It’s New Year’s Eve and Bob is eighteen. He’s just finished his first term at university, and he’s celebrating. That means bars, but he’s with friends, so it doesn’t mean the nice gay bar he’s been eyeing. It’s not that most of them don’t know about him (all the girls do, anyway), but they wouldn’t enjoy that sort of place, never mind that it’s a lot more upscale then the hole they’ve dragged him to tonight.
Not that he’s currently complaining, though. His two male friends are hitting on the lovely bartender and his two female friends are busy with each other, which leaves Bob to check out the two extremely attractive blokes at the corner table.
They’re both much taller than Bob, and he’s caught one of them staring at him once or twice. It’s a nice, comfortable feeling, knowing that something could happen if he likes, but that he could just sit here and enjoy being noticed.
Then one of them gets up and comes over to him.
“Hi, can I buy you a drink?”
Oh, Scottish. That’s fine, Bob can work with that. He leans on the bar with exaggerated ease and says, “Yeah, sure, I’d like that.” He’s used to men buying him drinks; he just sort of assumed these two were a couple. He glances at the man still sitting at the corner table, who raises a beer to him solemnly. Bob grins back.
The Scottish man leans next to Bob on the bar, looking far more comfortable than Bob is pretending to be, and says, “I haven’t seen you ‘round here before.” He doesn’t sound like he’s putting anything on at all, something Bob isn’t used to in gay bar flirting.
“I’m generally busy with school,” Bob says, on the off chance that this slightly thuggish-looking man might be impressed by education. “I’m Bob, by the way.”
“Bob.” The other man smiles. “You can call me One Two.”
From the brushes Bob’s had with London’s criminal underworld, that sort of silliness is standard. He was right in thinking this man’s a thug, then. He decides he’s not at all uncomfortable with that. He’s getting a bit bored with all the very rich, very gay, very safe men he picks up in bars. “One Two. Do you box or something?”
One Two shrugs sheepishly. “Not really, no. I did used to fight, though. Well, I still do, really. Ah, here’s your drink.” He lays his hand on Bob’s arm, and it’s fucking electric.
Bob sucks in a sharp breath. Men like this, he thinks, this is what he wants. He can’t usually get them interested in him, but One Two seems interested enough.
“So,” One Two says, his low is sort of low and rough, slamming right down Bob’s spine, “what’re you studying at school?”
“Law.” Bob’s voice, on the other hand, fucking breaks, which isn’t fair at all. This man is probably five years older than him and way out of his league.
“Law?” One Two’s eyebrows seem almost permanently raised, as if he’s mystified and intrigued by everything Bob is saying. “Oh, Mumbles is going to love that. Oi, Mumbles!”
The other man sighs, gets up, and joins them at the bar. “You rang?” He’s frowning slightly.
“Mumbles, this is Bob,” One Two says proudly, making Bob feel as if he’s some sort of fancy car being displayed on a game show. Guess how many drinks One Two’s had and you win a shiny new Bob. “He’s studying law,” One Two adds.
“Is that so?” Mumbles looks ever less happy. “Well, you know best. And why are we bothering this nice young man who studies law?”
“Told you, he looks nice.” One Two slings his arm around Bob, and Bob automatically cuddles against him a little.
Mumbles narrows his eyes. “Bob, can I have a word with you?”
All right, so maybe Mumbles is One Two’s boyfriend. Bob doesn’t fancy getting beat up, but he lets Mumbles take him aside.
“Look,” Mumbles whispers, glancing back at the bar where One Two is looking perplexed and getting another drink, “I know how this is going to sound, but he’s not gay.”
Bob frowns. “What?”
Mumbles clears his throat and crosses his arms, possibly looking more intimidating than he meant to. Or maybe not. “If you’re not making a move on him, forget I said anything, but all I know is how it looked, and I wouldn’t want you to get confused. He’s drunk and he’s a bit confused as well, but he’s not going to follow through on anything, so don’t get your hopes up. You look like a nice kid and all.”
Oh. Well, now Bob feels fucking stupid. “Thanks, I guess. You’re right, I thought—Well, how could I not? He shouldn’t—fuck.”
Mumbles laughs ruefully. “Believe me, I know. He’s a complete waste of time.” He gives One Two a fond glance, leaving Bob wondering if maybe there isn’t something going on there after all. “Still. Want another drink?”
Bob hasn’t finished the first one yet, but he likes these two, despite the awkwardness. “All right. Why don’t I tell you all about law and you can tell me what you do for work?”
Mumbles slings his arm around Bob. “Oh, that’s a good idea.”
Later, when they’re all three quite drunk and it’s nearly midnight, Mumbles leans over and says, “I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job, are you?”
Bob, slow and friendly with alcohol, thinks of his parents' bills and the warm press of One Two’s knee against his thigh. “I might be.”
Mumbles grins. “Great.” He glances at the clock, which shows less than a minute till midnight. He leans close until Bob is tucked safely between him and One Two and says, “Listen, I’m not gay or anything, but d’you want a kiss at midnight?”
Bob laughs and lays his hand on Mumbles’s arm. “I think I could live with that.” He watches the clock and leans in to peck Mumbles on the lips.
One Two’s noise of shock is worth it.
It’s New Year’s Eve and Bob is nineteen. Both his best mates are in jail, the horrific span of time where their sentences overlap. Mumbles got in not long after One Two, probably not on purpose, leaving Bob spinning his wheels for a bit. Tonight it’s worse than usual, and he could improve matters by going to the Speeler, but he’d almost rather be alone if he’s going to be moody.
He’s sitting on his couch drinking boxed wine in the flickering light of the telly, feeling immensely sorry for himself, when something crashes against the door.
Bob gets up, not at all drunk yet, and cautiously opens the door.
Johnny’s outside on the steps, only half upright, hanging onto the door handle. He’s wearing a neon blue leopard-print shirt that’s aggressively two decades ago and clings to his ribs. It’s got no sleeves and there’s snow on the ground.
“Johnny, you okay?” Bob says dubiously. He’d really rather not invite the kid in, but he doesn’t want him to die of exposure or stupidity.
“I hate you,” Johnny returns, half falling into the room. “Thanks. I got thrown out of a fucking club for trying to buy a drink. That bouncer must’ve been at least six times my size.” His words are slurred so badly that Bob has to fill in the gaps with his imagination.
“Easy,” Bob says, laying a hand on Johnny’s arm, which is freezing. “Let me get you a blanket and we’ll talk, yeah?”
Johnny just mutters something incoherent and flings himself in the direction of Bob’s couch, so Bob goes to fetch the blanket. By the time he gets back, Johnny is curled up on the couch, shaking. Bob can’t help but notice that Johnny’s snow-covered combat boots are also on the couch. He tries not to be annoyed.
“Blanket,” he says, tossing it over Johnny. “And a request for an explanation about what you’re doing here. Was Archy out?”
Johnny huffs out a laugh and tugs the blanket around his shoulders. “You’re hilarious. I couldn’t show up on his doorstep like the little lost kitten I am telling him tales about getting kicked out of a club. Besides, fucking smashed. He’d knock me into next week.” Something fierce and animal flashes in Johnny’s eyes for a second.
Bob sighs and sits next to him. He resists the urge to comfort Johnny, because he’s done that before and been bitten for his trouble. “I suppose I’m sort of glad you showed up. I was going to just spend it alone.”
“Spend—Right, the holiday. Yes.” Johnny’s hands rest spider-like on his knees, poised and ready to do damage. “Well, that’s a bit of luck. We’ll both have a kiss at midnight.”
Bob isn’t kissing a seventeen-year-old and he’s certainly not kissing Johnny, but in the five minutes they’ve got left, Johnny will probably pass out of vomit or something.
Just Bob’s luck (or Johnny’s stubbornness), though, Johnny just curls against him and waits, eyes unfocused in the direction of the television. The light flickers across his face and the unnaturally deep shadows under his eyes.
When midnight arrives, Johnny leans over and kisses Bob sloppily, tasting of vodka and cigarettes and maybe a little bit of blood. His lip’s split, Bob realizes when he’s still frozen halfway between response and flight. He’s about to push Johnny away when the kid shifts, deepens the kiss, and wraps long fingers around Bob’s wrist. He makes a scratchy, desperate noise in the back of his throat, teeth tugging at Bob’s lip half-heartedly.
Then Bob does push him away, because he doesn’t need this kind of trouble, and besides, Archy would murder him. “John, hey, don’t.”
Johnny settles back onto the couch, looking wounded in the low light. “Just too good for everyone, aren’t you? ‘s what Archy says. That you’re good. Look like you’d be good.”
Something else socks Bob deep in the gut, because while he honestly isn’t interested in kissing Johnny, there are other things he’d be very interested in. “He said that? When?”
But Johnny has flung himself back on the couch and passed out.
It’s New Year’s Eve and Bob is twenty-two. He hardly ever does proper, serious dating, but sometimes he’ll fall into something a bit more important than just a casual fuck. Eddy is like that, despite the fact that they’ve had sixteen fights in the four months they’ve been together.
It’s also getting harder to lie to One Two.
Bob is beginning to seriously consider just telling him the truth, but that’s not going to be easy. He’s gotten so used to hiding, and besides, all he can think of is the dozens of times One Two has made fascinated, disgusted comments on gays, fucking gays, people like Bob and the young man he’s currently wrapped around in the corner of a pub.
This all sounds much nicer when you discount the fact that it’s Eddy’s dad’s pub. Bob doesn’t mind, actually—J.D. is fond of him—but Eddy’s slightly more sullen about it. Bob doesn’t want to run into anyone he knows, though, and Eddy’s agreed to that. He’s getting less comfortable with being kept a secret, though.
That’s not the only thing they fight about, either. Despite the fact that Eddy is snuggled comfortably in Bob’s arms, they’re having a fight right now.
“All I’m saying,” Bob repeats, smacking Eddy’s leg for emphasis, “is that it’s actually very bloody dangerous to fuck around with men like that. If you’re going to take jobs, don’t take that sort. You and your mates don’t need to get in over your heads again.”
Bob would say they have this argument about as often as the one about Eddy’s gambling habit.
Eddy sighs irritably and shifts in Bob’s arms. “I’ve told you, Bob. If we don’t run up against a bit of danger, we’ll never wind up getting anywhere.”
Getting somewhere seems to be a theme with Eddy, and one Bob doesn’t really understand. It’s not that he’s never thought about moving up, but Eddy’s willing to take risks that are too big for rewards that are too small.
Bob squeezes Eddy’s hands absently. “Fine, all right, let’s just not discuss it tonight. It’s still the holidays.”
“Not that either of us needs to get back to any sort of real job,” Eddy says. He shifts again, bony elbows digging into Bob a little.
Briefly, it’s very nice. The trouble is, these things never last for Bob. He’s had a small handful of steady boyfriends, but they all end up leaving for one reason or another. He won’t let them meet his friends, or he does let them and they see how he gets about One Two and that’s it. And yes, he does still get like that about One Two.
And then there’s Eddy, who’s spoiled and opinionated and won’t do anything Bob wants in bed. For tonight, though, it’s nice.
When midnight comes, Bob gives him a kiss, not thinking about any of this.
It’s New Year’s Eve and Bob is twenty-five. He’s more than a little drunk, and One Two and Mumbles have both fucked off with girls, damn them straight to hell.
He doesn’t exactly blame them, though. Archy got out of jail two nights ago, and he’s at the Speeler tonight, wound tight as a watch. Bob’s left in the corner playing a hand of poker with Fred and Cookie, but he can’t help staring at Archy.
The line of Archy’s jaw is tight, and Bob hasn’t seen him relax his shoulders once since coming in, even though he’s had a lot to drink. No one’s dared speak to him beyond a brief greeting.
One of Bob’s worst qualities, he’s been told, is that he’s too nice.
He stands up with only a little trouble and tosses his cards on the table. “I’m out. I’ll see you two tomorrow, yeah? Happy New Year.”
Fred frowns. “Just look after yourself, Bob. Don’t think I haven’t seen how you’ve been eyeing Archy tonight. I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, he’s too heavy for you.”
Bob’s drunk and angry at One Two, though, so he flips Fred off half good-naturedly and says, “Don’t you worry about me.” He makes it across the room without stumbling.
“Bob,” Archy says without looking away from the bar.
“Arch. How’ve you been?”
Archy turns, and he’s not smiling even a little. “I’ve been better, I must say.”
Bob leans against the bar, slipping into exaggerated ease, drunk and loose. “Let me take care of you, then,” he slurs, voice going trashy around the edges like when he’s flirting in bars.
And it works. He didn’t really expect that, and he’s been warned against going after it, but twenty minutes later in Archy’s flat and Archy’s bed, he doesn’t care.
Picture this: Bob, flat on his back, naked and breathing hard. Archy, holding Bob’s hands over his head with one hand, slapping the hell out of him with the other.
The thing about Bob is that he’s flexible. Yeah, if he had his way, he’d be talking dirty and tying up pretty gay boys, but that’s just what comes easy. Truth be told, he’s always preferred slightly tougher blokes, never mind that he’d still be happy tying them up. Mostly, though, he’s very open to experimentation.
It’s true, though, everything Mumbles and Fred have always told him about Archy. He’s too heavy for Bob, and now that he’s done four years, he’s way too fucking much. Bob likes it a bit rough, but he’s hardly ever on the receiving end, and there are always rules. There aren’t any rules here, just the back of Archy’s hand and bruises coming up on Bob’s cheek.
Bob throws his head back and says Archy’s name, trying not to worry about if he’s going to get killed. Apart from that small concern, this is as fucking good as he always knew it would be. Archy knows what he’s doing. He’s a fucking legend.
“I ain’t gonna fuck you,” Archy says, his voice rough. “You couldn’t handle it.”
Bob is about to protest, but he realizes Archy’s right. “Okay. Yeah. What do you want, then?”
Archy looks down at him for a long moment. Then he says, “You tell me.”
Bob swallows, running through the rather long list of thing he’s imagined doing to Archy over the years. “Ah. Right. D’you want to hold me down while I suck you off?”
Archy’s smile has teeth in it. “That sounds great, Bob, yeah.”
Afterwards, Archy offers Bob ice for his face. Bob’s a little proud of the marks, because everyone in the bars and clubs he goes to will know what they mean. Everyone’s going to be very impressed and jealous for a while.
“Truth be told,” Archy mutters, when Bob is nearly to the point of asking if he should leave, “I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I’ve always wanted to get you into bed, actually. You’re a fucking attractive bloke, Bob.”
Bob flushes, glad that it’s dark. But God, it’s Archy, who wouldn’t get a bit bashful? Nearly every gay bloke in London’s criminal underworld wants a piece of Archy, or has had one. “Thanks,” he manages.
“Sure. Listen, Bob, if you ever get tired of wasting your time with those two and decide you want some real work, I think we’d have a place for you.”
Bob swallows hard, tracing the line of Archy’s shoulder in his index finger. “Oh. Uh, thanks, Arch. Really. But I think we both know I can’t do that.” It’s not like it’s never crossed his mind, but he’d never say so out loud. His loyalty to One Two and Mumbles runs deeper than most anything. And besides, this evening has been uncomplicated and satisfying. He doesn’t want to ruin that.
“Mm. Well, if you ever reconsider.” Archy glances at the blue digital clock on the bedside table. “Hey. We missed midnight.”
Bob grins. “Guess we did. Here.” He props himself up on his elbows and kisses Archy, the first time this evening. He knows this won’t last past morning—and probably not that long—but he’s had worse New Year’s Eves.
It’s New Year’s Eve and Bob is twenty-six.
He’s taken One Two back to the bar where they first met, leaving Mumbles cheerfully playing cards and winking at Bob as they left.
Bob and One Two have had a few more run-ins since their little dance, kisses Bob’s managed to steal, things like that. He isn’t sure if it’s progress or just One Two being a bit curious, but he’s tired of fucking around. Eight years feels like an awfully long time to be hung up on the same person, and he’s sick of feeling pathetic about it. There’s only so far even his natural cheerfulness can be pushed.
They’re at the corner table with enough beer to keep One Two happy, but not enough to give him excuses for anything that happens.
“So,” Bob says.
“So,” One Two echoes, looking practically terrified. “Is there, uh, a reason you’ve brought me here, Bob?”
Bob’s tempted to play with him a bit, scare him even more, but he’s been playing games to make himself feel better long enough. “Look,” he says, “I just want to be straight with you, One Two.” He immediately regrets the choice of words, because they open him up to way too many jokes, so he forges ahead. “I’ve told you I want you. I hope you’re smart enough to’ve worked out that I love you. If you tell me to fuck off, I’ll fuck off, but you’ve got to stop letting me get anywhere with you.”
One Two takes a deep breath, looking overwhelmed. “That’s a hell of a way to tell a bloke you love him, Bob.”
“You—” Bob smacks One Two’s arm. “Did you really not know? How could you have missed it? Even Mumbles knew, and he can be really thick about feelings sometimes. Even Cookie, and he doesn’t give a shit.”
One Two looks duly ashamed at least. “Well, it just didn’t occur to me, all right? I mean, looking back, everything makes a lot more sense. What with the love and the wanting me and all.”
“Trust me,” Bob says, “no one who didn’t love you would have put up with you for this long.” And he leans across the table and kisses One Two, not quite on time for midnight, but close enough.
One Two doesn’t even pull back or panic, just kisses Bob back clumsily. When they pull apart, he’s grinning. “All right, all right. I suppose we’ll have to give this a go, won’t we?”
Bob clears his throat, fighting slightly hysterical laughter. “Yeah? Really? I can call you my boyfriend and everything?”
One Two laughs, sounding about as wound up as Bob feels. “I suppose you’ll have to. Look, just kiss me again. That was quite—I mean, you’re really good at that.”
Bob grabs the back of One Two’s head and kisses him hard, and it’s not until he hears the whole bar cheering that he realizes it’s a new year.