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Habits and Companionship

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Smiley walks straighter nowadays. He was always purposeful, but it used to be hidden under the weight of his bowed shoulders, his mild-mannered owlish expression behind his thick glasses. At first Peter attributes it to his promotion. He has image to maintain, and Peter assumes the new well-tailored suits are part of this. He looks good, years younger, more powerful. When Peter thinks about Smiley’s first day as Chief, his confident stride, his secret not-quite-smile just for Peter, he remembers how his mouth had gone dry with lust, even as he had to suppress his own smile of triumph. He’d gone straight to his office, closed the door and his eyes, and taken deep breaths to quell his unseemly reaction.

Smiley isn’t the only one working harder, working longer hours and Peter’s nearly convinced himself his motives are pure, that it’s not because, God help him, he’s trying to impress George. One night he’s working back after hours and discovers quite accidentally a piece of sensitive information that he thinks George should be told about immediately. He thinks about calling George, but with his luck Ann would answer and he despises the woman. He doesn’t want to have to talk to her. Also, selfishly, he wants to see George. Before, they went for the occasional pint, even a meal together. Now Smiley rarely leaves the Circus; the mothers bring him his lunch, his dinner when he works back.

He’ll stop by on his way home. George and Ann rarely go out anymore—George doesn’t, at least. Ann comes and goes openly now. She disgusts Peter. He knows he’s overreacting. Many couples have open relationships, even in the Circus, and it’s not like his own personal life is exactly above board. But he’s seen the look in George’s eyes, the pain he so carefully conceals from everyone. Peter isn’t everyone though and it makes him want to shout at George to just leave her, that she’s not good enough for him, but George loves her, she’s his weakness, everyone knows it; everyone knows Ann’s been unfaithful to him all along.

It’s only when he’s knocked and hears George’s measured tread that he worries he might be intruding. But George smiles at him and opens the door wider and Peter walks past him, through the dark hall and the dreary living room and into the warm kitchen where there is a newspaper open on the table, a cup of tea beside it. That is all. No music playing, no sounds coming from upstairs. No sign of Ann. Peter worries that she’s gone again and he’s confused by his contradictory emotions; he hates her and wishes her gone; he wants her to stay and make George happy.

“Tea?” George asks as though Peter calls around all the time. Peter nods, smiles, and takes a seat at the kitchen table.

He doesn’t say anything as George pours a cup from the pot steeping on the kitchen bench and puts it and the milk down in front of him and sits down himself. It’s warm and he’s folded back his shirtsleeves and unbuttoned his collar and seeing George thus, looking youthfully casual is even more tempting than George cold and wet and nearly naked from his swims in Hampstead Pond. The intimacy of the small kitchen is suddenly stifling and Peter suddenly wishes for Ann’s presence after all. A reminder that George is untouchable.

“The Minister’s being burnt,” he says, turning his cup in his hands, watching as George’s eyes close just for a moment. Smiley’s not surprised, or at least not surprised that the Minister has a weakness, is able to be blackmailed. “You knew,” Peter says, and he never does know why he chooses that moment to say it, to say, “Like you knew about me,” and his mouth is dry so he sips his tea, hiding the vulnerability he knows is visible on his face, because this is George, all his defences fall before him.

“It’s not the same,” George says patiently. Always patient. “Not easily tidied up.”

A lifetime of secrecy has dulled incautious response. It’s not even painful anymore, the implication, the reality, that Peter’s life, that Peter’s love was something to be swept up, disposed of neatly.

“What do you want me to do?”

George’s eyes are kind behind his spectacles. “Why, I want you to be happy, Peter.”

About the minister, Peter had meant. George knew that of course. Which means George has deliberately chosen to turn the conversation to the personal. “Are you?” he asks, daring.

The question falls into silence. The tick of the hall clock suddenly seems relentless.

“Where’s Ann?” Peter asks, pushing his luck.

“Cornwall.”

“For how long?”

George doesn’t answer, but his face, his eyes….

Peter’s cup rattles as he sits it too abruptly onto its saucer.

 

Roy Bland corners him for lunch a fortnight later. “Is it true, about Smiley?” he says, one eye on the pretty girls walking past in the street.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Peter says automatically, lighting a cigarette to conceal his alarm. He wonders what wrong end of the stick the Circus’s rumour mill has got hold of this time. Roy’s looking at him now, and Peter drags leisurely on his cigarette, allowing his eyes to wander to a looker in a bright yellow mini and platform boots. She catches his eye through the window and smiles at him. He smiles back; it’s automatic to flirt. “Ann’s left him for good; run away with an American oil tycoon,” Roy says confidentially, leaning towards him.

“That’s his business,” Peter says coolly.

“It’s Circus business if it affects his performance.”

“Do you think it does?”

“I’m asking you.”

Peter shrugs. Smiley has been sharper than ever, holding his heads of departments up to standards that some claim are unreasonable. There’s grumbling, though mostly not within earshot of Peter; everyone knows where his loyalty lies. Not everyone appreciates the new broom, the new air of purpose that pervades the office now. There are eyes on Smiley. Eyes on Peter, because if Smiley tumbles, Guillam falls too.

 

Peter is sitting down to a late dinner when Doris Jenkins telephones him, says Smiley hasn’t checked in. It’s a serious breach of protocol, and Peter nearly asks her why she hasn’t followed procedure and raised the alarm. But Doris has been with the Circus since year dot. Nothing gets past her, and George trusts her, if not implicitly, as much as he trusts anyone, even Peter.

There’s a light on in the front of the house when Peter pulls up at the kerb. He waits, scanning the street for anything not quite right—a curtain twitching, a too-dark shadow. His pulse is jumping; he has to resist the urge to rush. There’s nothing, nothing he can see, so he gets out of the car and takes his time locking it, straining his ears for any approach and then strolls to the front door and raps casually on the wood as though it were any night, as though he were just stopping by.

He allows a full minute to pass, his anxiety increasing when George doesn’t answer. The sliver of wood is still in place. He uses the key George gave him for emergencies and creeps inside, shutting the door silently. Faint light from the living room spills into the hall. Peter draws his gun. He keeps a wary eye on the shadowed stairs as he moves silently to the doorway and peers around. George is laid out on the couch, limply, glasses askew. If Peter had been deluding himself about how important George is to him, the momentary terror that freezes him in place draws back the curtains on that illusion.

He’s moving forward, checking George’s throat for a pulse with fingers that tremble slightly. It’s strong, steady and Peter sags in relief as he takes in the empty whisky bottle that’s rolled under the coffee table and the glass held loosely in lax fingers, only prevented from tipping its remnants by its precarious position tilted against the back cushion. Peter removes it to the coffee table.

He has to be sure of course, so he sweeps the house methodically. It’s George, so he doesn’t take any chances. Nothing’s out of place as far as he can tell, and the bolts are still in place on the windows and the back door. He stands looking at down at his inebriated boss. George gets drunk occasionally of course, they all do, but not passing out drunk. There’s a loose sheaf of papers on the coffee table. Peter scans the top page: divorce forms, and suddenly feels an urge for something stiff to drink himself. Instead he sits in the nearby armchair and just watches George, notes the lines on his forehead and beside his mouth are more pronounced than usual in the lamplight. He looks old in the way he rarely does.

Eventually Peter stirs himself. He shakes George by the shoulder. “George, it’s Peter,” he says, as George’s eyes blink open, and doesn’t show his disquiet at the hazy stare and the hand that weakly grasps at his wrist. “Bed,” and George nods and lets Peter help him up, leans heavily on him as Peter manoeuvres them up the stairs.

Peter pulls back the covers as George sinks heavily to sit on the end of the bed, and Peter gets him down to his vest, George unresisting. It’s inappropriate, and it makes Peter feels dirty, but he can’t help wishing that the situation were different. He resolutely ignores the way his body betrays him as he helps George to his feet and George leans unsteadily into him. He doesn’t feel up to tackling George’s trousers so he tips him into bed and waits until George curls onto his side, his eyes closed already and then draws the covers over him. A surge of tenderness overtakes him and it’s an effort of will not to brush the sweep of hair from George’s face and it’s not because he knows the gesture would be unwelcome that stops him, it’s that he can’t allow himself any betraying gesture. George may be drunk but he’s not insensible, and Peter knows from previous experience that George Smiley doesn’t forget a thing. Peter thinks he literally could not bear it if George sent him away. Peter half believes George knows how he feels about him, how could George not, with those observant eyes and vast knowledge of human nature, but George is not without compassion. As long as Peter doesn’t expose himself, George remains officially oblivious.

He goes to the kitchen and puts the kettle on, then fills a glass of water and takes it up to the bedroom, puts in on the bedside table with some aspirin he finds in the bathroom cabinet. George is a huddle of blankets. He makes himself a cup of coffee and switches on the Dave Allen show, turning the volume low, strips off his jacket and tie and shoes and then puts his feet up on the sofa and drinks his coffee slowly. Afterward he rummages in the linen cupboard for blankets and a spare pillow and makes up a bed. Before he settles down on the sofa again he switches the channel to the week’s football match roundup that’s just started, and pays just enough attention that he can talk the talk at the office tomorrow.

He awakes to the sound of the kettle whistling, and jerks up into a sitting position. He makes his way warily into the kitchen in his stockinged feet. George is brewing tea, and there’s toast on.

“How are you?” he says cautiously.

“Fine,” George says and seems to reconsider his words. “I’ll be fine,” he amends.

“I saw….”

“Yes.”

Peter wants to ask whose idea it was, because if Ann’s found one more way to break George’s heart Peter doesn’t know what he’ll do.

“She’s gone,” George says, putting tea in front of him, his eyes and voice expressionless.

“Good,” Peter says bluntly, before he can restrain himself, and winces. “Sorry, George.”

“Toast?” George says, as if he hadn’t spoken, setting out the butter and marmalade, and plates.

“Whatever you need, you know that,” Peter has to say.

George examines the toast, seems to decide it’s cooked enough and slides one piece onto Peter’s plate, the other on his own and sits down opposite Peter. He asks for an update on the progress of the newest addition to Peter’s scalphunters, recruited in Swindon, of all places.

 

A mutual friend introduces Peter to a court clerk named John. John’s exactly his type, older, bookish, extremely discreet. For their third rendezvous, John has tickets to the theatre. Peter’s going to meet him there after work. John has been a perfect gentleman and Peter finds him attractive. He decides that tonight he will invite John back to his flat. Then George asks if Peter can stay back and go over details of an operation due to be launched in two days, and afterwards suggests getting dinner at a nearby restaurant. They polish off a few bottles of a very average Australian wine. George is relaxed and affable and Peter’s heart feels too big for his chest. George has his driver drop Peter off home afterwards and Peter sits too close to George in the car, but George just regards him indulgently and it’s not until he’s getting ready for bed, doing up his pyjama buttons with fingers unsteady from the wine, that he remembers John. He sinks down on the bed and stares at the wall for a long time. The next morning he rings John and apologises. John understands that work has to take priority, he says, and that it can be impossible to get to a phone. Peter selfishly wishes that John weren’t so nice, because now he feels rotten about it when he tells John he doesn’t think he’s going to have much spare time in the foreseeable future.

 

George has files haphazardly piled on the coffee table and on the floor next to him. Peter shrugs off his jacket and finds a place between the files and slides down to sit leaning against the sofa. He gives himself permission not to feel guilty about the thrill that goes through him that he’s practically sitting at George’s feet now. He lights a cigarette and holds it out, although he knows George rarely smokes anymore. George takes it with a murmured word of thanks and their fingers brush and Peter doesn’t let himself dwell on the lingering sensation, but lights another and leans back against the sofa and draws the smoke leisurely into his lungs, savouring.

“Are you sure I’m not taking you away from anything, Peter?”

Peter’s not going to ask why George is bringing work home on a weekend or why he’s asked Peter to give him a hand. “No,” Peter says, “nothing.”

“That’s a shame,” George says.

“No, it’s fine.”

“Your… friend,” and there’s only a hint of a question.

“No.”

For a long time Peter stares at the fake glowing flames of the electric fire. There’s only the occasional rustle of a page turning above him to remind him that he isn’t alone, the slight pressure of George’s leg against his arm when George leans forward to look through a file on the table. It’s comforting. George hasn’t given him any work to do, and Peter’s content to sit and think about nothing much.

Maybe that’s all George wants, company. Peter allows himself to hope that’s the case, that George has chosen him.

Then, into the silence, George speaks, even softer than usual. “Was it….” Uncharacteristically, George hesitates, “love?” he finishes, heavily.

Still the careful lack of pronouns.

“I don’t think it could have been, could it?” Peter tilts his head back against the sofa and stares at the ceiling. George is a shadow in the corner of his eye.

“You think not?”

“I made a choice.” The Circus. His country. George. Not Richard.

“Is it too late?”

Peter’s voice cracks as he half laughs, an unexpected wash of despair catching his throat. He draws his knees up and rests his elbows on them as he curls in upon himself, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.

Peter’s breath catches as a hand strokes his hair, slides down to rest warmly, comfortingly on the nape of his neck. He swallows a sob, eyes burning. What must George think of him?

“I understand,” George says, after a long minute, and that’s all. And it’s everything. His hand continues to rest on Peter’s neck, on his bare skin, for a long time.

 

The Christmas party is in full swing. The younger agents are hell bent on getting as drunk as possible in grand old Circus tradition but the same enthusiasm is noticeably lacking in those who mourn the passing of the old guard; not all the victims of Alleline’s sweep have chosen to return to the fold, and the ghosts of Bill Hayden and Jim Prideaux are present in the shadows on the faces of their friends. George has gone through half a bottle of Scotch, and is staring bleakly at the impromptu limbo taking place the centre of the dance floor. A pretty deb in too much make up and too short a dress falls on her back, shrieking with laughter, her dress rucked up indecently. George doesn’t avert his eyes, but it’s not from lack of delicacy, George isn’t seeing the girl at all. Peter wanders over and slides into the seat next to him. He discreetly makes sure no one is paying too much attention, removes the Scotch from George’s elbow, and slides it carelessly to the floor out of sight. For a moment he thinks he’s got away with it but then George looks at him and his eyes are clear and hard. Peter braces himself for a reprimand, or at the least for George to demand the bottle back, but George blinks and says, “Take me home, Peter.”

Peter follows him inside the house without asking. George is in no condition to run a proper security check himself. Peter is ready to point that out but George doesn’t say anything when Peter gets out the car. He doesn’t say anything when Peter follows him inside.

“We’re all creatures of habit in the end,” George says, when Peter comes back down the stairs. He’s sitting in the armchair, both arms on the arm rests, fingers flat against the ugly fabric. “Even those of us who know better.”

Was he referring to Ann? Richard had been a habit, Peter realises. Comfortable. Safe. George is regarding him steadily. Peter takes that as an invitation to stay and slides down to the floor and leans against the sofa. That’s becoming a habit too, one he cherishes. He stares back at George. “That’s not such a bad thing,” he says.

George takes off his glasses and dangles them in his hand. “I sleep on the right side of the bed.”

Peter knows. Of course he knows. He also knows that it’s been a long time since Ann slept in that bed. “I’m not lonely when I’m with you,” he says, and holds his breath that George will understand, that he doesn’t mean… that he’s not trying it on.

George puts his glasses back on as he stands up, swaying slightly for a moment and looks down at Peter. Peter doesn’t dare say a word. After a moment George turns and trudges up the stairs. Peter follows.

George is sitting on the bed undoing the buttons of his shirt, the cuffs, the only light in the room from the lamp by the bed. He doesn’t look up at Peter standing in the doorway. Peter moves to the other side of the bed and removes his jacket and tie and toes off his shoes. He watches as George shrugs out of his shirt and gets rid of his belt, dropping them carelessly to the floor. George sits, shoulders bowed for a moment, and then gets under the covers. He places his glasses on the bedside table and turns off the light. Peter slides in beside him. After a minute George turns on his side, the blankets pulled up over his shoulder. Peter clenches his fists against the urge to reach out—to soothe, not anything inappropriate. He stares at the shadow beside him until he falls asleep.

 

Smiley is off his game. Bland is shooting him the occasional concerned glance, but no one else sitting in on the briefing knows him well enough to notice. For the rest of the day Peter runs interference. George lets him, which is the most unsettling thing of all. As soon as he is decently able, Peter clocks them both off with the janitors, dismisses Fawn, who stares at him unsmilingly for several seconds and then, to Peter’s relief, nods and leaves him to usher George into his Citroen. He stops for takeaway on the way home. George stares out of the car window.

They eat the fish and chips straight out of the newspaper balanced on their knees. Morecombe and Wise are on, but George barely glances at the television. Peter watches George for a cue but George is more inscrutable than ever, a small man in clothes that inexplicably look too big on him. George hasn’t said a word since they left the office. When George gets up and trudges slowly up the stairs, Peter takes the newspaper through to the kitchen bin. There’s a piece of paper lying on the floor next to the dining table. Peter picks it up and the reason for George’s distraction is starkly revealed.

George is in bed when Peter comes in. He doesn’t look up, but he doesn’t tell Peter to leave, either, even when Peter joins him in the bed. This time Peter reaches out. His hand is trembling. He places his palm between George’s shoulder blades. Peter’s heart is trying to pound its way out of his chest and he feels a bit like he’s suffocating. George draws a deep shuddering breath. Peter edges closer and tentatively wraps his arm around George. George doesn’t react at all and Peter releases his held breath. A shudder shakes George’s body and Peter tightens his arm instinctively. They lay motionless for a long time. George relaxes slowly, but it’s not until Peter hears his breathing even out that he removes his arm. He rolls onto his back and stretches the arm to release the cramp that set in long minutes ago.

George is free now. Free of Ann. Selfishly, Peter wonders if things will change now. If this spells the beginning of the end for this… thing they do. Now that the divorce is final, George will be able to move on. Pick up the broken pieces of his life.

 

Over the next months George works harder than ever, works longer hours, his shoulders squared. Mutterings at the Circus grow more resentful; The Chief demands the impossible; people complain to Peter now. Peter has to say something, do something, but when he tries to broach the subject George stares right through him, and Peter’s courage fails him.

Work keeps Peter too busy to dwell overmuch on the fact that George appears to have isolated himself from friends and colleagues alike, not only him. Alone in his flat of an evening, when he has little else to occupy his thoughts, is when the thought of everything Peter has lost is hardest to bear. Eventually it does get a little better. The Chief eases off, even smiles. Peter dares to hope that George is finally letting go of the past, even if his future no longer includes a friendship with Peter. The atmosphere at the office lightens and Peter actually overhears the mothers gossiping, suggesting that ‘dear George’ may have found himself a new interest in life. He freezes in the doorway and steps back quickly out of sight, his heart pounding. “…someone nice this time, not like that tart he was married to.”

Peter makes a dash for the loo and locks himself in the cubicle. He puts the lid down and sits on the seat for a long time, until he hears the outer door open. He dashes a hand over his eyes and opens the door, goes to wash his hands, his head down. Luckily it’s no one he knows well and he escapes without making eye contact.

He wants George to be happy even though it means the end of the secret hope he couldn’t quite crush and the consolation that he was at least important to George; the person George turned to. He obviously hasn’t been that person these last months. He can’t help himself, he looks for signs of a new lover in George’s demeanour, a change in his routine, but there’s nothing he can see, and he wonders if he’s blinding himself. He’s determined not to ask but one day George smiles at him over lunch at a tiny out of the way café. “How are you, Peter?” he asks, and his eyes are warm and he’s looking at Peter, focused, interested in a way that for a moment Peter’s throat tightens at the reminder of what he’d so briefly had.

“I miss you,” and holds his breath, horrified at exposing himself that way to his boss, at putting George in an uncomfortable position.

For a moment George’s face stills and Peter opens his mouth to apologise, but then George’s expression softens. “Come around this evening,” he says, and turns the conversation back to work before Peter can respond.

 

For the rest of the day Peter obsesses over the invitation. Surely George can’t mean to, God, talk about Peter’s confession, what he suspects he’s inadvertently, stupidly, revealed. Or is it just dinner, like they used to, before George withdrew from him? He’s uneasy, and annoyed with himself that he can’t stop himself from hoping for the latter… hoping that their relationship can go back to the way before the divorce went through.

“I’m sorry,” George says after dinner, as he puts the plate he’s just washed on the draining board, breaking the comfortable silence.

“For what?” Peter says automatically and picks up the plate to dry it. The tea towel is already damp. He’ll get a new one out in a minute; he knows where they’re kept.

“I am not homosexual.”

Peter turns away to put the clean plates away in the cupboard. He takes a moment to just breathe before he turns around again “I know,” he agrees, just because the silence is unbearable.

“However,” George says, and Peter’s eyes fly up but George isn’t meeting his eyes; George is scrubbing a pan with intense concentration. “We’re friends,” he continues, a faint hint of a question in his voice.

“Of course,” Peter agrees again.

“In my experience, friends do not sleep together.”

“It was just sleeping, nothing inappropriate,” Peter says, though at this point he’s not sure if he’s supposed to be defending himself. Them. He wishes George would look at him.

George rinses the pan and puts in on the draining board. “I went out to dinner with a lovely woman who would no doubt suit me very well, if I were to pursue the relationship.”

Peter gives up on the remaining dishes waiting to be dried and leans against the wall. “Will you?” he says, relieved when his voice comes out even.

“No,” George says and pulls the plug. He watches the water circle the drain and then gives the sink a wipe down. Always so careful to clean up.

“Why not?”

“You know, it was the oddest thing; I couldn’t help feeling like I was being disloyal.” He turns to face Peter, his wet hands hanging by his sides, dripping on the linoleum. Peter wordlessly holds out the damp towel and George takes it and pats his hands to dry them.

“You’re divorced,” Peter points out. “Besides, after what she did to you—” He cuts himself off; no point opening old wounds.

“Not to Ann.” George meets Peter’s eyes steadily.

It takes Peter a moment to comprehend and then he has to force himself to ignore the leap of hope, the way his heart seems to flip-flop in his chest. “But you said… you’re not….” He stares at the knife he’s been left holding in his hand. It’s smudged-looking, he decides, and reaches past George to slide it back into the sink. The clattering sound it makes seems disproportionately loud in the small kitchen.

“No. I don’t understand it myself,” George says, when it’s quiet again. “But I enjoy your company. I’m not looking for another great love affair.”

“You shouldn’t let what Ann did to you stop you trying again,” Peter argues, because apparently loving someone really does mean you want their happiness over yours.

“I’m settled in my ways. And I’m tired, Peter. I don’t want to start again with someone new. What I would like, and of course you should in no way feel obliged, is companionship.”

Peter doesn’t know how this will work. If Peter will still be enough for George in a year… in five years. For that matter he doesn’t know if ‘companionship’ will be enough for him in the long run either. But it’s been a long time since he’s been able to imagine his life where George isn’t the most important thing in it. It’s worth the risk. “I’d like that,” he says calmly. George is worth any risk.

George regards him steadily. “I can’t help feeling, though, that it wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“Let me be the judge of that.”

“Should you meet someone who can offer you more….” Uncharacteristically, George hesitates. “I would not deny you the chance for happiness.”

“Look, I don’t care about the sex.” George, understandably, looks at him doubtfully. “I don’t. It’s not what’s important to me.”

“You prefer older men.”

God, George knows that about him. How could he know that? Before Richard, there’d only been Anthony, years ago. Peter had been young, willing to risk his fledgling career—even gaol—a fool for love. But then there was all the publicity surrounding the decriminalisation laws, Anthony hadn’t been prepared to risk his position in the House of Lords, his wife and children. It had taken Peter a long time to trust again. Richard had got under his defences, treated him well, looked after him, and hadn’t demanded more than Peter could give, now that Peter had so much less to give. “Yes,” he acknowledges.

“Is that why you….”

Feeling somewhat dazed, acting purely on instinct, Peter takes George’s hand. It’s smaller than his, and still damp. He’s surprised that George doesn’t pull away, and studies their joined hands. “That’s probably partly why,” he says. He doesn’t pretend not to know what George is hinting at. “I like being with you,” he says simply, and looks up. George is looking at him with warm, warm eyes, and Peter knows he could never regret his feelings for this man.

 

He doesn’t stay the night very often; it never becomes something to take for granted. Mostly it’s about discretion; obviously Fawn knows, or thinks he knows, about them, but if it were to get out, the Chief would be compromised, and Peter won’t risk that. But there’s an also an element of self-doubt. Peter doesn’t want to push his luck, overstay his welcome.

In the evening, more often than not, Peter takes a seat at George’s feet. He tells George he prefers to sit on the floor, and that’s true enough, but it’s not the whole truth, and he thinks George probably knows that. One night, George shifts behind him, and then Peter feels George’s hand resting on his neck for a second time. Peter can’t control the shiver that passes through him and George must have noticed; Peter expects him to move his hand but he doesn’t, and Peter doesn’t know what to make of it. The show he was watching ends. He’d been planning to change the channel but he doesn’t want to get up, so he sits through some dreary period drama, but he’s not really watching it. He wonders if George is.

A few weeks later, Peter’s lost one of his best men and he’s grateful for the quiet, the space not to have to think. The bottle of whisky on the floor next to him helps with that. He’s staring into his third glass, twirling the liquid so that the light catches flashes of gold, when the sofa creaks and George’s hand comes to rest on Peter’s neck. Strong fingers dig into the muscles there and Peter groans and instinctively bows his head, putting his glass down abruptly on the rug, and clasping his hands in his lap to conceal his body’s instinctive response. George is rubbing his neck and Peter gasps as he hits a particularly sore spot and it hurts but it’s arousing him too, his cock is hard and George must know what he’s doing to him, mustn’t he?

“You’re good at this,” he mumbles.

“Yes, I used to do it for Ann. It’s one of the few things she had no complaints about,” George says, and his voice is even, no bitterness and Peter wishes he could see his face right now. Instead he stares fiercely at the carpet, and focuses on the strong hand on the back of his neck.

The hand stops. Peter’s disappointed, but he’s determined to appreciate this gesture of George’s and he’s about to say thank you, when his collar is tugged. “Take this off,” George says. “If you wish,” he adds.

Peter unbuttons his shirt slowly and places it neatly on the floor next to him, his hand shaking slightly despite his effort to appear confident. He puts his hand to the edge of his vest and when George doesn’t say anything, strips that off too.

The ticking of the hall clock is suddenly loud in the silence of the flat. Peter feels exposed, and he only realises he’s holding his breath when there’s a pain in his chest and over his too-loud exhale he hears the creak of the sofa as George shifts behind him and then George’s hands slide over his shoulder blades to the base of his neck and now there’s two hands on him sliding and pushing and massaging months— God, years—of tension away.

 

Peter’s stopped at the chemist for something for George, and he’s picked up a bottle of liniment on a vague, hopeful impulse when someone bumps into him. He’s instantly alert for an attack, but the man is flustered, apologetic and when their eyes meet exclaims “Peter, isn’t it?” and Peter recognises John. He’s startled but recovers quickly and smiles a greeting. John returns his smile warmly and asks, “So, how’s work these days? Still crazy?”

Peter knows what he’s really asking. He has an impulse to tell John: “Actually, I’m with someone now,” feeling the truth of it settle around him. His eyes wander to the shadowy figure waiting for him in the car. John follows his gaze, no doubt sees a grey little man in glasses. His eyebrows go up and he glances down at the bottle Peter’s clutching. He has to be wondering, but Peter just smiles and shakes his hand and agrees that it is indeed hellishly busy at the moment.

 

A couple of weeks later Smiley’s vehicle is involved in a traffic accident that leaves Fawn hospitalised. The Circus is in a controlled uproar when Peter returns after a meet with a contact in Oxford. No one seems certain whether it was an accident or an attempted hit and Peter fends off excited questions as he heads straight for Smiley’s office, hoping his face isn’t as white as he thinks it probably is, but Smiley takes one look at him and dismisses everyone else from the room.

Peter stares at him mutely. George has a small cut over his eye, that’s all, but who knows what’s under his clothes, what he’s not revealing.

“I’m fine, Peter.”

“Are you?” He knows George.

“Some bruises, that’s all. Between you and me, a little shaken.”

“Have you seen the doctor yet?”

George smiles a little. “Yes, mother,” he says.

Peter doesn’t smile back. His legs suddenly feel like they’re about to give way and he sinks into his chair next to George.

“I’m all right, Peter,” George says, and for a moment his hand covers Peter’s on the table. He squeezes once and lets go. Peter’s hand feels immediately cold, which is ridiculous. He closes the hand into a fist. Then there’s a knock on the door and Smiley looks up, “Enter,” he calls, and it’s business as usual.

At the end of the day, Peter hovers in the doorway of George’s office. He wants to take George home, check for himself that he’s really okay, make him take care of himself, but George looks impatiently at him over his glasses and says “Go home, Peter, I don’t need fussing over,” and it’s not private enough, Peter can’t argue, so he goes. Later he drives by George’s house. There are no lights on.

 

The next day, George is stiff. Peter can see it in the way he lowers himself into his chair, the care he takes in reaching for files on his desk and the precise way he puts one foot in front of the other when walking. When Peter suggests they go home early, and George lets himself be persuaded, he knows George is in more pain than he’s let on.

Peter stops at their local takeaway and after dinner gets out his bottle of liniment and nervously shows it to George. “Let me return the favour,” he says. George stares at him for a long moment, then reaches for the bottle, and winces at the movement. It seems to decide him and he reaches for his shirt buttons.

“It would easier if you lay down on the bed,” Peter says, and when George frowns ever so slightly, adds hurriedly, “or here is fine.”

George contemplates the bottle and then gets up, wincing and makes his way slowly up the stairs. Peter takes the dirty plates through to the kitchen and washes them up quickly. By the time he joins George in the bedroom, George is sitting on the bed, his shoulders hunched as he unbuttons his shirt. He looks old in the lamplight, defeated. It makes Peter’s heart ache to see him like that. He doesn’t protest when Peter helps him out of his shirt. He’s not wearing a vest—it must have been too much effort this morning.

Peter draws back the covers. “Lie down on your stomach,” he says and watches George ease himself down carefully, slowly. Peter kneels beside him on the bed. George flinches when Peter places his hands carefully on his shoulders, but soon relaxes into the massage, his muscles easing. George’s body is soft with middle-age, but it’s precious to Peter and he soothes the liniment over the planes of his back, down to the coccyx, pressing in there on either side, the way he himself likes. The low moan this evokes from George sends an illicit thrill through Peter, but it’s easy to ignore the low thrum of his own arousal. He’s focused on easing George’s pain, maybe even bringing George a little pleasure. George’s eyes have drifted closed at some point and Peter keeps up the soothing slide of his hands until he’s sure George is asleep. He gently draws the covers back over George to keep him warm, then he quietly goes into the bathroom and runs the bath. He washes the liniment off his hands and takes care of his hard-on under the cover of the running water.

The next night George is obviously still sore. He says, “If you wouldn’t mind, Peter,” and stretches out on the bed again, his head pillowed on his hands, his eyes already closing, and Peter thrills at George’s trust, George’s ease with him, and only feels slightly guilty about having a wank again afterwards. By the third night George doesn’t fall asleep. He thanks Peter gravely and sits up, more easily; the soreness seems to be mostly gone now. He reaches for the book he keeps on the bedside table. Peter is torn, he suspects were he to disappear into the bathroom now it would be all too obvious what he was doing; he doesn’t want to risk George’s distaste or worse, revulsion.

“Come to bed,” George says, and that’s that, then. Relieved to have the decision taken out of his hands, Peter changes into the pyjamas George has left out for him, his back discreetly turned, and slides under the covers and settles with his back to George, the blankets pulled up over his shoulders.

Then George says gently, his eyes on the book he is reading, “I don’t mind,” and oh, Christ, George knows he’s hard. George is being kind to him and Peter cringes, embarrassment heating his cheeks. He’s grateful George can’t see his face right now. He hopes, desperately, that George will just leave it. “You don’t have to go to the bathroom, I mean.” Oh God, oh God, could this get more mortifying? Peter contemplates getting out of bed, going home, even as his traitorous body responds to the permission. Then a warm hand settles firmly on the nape of his neck and he’s conditioned to that touch now, it means affection, it means home, it means George, and Peter reaches into his pyjama pants and grabs his cock and jerks it rapidly, wanting this to be over, wanting it to last forever. Then George murmurs, “That’s it, Peter,” and Peter comes, biting his lip, spilling over himself, soaking his pyjamas. But before he can start to worry all over again about potential humiliation, George says matter-of-factly, “There’s a clean pair in the chest-of-drawers.”

When Peter gets back into bed, self-conscious, George is reading. “George?”

George looks at him over his glasses. “All right, now?”

“Why?” he asks, helplessly. “You don’t have to… you don’t owe me this.”

“I wanted to,” George says, which stuns Peter into silence. He stares at George’s profile as he reads until George closes the book and leaning over, turns off the bedside lamp and lies down. His breathing quickly evens out into sleep. Peter wishes he could be as sanguine. Something’s just changed between them from which there is no return. Even if nothing else ever happens, Smiley is compromised now.

Peter is still awake at dawn but he knows what he has to do.

 

Peter is careful to behave as though nothing has changed. George’s friendship is the most important thing in the world to him; he would rather give up the Circus, but he can’t let George risk his own career because of Peter’s feelings for him. So he still has dinner with George. He still spends companionable evenings watching telly or helping with occasional high priority work brought home, but now he sits in the armchair. Where once he would have stayed the night, now he says goodnight and leaves before it gets late. He knows George is aware of what he’s doing. George regards him with steady eyes as Peter stretches, makes his excuses, but he doesn’t ask Peter to stay. Peter is relieved, even as the part of Peter that wants George so badly he aches with it mourns the fact that apparently Peter doesn’t mean that much to George after all.

 

Peter waves to indicate their extravagant surroundings: the opulent décor, the starched waiters. “Not one of your usual haunts, George.”

“Why, I’m celebrating, Peter.”

“Celebrating?”

“It’s been one year since my divorce was finalised.”

“I didn’t know you were keeping track,” Peter says, feeling like a fool as the words leave his mouth, because George’s mind is a steel trap.

“It’s an important date,” George merely says.

“Yes, of course.”

George holds out his glass and Peter takes the hint and clinks their glasses together. George smiles approvingly as Peter sips. The taste lingers on Peter’s tongue, mellow, with subtle oak. Peter doesn’t recognise the wine. He suspects it’s way out of his price range.

“Come back to the house with me after, Peter. We have things to discuss,” George says, and Peter’s mouth goes dry and he takes a gulp of the expensive wine, catching the disapproving eye of a matron in pearls the size of marbles.

George is cutting into his steak and doesn’t seem to notice.

 

George seems to spend a lot of time making the tea, when they get home, his back to Peter. If it were anyone but George, he’d think the man was nervous. “What did you want to talk about?”

“Come and sit down,” George says, putting the tray on the coffee table and taking a seat on the sofa. Peter goes to sit on the armchair as usual, but George looks at him over his glasses and indicates the empty place next to him and Peter obeys the unspoken command. He’s tense; he doesn’t understand what George is up to; it can’t be what it seems, but his brain simply refuses to find an innocuous reason for George’s actions.

“George,” Peter starts, and stops, transfixed by the hand resting on his thigh.

“Peter,” George says and leans over and kisses him. Kisses Peter on the mouth, and Peter experiences a moment of overwhelming, ridiculous, joy, but he knows better, he’s a lifetime of knowing better and the next thing he’s standing up, staring down at George, his hand pressed to lips which, phantom-like, still seem to bear the impression of George’s kiss.

“What—”

“Sit down, Peter,” George says gently, and Peter sinks back down on his seat, still staring at George. He realises his hand is still pressed to his mouth and lets it drop into his lap.

He can’t even process the fact that George just kissed him, that George seems to want him. He grasps for something he can focus on, make sense of. “If anyone finds out—and they will—it’s over. You’ll be out. They’re only looking for an excuse—”

“That’s true.”

Peter’s brain refuses to make sense of George’s agreement. He’s lost.

“It’s all political,” George says calmly. “You and I both know my days as Chief are numbered. I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long. In fact, the only person risking their career here is you. As it is, you won’t be forced out when the time comes, as I was when I was Control’s man; your position as Head of Scalphunters is secure. I’ve seen to that.”

Peter doesn’t doubt him. “Not if we were to… if we were discovered.”

“I’ll understand if you don’t want to take the risk.”

Peter stares at George. “I don’t understand,” he says, bewildered. “Why?”

George regards him steadily. “I want this.”

“But you’re not queer. You said so.”

“No. But I found myself not unaffected by your massages.”

“That’s not a reason to….” Peter stops. It’s too much, he can’t think clearly.

“I’d like to try. I realise that it’s not entirely fair to you, if it turns out I don’t like it.”

Peter laughs. He can hear the edge of hysteria in it and makes himself stop. “What you’re offering….” He shakes his head. “And you say you’re not being fair to me.”

“Peter, I spent nearly 30 years in a relationship where my happiness came second to someone else’s. I won’t do that again. I am not offering this out of pity, if that is what you are thinking. If this doesn’t work, well, we’ll go back to the way we were before. Or if you’d rather not make the attempt, I’ll understand.”

Peter stares at George. George is regarding him unblinkingly. He’s patient, George. He’s waiting for Peter’s decision. Peter’s not sure why he’s hesitating. He’s afraid of getting hurt again, but what has he got to lose? If they try and fail, well, at least he’ll know there’s no hope of anything more. He can be content with George’s friendship, and if that stops being enough, he can find someone else. George wouldn’t begrudge him that.

“Okay,” he says, because he can’t bring himself to be the one who starts this, but when George leans in again, he meets him willingly, allows George to press him back against the cushions and opens to his kiss. For a minute it’s weird, and Peter doesn’t think it’s going to work, and the disappointment is a crushing weight in his chest. Then George’s hand slides around his waist, and George makes a sound of surprise and deepens the kiss and Peter can feel him, feel George against his thigh. The relief is nearly overwhelming. It’s as if the happiness is bubbling up in him, and he can’t wait, it’s too fast but he slides his hand under George’s belt and grasps him, despite the awkward angle. George is half erect already and so responsive, filling Peter’s hand as Peter strokes him. Peter is intent on making it good for George, and so he startles when he feels George’s hand against his cock and Peter is hard already, how could he not be? He’s desperate for this, desperate for George, and when George squeezes, and hesitantly rubs him, it’s enough, it’s been so long, and Peter comes with a cry that is swallowed by George’s mouth. George is patient with him as Peter pants, his face buried in George’s neck as he tries to focus again. He realises his hand is still stuck, ludicrously, inside George’s trousers and grasps George’s cock again and strokes him until George stiffens and comes, slumping heavily on top of Peter, breathing hard.

 

If he’d allowed himself to think that far, Peter would have imagined George would be the type to don pyjamas and clean his teeth and demurely kiss his lover goodnight, afterwards. He watches George carefully places his glasses on the bedside table like he usually does but then is surprised when George drops his clothes unceremoniously on the floor and slides naked into bed. Peter is stunned when he joins George in bed and George immediately turns to him and starts exploring Peter’s body with mouth and hands. Peter may be nearly 40, but George Smiley, the man he’s been in love with for as almost as long as he’s known him, is kissing him, touching him and Peter’s erect again in no time, but George isn’t. When George reaches for Peter’s cock Peter summons up the self-control to put his hand over George’s and clasp it, stopping him.

George looks up at him enquiringly. “I love sex,” he says, and for some reason those words coming out of George Smiley’s mouth is the most shocking revelation of the evening. “It’s probably why I kept taking Ann back. Part of it was habit of course, and love. I loved her. But when we came together after one of her flings, it was always so intense; she was so focussed on making it up to me. It was addictive.”

For a moment Peter resents George’s poor form in mentioning Ann now. He’s jealous of her still, of the years she’s stolen from George. But George is looking at him now as though he finds Peter every bit as important as Ann had been to him and he realises that George is sharing something private with him, something he can’t imagine George admitting to anyone else, ever.

Peter’s eyes go to George’s cock, still mostly soft. “Give me time,” George says, smiling. “I’m not a spring chicken like you,” and Peter has to laugh at the absurdity of it, and for the first time he really believes that this can work between them. He slides down the bed until he’s level with George’s groin and looks up at him. George’s eyes have widened. Still holding his gaze, Peter takes George into his mouth.

In a flatteringly short space of time George is hard in Peter’s mouth and hand and George is clutching Peter’s hair as he silently comes apart, tight enough that it’s verging on being painful, and that nearly tips Peter over the edge. He manages to hold off while he swallows George’s seed, and then the idea of it, the idea of taking George into himself is all he needs and grabs his cock and pulls once, twice, and comes, spilling over his hand.

George is lying flat on the bed, staring at the ceiling, breathing heavily, looking thoroughly debauched and that is a sight Peter never imagined he’d be privy to. He should go and get a flannel to clean them up, but George doesn’t seem bothered by the mess so Peter crawls up next to George and lays his head on his chest. When George’s arm comes around him, and he feels a kiss pressed on the top of his head, all Peter’s unanswered questions fall away to nothing.