a silent, well partly silent conversation. "Bunny hasn't got out of bed since last night," Raffles said in reply to Charleston's silent question. "And as you saw last night, I can support him."

 

Charleston glanced back at me. "Very well," he said. "But do be careful. Once you have bathed I'll rebandage your wrist and ankle."

 

"Thank you, Charleston."

 

He nodded and turned to go, then stopped and said, "I've had an idea; why don't you and Manders stay here for a few days, A. J.? Just until Manders's ankle is better - that way I'll be able to ensure it is properly bandaged and make sure you don't do anything foolish. You can go back to the Albany and collect some things for you both, A. J."

 

Raffles glanced at me and I gave him a smile and a half-shrug, meaning it was up to him. He shook his head fondly and looked back at Charleston. "Thank you, Charlie," he said, "we'd like that, would we not, Bunny?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, yes, Charleston, we would. Thank you."

 

He smiled before saying, "Don't thank me too soon, Manders, do not forget you and I are going to have at least one conversation about your war injury," and with those words he put his hands into his pockets and left Raffles and I alone again.

 

It was some ten minutes before Raffles finally took his mouth from mine and went to the bathroom to draw a bath for me.

 

A WEEK LATER

 

"Well, my rabbit, here we are, home at last."

 

I smiled as I looked around our own sitting room. My wrist was almost completely better; I still felt the odd twinge of pain if I tried to lift anything of any weight or had been holding a book for some time, but for the most part I was untroubled by it. My ankle, although considerably better was still causing me pain and I still found it easier to walk if I used the walking-stick Charleston had given me and put my arm through Raffles's.

 

It had been very pleasant spending time with Charleston - even though he had kept his promise and had spoken to me at some length about my injury and had spent a considerable amount of time examining my thigh - and I knew Raffles had enjoyed the time as well. The years seemed to slip away, especially for Raffles and Charleston, and it had been as if they hadn't lost touch with one another. Most evenings after dinner I sat with my foot, at Charleston's insistence, up on a footstool, sipping my whisky and soda, just listening to them talking before we all retired to bed.

 

Raffles had done nothing beyond kiss me during the week we had spent at Charleston's despite him being quite certain that Charleston believed we had been lovers for many years. And in truth, as much as I wanted him to do more, I was grateful he hadn't.

 

However, we were now home again, in our own rooms and I decided we had waited long enough. From somewhere, I wasn't quite sure where, I dug up the courage to turn to Raffles, put my hand on his arm and say, "Your bedroom or mine?"

 

The look of surprise on his face had me laughing for a moment, until his mouth on mine silenced me. If I had believed he had kissed me with intensity and passion during our week at Charleston's house I had been somewhat mistaken, and it took only a few seconds before my body was responding to his kiss, the way he was holding me and to the feel of his body against mine.

 

"Well, my rabbit," he murmured, finally breaking the kiss. "I always said you had more pluck than you believed you had." I smiled at him and offered him my mouth again. He obliged me with another kiss before he lifted his head again and asked, "Do you have a preference?"

 

"Yours," I said, not needing to think about it.

 

He brushed his lips over my forehead before offering me his arm and at a far slower pace than he normally moved he guided me into his bedroom where he started to teach me the most wonderful - it was the best thing he has ever taught me. And I knew, as he caressed my naked body and caused me to moan with sheer delight, that I would never sleep alone again.

 


 

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