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A Heaven in Hell's Despair

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It was a damp night; fog covered the city as I made my way to the Albany. London's pea-soupers had frequently proven our professional ally, yet I found the sight depressing. Indeed, I had been out of sorts all week, and wanted Raffles to put me right with a few words as only he could.

Imagine, then, my disappointment when my knock brought no answer. I thought I heard a slight sound within, but since redoubled knocking and calling his name had no effect, I decided I had imagined it.

But I found I could not bear to go back out into that yellow-dark city alone. Slipping Raffles's key from my pocket, I let myself inside. Perhaps he would return soon. I wandered idly through his rooms until my gaze fell upon his trunk--the same trunk he had hidden in for the purpose of burgling my bank's vault during the Easter exodus. My restless mind was quick to seize on any diversion; at once I was determined to discover if I, too, could master its workings and fit within its narrow sides.

I went to it, but no sooner had I laid hands on the lid and tried to lift it than the whole back of the trunk swung out like a doll's house and Raffles tumbled out. "Well, Bunny, you've scarpered me," he said, sprawling on the floor and regarding me with heavy-lidded eyes.

I stared at him, for several moments stunned beyond the power of speech by the enormity of this revelation. "You were--you were hiding from me," I said at last, blankly.

He sat up and regarded me for a moment across the lid with a smile I did not like. "Then I must not have wanted your company." He stood, and there was--not a lack of grace, never that, but something loose in his movements that sent a sudden improbable suspicion darting into my head.

"You're drunk!"

He raised his eyebrows. "Not drunk, rabbit. I'm hardly drunk on two tumblers of brandy. Or was it three?" His mocking smile never faltered.

I could count on the fingers of one hand the times I had seen him touch any strong spirits. But now I remembered a score of occasions on which I had come to his rooms and found him gone--on how many of them had he been hiding, laughing inwardly at my blindness and credulity?

But it was the contrast between his tone now, and the softness with which he usually spoke my nickname, that broke the camel's back--at that scornful rabbit all my restlessness and sense of injury metamorphosed into black fury.

I stood as well, starting forward as if I would tear him apart. "I believe you've never cared a straw for me!" I raged. "You've never wanted my company." I came closer to him as I spoke, and he--miracle of miracles, he retreated until I had him backed against the wall and was speaking, in my anger, nearly in his face. "I always supposed that you feared the effects of drinking on your brain, but now I see you only didn't want to let your guard down with me. Your partner. Your closest friend. Friend!"

His mouth contorted at my angry bark of laughter.

"God forbid I know a thing about you that isn't calculated--what advantage can you still refuse to surrender? What is it you would so hate to show me? Is there any corner I haven't followed you into?"

"You shan't follow me into this one," he said, and turned his face aside. In that posture he seemed strangely vulnerable; I could see the pulse beating rapidly in his throat. "Trust me, Bunny. Have I ever betrayed you, in the end? Go on home."

"I won't," I declared, and seized him by the shoulders.

It was as if an electrical current passed through him. His eyes flew to mine, his muscles tensing like coiled springs beneath my hands.

"What is it?" I demanded, my eyes searching his face.

He slumped against the wall, defeated. "I know you will never be able to look at me again," he said, "but I want you to remember I tried to hide from you. I've resisted for so long, I saw no reason why I couldn't go on forever--but all that is at an end now, I can't--I am sorry, Bunny--" And he kissed me.

Raffles kissed me! It was so unexpected that I fear I made a rather poor showing. When he leaned back against the wall, flushed and defiant, I could only stare. "Well?" he asked mockingly.

It was like a revelation to me; suddenly I understood myself, looking at Raffles' parted lips. This had been there, all those years, and I had never seen it. But now the veil was lifted from my sight--so this was what I felt. Knowledge is power, and I was drunk with it. "Raffles," I said, and leaned in for another kiss.

He jerked away as if I'd tried to get my hands round his throat. "Don't," he said sharply.

"Why not?"

"You won't want to when you've heard it all."

I could not resist the lure of information, and he knew it. There was victory in his smile. But I had the upper hand now; I knew it instinctively. I could afford to wait.

"Love ought to bring out the noblest in a man, don't you think?"

"So the poets tell us," I agreed.

"Mine only makes me baser than I was already. Do you remember when we burgled Lord Lochmaben and she was there?"

I would never forget it, and I told him so.

"I knew she would be there, Bunny. I knew it, and I brought you there apurpose so that it could not be patched up. I was sorry, I hated myself; I even went to her afterwards and begged her--but the thing was done, and in my heart I couldn't help being glad. There, do you hate me yet?"

I had wanted to hate Raffles for worse offenses--had longed for the clean hatred of Raffles that would make me virtuous and thrifty and a gentleman again--but it had never come. It did not come now. I was angry--or rather knew I ought to be. One more occasion of damnable secrecy and manipulation, this time in a matter so dear to me. And yet--it was intoxicating to find that Raffles had felt the same passionate jealousies, the same tormenting fears of unequal affection, that had tormented me. "No," I said simply, moving one hand up until it rested on the join of neck and shoulder.

"Oh, God, rabbit!" He laughed brokenly; his body trembling under my hands felt like dawn within me. "Don't you know what I was doing at school, all those nights in town? I was on the drag. And I'd come back, filthy and debauched, and there you'd be at the window like a round-faced adolescent angel, and I--you've no idea, Bunny. It's ecstasy for a moment, but it doesn't last, it's all shame and drunkenness--"

"Shh, shh," I murmured, filled with surprise and a startling affection. "You really shouldn't drink if it makes you so maudlin." I cupped the back of his neck and leaned in again.

He wrenched out of my grip, eyes flaming. "I see how it is. When you've committed one sort of crime, the next is easier. That was how I found it, certainly. Dodging the police was already second nature to me. And now you're experiencing the same thing in reverse. I know I dragged you down closer to me with thieving, but I'll be damned if--this is one Hell I'll burn in alone!"

He had played me like this a hundred times, discouraging me until I was on fire to do the very thing I had sworn I would not. But I will go to my grave convinced that this time it was no ploy; this time he was in deadly earnest.

I shook my head and took a step towards him. "You know I never cared for damnation so long as we were damned together."

Raffles stood frozen. "Bunny, please," he said, and it was the one and only time I have ever heard such a note of terror in his voice.

I would like to say that I did what I did next because I wished to prove to him that I loved him, or in some other wise offer him comfort. The truth is that I could not help myself. For years I had watched his eyes and his mouth and his hands, and now Raffles had shown me it was because I wanted to kiss them. So I did. I rained kisses on the daredevil mouth and elegant neck and strong slender fingers, and this time he didn't try to stop me. When I pulled back, his hands still in mine, his eyes glittered as I have sometimes seem them do at the sight of some rich prize he coveted, a jeweled tiara or a gold statuette.

I did not quite know what should follow. Of course I had had my share of adventures with other boys--what public school boy hasn't? But it had never gone beyond fumbling, furtive touches. Nevertheless, I pressed my shaking hand against the front of his trousers.

His laugh was half a moan. "Oh, Bunny, you needn't--"

As always, I found myself going farther than I had planned, farther than was wise, goaded on to prove to him my loyalty and courage. I was on my knees in a trice, grimly determined to see this thing through.

"Bunny, you haven't the slightest idea--" he began, trying to sound superior when his voice was breaking. It calmed my nerves enough that I could smile up at him, and he broke off with a shiver.

He was drunk. It was I who took advantage of him, I--who had never been able to resist him--now relying on his inability to resist me. And when at last I took him in my mouth--here was the approbation I had always longed for, and that I had never believed when he gave it me. It was impossible to disbelieve the sounds Raffles made. The helpless moans, the desperate breathing, and most of all my name, spoken like a disbelieving prayer. I had never imagined that Raffles could sound like this.

"Bunny," he gasped, fumbling at his pocket with one hand, "Bunny, you've got to stop." I pulled back in surprise, and he spent in his handkerchief.

For a few moments he sagged against the wall, eyes closed, struggling for command of himself. Then he opened his eyes, tossed the handkerchief behind the trunk, and pulled me up. "Oh, Bunny, you dear, dear boy. I never imagined--" His face was alight. I had never seen him like this, and knowing that it was I who had done it--I kissed him again. It was my right to do so, now, and I meant him to know it.

"Now let us see what I can do for you," he said.

For the first time I felt abashed. "You needn't--" I said stiffly. "I'm quite all right--"

He raised his eyebrows; I hissed as his hand found that part of me which gave me the lie. He gave me an affectionate, pleased smile, and ran his thumb along the closure of my trousers.

Thin fire runs like a thief through my body, I thought abruptly, and choked back a hysterical laugh at the aptness of the quote.

"Oh no," Raffles said. "It's always been share and share alike with us, and you shan't change that now. No, I mean to have you calling my name with as much fervor as I've just been calling yours." I clutched at his shoulders as he undid the buttons of my trousers.

He had always been able to play whatever tune he liked upon me, and now it was no different. I had often remarked his dexterous hands and the strength of his long fingers; I had never knowingly thought of how that strength and dexterity might be of use in intimate matters. Now I believed I should never again see him see him work the file or the lockpick without thinking of this--of his hands on me and his eyes gleaming in the gaslight.

Never had Raffles's mastery over me been more complete; and yet when I gasped his name into the curve of his neck he shuddered and his breath came quick.

He paused, then, the fine mouth curving into a teasing smile. "Do you wish me to continue?"

I had always hated this in him--how he was forever testing me, offering me chances to back out long past the point when I felt my loyalty was proven. But in the light of tonight's discovery, I saw that these were not mere habits of secrecy, or mistrust of me--Raffles would really not have been surprised if I had simply walked away, even now after everything. He would never permit himself the sort of jealous outbursts and accusations in which I was wont to indulge, and so instead he devised that endless series of surprises and lies of omission. He needs must prove his mastery and my devotion because he was terrified that one day it would be gone; that one day he would disgust me.

All this came to me in a flash, and the image of my friend, alone and lonely and ashamed, filled me with a thrilling tenderness.

I swallowed the retort on my lips, and vowed instead, "More than anything." He sucked in his breath and moved his hand, and before long I was groaning my release, my face buried in his shoulder.

"Well?" I asked, triumphant, when I could speak again. "Is all shame and misery?"

"No." Raffles looked at me wonderingly. "It isn't."

I loved Raffles. How often have those words flowed from my pen, and felt a lie, a concealment? Now at last you understand the full truth of them.