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The Stranger

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There was a certain presence to him. Commanding like Raffles, and charming like him too. Something about him that made people like him, that made people notice instantly when he was in a room, no matter how crowded. Bunny hadn't even known his name, but he had noticed him all the same. He'd put a hand on Raffles' arm - “Who is that?”

 

Raffles had barely glanced over. “I've no idea. Why?”

 

“He's... striking. I feel like I've seen him before.”

 

“Striking?” Raffles looked again, and his glance lingered this time. Bunny watched him watching the man, his eyes travelling up and down the svelte figure as if he could read all its secrets with the merest cursory look – the way he could read Bunny. “I suppose you could call it that.”

 

“Do you think he plays cricket?”

 

“Oh Bunny.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. Just that you're frightfully transparent.”

 

“What do you mean by that?”

 

Raffles took Bunny's arm in that easy, proprietary way he had that made something inside Bunny shiver. “Not a thing, I'm sure.”

 

He didn't think about it again until the weekend – Raffles bowling; the curve and flick of his wrist; the sinewy forearms framed by rolled up white sleeves; that cunning, smiling look in his eyes as he measured up his opponent. And there in the background, amongst the other spectators – the striking young man whose aunt's house they had neatly relieved of its treasures.

 

He didn't speak to Bunny, and Bunny still had no idea of his name, but his attention was somewhat divided thereafter between the two men; the stranger and Raffles. Raffles because all eyes were drawn to him like plants to the sun. The stranger for the way he watched Raffles, almost as intently as Bunny himself, although he could not be much of a cricket fan if Bunny couldn't remember seeing him before at one of Raffles' matches.

 

He was well dressed. Tall and slender, with dark blond hair that curled rakishly and a smile that was... full of secrets. Bunny fidgeted, restless all of a sudden. He scuffed his shoes on the unseasonably dry grass like a schoolboy.

 

Before the match ended the stranger had gone.

 

*

 

Bunny's first thought, absurd as it was, was to notice that Raffles was still in his cricket whites. Well, that is to say, somewhat in them. He was pressed against the wall of the empty pavilion which smelled like warm dust and old leather, his arms full of the striking young stranger. They were rutting against each other, lazy and indecent.

 

“Raffles!” Bunny's voice sounded breathless to his own ears, scandalised yet soft.

 

The two men started, and the stranger tried to break away but Raffles held him close and still where they were pressed together, their clothes parted and rumpled. Raffles looked at Bunny in that penetrating way he had, where Bunny was sure that Raffles could read his mind and see all his secrets. He tilted his head. “Hello Bunny.”

 

“I- I was just...” I was just wondering what was keeping you so long. Bunny couldn't stop staring. Raffles' shirt was partly unbuttoned, a deep v of skin exposed, a scatter of brown hair. Bunny closed his eyes, just a second too long to be explained as a blink. “Excuse me,” he whispered, turning his back and walking as quickly as his shaking legs would carry him from the room.

 

*

 

The trip back to London was subdued. Bunny barely felt able to string a sentence together until they were back, by unspoken accord, in Raffles' rooms at the Albany. Raffles pressed a glass of Scotch whisky into Bunny's hand, lit a cigarette in his own mouth before putting it gently between Bunny's lips.

 

Bunny shook his head, unable to meet Raffles' eyes. He put the cigarette aside and gulped at the drink in his hands. It was a moment before he could look up.

 

“So it was a lie, then. When you said you didn't know him.”

 

“I don't lie to you, Bunny. I'd never seen him before in my life, and I still couldn't tell you his name if you asked it.”

 

“How- how could you-”

 

“How could I degrade myself in such an unnatural way with a perfect stranger, do you mean, Bunny?”

 

“How could you endanger yourself like that! Anyone could have walked in there and-”

 

“I knew no one would.”

 

I did!”

 

“I'm in no danger from you. Am I, Bunny?” His voice was soft, at that last sentence, questioning – as if he really meant to ask it. Bunny found himself strangely hurt by the thought.

 

“Well, no, but that's hardly the point.”

 

“Besides, what fun is there without a little danger?”

 

Bunny hardly knew what to say to that. He had heard similar words so many times from that mouth, he knew argument was pointless. But –

 

“But I've seen you with women! You flirt and you charm and, and-”

 

“Don't be provincial, Bunny.”

 

Provincial-”

 

“You were soppy enough over that Carruthers girl, and yet you still seemed taken with him.”

 

“Taken – I said he was striking, that's all!”

 

“Come now, you forget how well I know you.”

 

“Is that why you...” Bunny couldn't bring himself to say it, wouldn't have had the words to anyway. “Because I said he was striking?”

 

Raffles smiled as if he was laughing at Bunny, mocking him. Bunny wrapped his arms around himself. “Sweet little Bunny. Don't think too much about it.”

 

“But it's illegal.”

 

“My dear friend.” Raffles spoke with the air of someone whose patience was unbreakable. “You do realise that we are criminals?”

 

“Well, yes, but-”

 

“But?”

 

“But this is different!”

 

“Is it? How?”

 

Bunny struggled to put words to it. Damn Raffles for making this so difficult. “I've never thought of... of anything like this.” It wasn't quite the truth – but Bunny didn't know how else to put it. Raffles always seemed to be able to trip him up with words, somehow.

 

“Had you ever thought of stealing before I introduced the subject to you?”

 

Bunny shook his head helplessly.

 

“Well then. And this crime is not even one I am asking you to join me in.”

 

Bunny blushed hot at the idea. He wasn't entirely ignorant. At school it had been common, if not exactly spoken about.

 

He had not thought of this kind of intimacy with a man, though, not beyond boyhood and the adolescent fumblings of his school days – not with Raffles, never with Raffles even then, and a part of Bunny felt almost slighted at that now.

 

But then, when one thought about it in that way, it seemed strange to think of Raffles committing illegal acts of any sort with any other companion than Bunny. Wrong, almost. Well, more wrong than merely the acts themselves – which were fairly wrong to begin with, Bunny was sure.

 

At school Bunny had known what the other boys did, but had never really joined in with their games. He had only had eyes for Raffles, even then, he supposed. And Raffles had always seemed so untouchable – the cricket ace; the dashing, daring upperclassman. Bunny closed his eyes and the image of Raffles half-undressed and up against that wall with a handsome stranger flooded into his mind unbidden. Not so untouchable as all that, then.

 

Bunny opened his eyes again quickly. He stared at the floor. Trying to screw together enough... Pluck – hadn't Raffles always admired his pluck? Fascinated by it, that's what he'd said. Bunny took a deep breath, and looked up again. “Why not?”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“I said why not. Why don't you ask me to join you?”

 

Raffles paused – a calculating sort of pause, it felt like. His expression was serious, no gently mocking laughter in his eyes or amused twist to that devilish mouth. “What are you saying, Bunny? Think about it very carefully, because you won't be able to change it once it's said.”

 

“I just think- I thought you said...”

 

“Yes?”

 

“I thought you said, once, that we were partners in crime.”

 

Raffles' eyes narrowed, and Bunny felt spread open. A little frightened, a little thrilled to have surprised the great, unshockable A.J.

 

“So I did,” he said eventually. He stood, and all of a sudden it seemed as if he was a lot closer than Bunny had been expecting. “And is that what you want, rabbit?” His voice was as soft as Bunny had ever heard it. “Partners? In crime?” He studied Bunny's face as if he were looking for something. “In this?”

 

“I-” Bunny blushed. “It's only that I've never, I don't know how to-”

 

“Silly rabbit. Don't worry about that.” He put his hands cautiously, almost reverently on Bunny's shoulders, holding him steady. And it was suddenly as if, Bunny thought, all the innocence to their friendship had gone – or perhaps was never there in the first place – and every touch held some new meaning that was just beyond Bunny's comprehension.

 

“Do you trust me, Bunny?”

 

“Of course. You know I do.”

 

Raffles looked pained for a moment. “Yes, I do.” His hands slid upwards to Bunny's neck, and he brushed the delicate skin at the hollow of Bunny's throat with the tip of his thumb. “Oh Bunny,” he whispered. “Perhaps you shouldn't.”

 

“Nonsense,” Bunny said firmly, feeling the press of Raffles' thumb against him as he spoke. “I trust you with my life, and you've justified it a dozen times over.”

 

“I've endangered it a dozen times over. Let's be clear on that.”

 

Bunny swallowed, knowing Raffles would feel it on the pad of his thumb. “I don't believe I've ever really been in danger while you've been with me. No matter how it may have seemed to me at the time.”

 

Ahead of him, intimately close now, Raffles shut his eyes for a second as if Bunny's words had stolen his breath from him. “It should frighten me, how trusting you are. It should frighten you.”

 

“Do I look frightened, Raffles?”

 

“More than you think. And not nearly enough.”

 

Slowly, as if not to startle him, Raffles leant into Bunny until Bunny could feel every lean, taut line of him through their clothes. For years they had been close – bathed together at the Turkish Baths, walked arm in arm through Hyde Park, slumped drunkenly side by side at the Club in plush chairs pushed so close that their whisky-limp limbs brushed brazenly against one another. But nothing like this, nothing so deliberate as this light, full-bodied contact.

 

He looked up at Raffles – ever so slightly taller, that handsome face tilted down towards Bunny already and a look in his eyes, almost pained, almost as if this was physically hurting him. “What is it?”

 

“Nothing. Only sometimes you look exactly as you did back at school – the same innocence.”

 

“I'm not innocent. I'm a criminal. I've broken the law, I'll do it again.”

 

Raffles shook his head, a slight gesture. “Yes. It's absolutely... I wouldn't have thought you had it in you, before.”

 

“Now you know.”

 

And then Bunny was being kissed, his mouth taken and plundered and owned by this man he had long ago sacrificed his morality to, and what was a kiss compared to that? Even a first kiss, even such a sinful kiss as this – why had he expected it to change anything at all between them? It changed nothing. He was only as damned after as he had been before, he was still the same man he had been since Raffles had taken the wreck of him and rebuilt it to suit his own purposes, and Bunny could regret nothing, as always, as long as he was following where Raffles led.

 

Raffles' hands were on Bunny's face, holding him, and Bunny would have felt self conscious about his passivity if it didn't appear to be exactly what Raffles required of him – to be still and let Raffles take and take. When they parted Raffles was flushed, just the slightest heightening of colour along his fine cheek bones. Bunny felt a little giddy with the thought that he had caused that, a momentary lapse of that famous self control. It mingled with the more familiar giddiness of the Scotch whisky, the rush of breaking the law so freely in any capacity, and the quiet glow of spending time – any time – together with Raffles.

 

“I've never kissed a man before.”

 

Raffles rested his forehead against Bunny's. “Yes, I know.”

 

“Oh.” Bunny bit his lip. “Was it so obvious?”

 

“No. You just forget how well I know you. Do you think I wouldn't have found out before now if you had?”

 

Bunny felt himself blush again. Raffles chased the flush across Bunny's cheek with a soft brush of his knuckles. “Don't worry. Don't think about it. Don't think about anything except doing as I tell you, do you understand?”

 

Bunny wanted to close his eyes, but found that Raffles' own eyes held him transfixed. “Yes Raffles,” he whispered.

 

He felt Raffles move him, guide him up against the heavy wooden door. Behind – the hall, the entryway, a doorway to the rest of the Albany, the servants, the outside world. So little to protect them – but Raffles had said not to think about it.

 

“Poor rabbit,” Raffles breathed. “So new to it all.” He pressed his lips feather-soft to Bunny's neck, at the same time as Bunny felt his quick, skilful fingers at the fastening of his trousers. Bunny's breath hitched, the thought of what was to come and the feel of Raffles' magnificent hands right there, so close, was too overwhelming. “Just relax,” Raffles coaxed. “Imagine we're cracking some rich fool's safe, all you need to do is trust me and stay quiet.”

 

Bunny nodded, clinging to Raffles' shirt as a wicked, beautiful hand slipped inside the loosened fabric of his trousers, brushing up against him, encircling him, settling into an obscene rhythm. Bunny moaned, Raffles capturing the sound with his mouth. Bunny found himself pressed harder against the door.

 

“I said to be quiet.”

 

Bunny nodded desperately. “Yes, Raffles, I- I'm sorry-”

 

“Hush, then.” And then Raffles' other hand was against Bunny's mouth, stifling even the little, heavy breaths that Bunny couldn't hold back himself.

 

“Sweet Bunny,” Raffles murmured against his ear. “I've got you.”

 

Somehow, it was enough. The sound of that masterful voice, the tickle of lips against the shell of his ear, the hand at his mouth, the hand there, stroking persistently where no man but himself had ever touched. Bunny was whimpering, crying out against Raffles' fingers, spilling into his hand.

 

He collapsed forwards, his head onto Raffles' shoulder. Raffles' arm came up around him. Bunny shook in that unyielding embrace. “I'm sorry, Raffles,” he breathed.

 

“Whatever for?”

 

“I- I couldn't help-”

 

“I know. Oh hush, now, Bunny. Of course I know.”

 

“But you... Shouldn't I?” Bunny pulled back, gestured towards the hardness at Raffles' crotch but couldn't say the words, could barely bring himself to look.

 

“No. I don't think so, not now. I'm a man of great patience, Bunny, when the mood takes me.” Bunny felt his hair smoothed back, strong fingers at his chin, lifting his face up. “Pull yourself together, there's a good chap. Now, I want you to go back to your place and get changed. I rather fancy a night out – dinner, if you like, drinks almost certainly. Then maybe afterwards we can talk about... reciprocation. What do you say?”

 

“Of course, Raffles. Whatever you say.”

 

“That's the spirit. Come along, then, off with you. I'll expect you back here within the hour.”

 

*

 

Outside the air was cold and already dark, and Bunny was sure that every stranger he passed could read it on him, what he'd been doing – in his rumpled, hastily neatened clothes; his flushed cheeks; the hitch of his breath. In that way it reminded him so vividly of the very first crime that Raffles had lured him into. How could the rest of them go about their lives not knowing? Not seeing what was right in front of their faces? There were lines everywhere that people drew between right and wrong, legal and illegal. They were so generally accepted to be set in stone, but Bunny knew, now, how little it really took to move them, to step over them, to ignore them entirely.

 

Bunny quickened his step, feeling oddly elated by the power of that knowledge. Was this what Raffles meant when he talked about the thrill of it, of the danger, of breaking the law and getting away with it?

 

Tonight – dinner and drinks and sin. Bunny smiled. As he walked, he nodded at passing strangers in the dark.