This is slash (i.e. two men in a romantic/sexual relationship) but nothing graphic.
With thanks to my beta reader Roa1
Richard glanced up at his flat as he approached Carlton buildings and the sight of the darkened window increased his concern for Craig's state of mind. Although they could see just as well in the dark as by daylight Richard and his two colleagues generally switched on the lights after dark anyway, partly out of habit, partly for the sake of convention but mainly so they wouldn't cause other people to get suspicious about their abilities. He'd been picking up on Craig's unhappiness for most of the afternoon and he'd been desperate to get home to his friend but everything had seemed to conspire against him and now it was late evening. He hesitated for a moment and took a deep breath, steeling himself to face up to whatever was ahead of him. Then he opened the door to the flat and switched on the light.
Craig was sitting on the sofa and the waves of sadness emanating from him momentarily stopped Richard in his tracks. He stood still for a second or two trying to re-orientate himself, then rapidly crossed the room and sat on the arm of the sofa.
"You okay?" he asked, more for something to say than anything else; it was only too clear that Craig was anything but okay. Richard slid his arm round his friend in the hope that it would help him to open up and talk about what was bothering him.
As he felt his friend's arm go around him Craig flinched and leapt up as if he'd been scalded. He walked over to the sideboard.
"Do you want a drink?" he asked, pouring himself a large scotch.
"No I don't want a drink! I want to know what's going on," Richard replied, his impatient tone masking his concern.
Craig returned to the settee and sat down carefully, as far away from his colleague as possible. He sat nursing his drink and Richard watched him for a while, hoping he'd open up and talk about the cause of his obvious distress. When the American continued to say nothing and sat staring morosely at his drink Richard was finally moved to break the silence.
"Talk to me," he said quietly.
Craig took a quick breath, paused for a moment and then launched into speech,
"Did you hear about Paul Carmichael?" he asked.
"Yeah I heard. Everyone at work seems to be talking about it," Richard replied.
"You know what happened to him?"
"From what people were saying I gathered that his back-up let him down and he was captured by a particularly unpleasant group of men."
"Unpleasant group of men?" Craig laughed bitterly. "That's one hell of an understatement. Have you any idea what they did to him?"
"It's all round the office that he was tortured, sexually assaulted and raped, several times over, and the only reason he's still alive is because two of our other operatives cracked the case and found him during the mopping up operation."
"Well what you heard is true…. I saw him." Craig said.
"You did? How come?"
"Someone had to debrief him and I volunteered. He was a mess Richard, a real mess."
"And that's what's upset you so much? Why Craig? Sure it's nasty but it's not as if this is the first time this has happened to one of our agents. We've had to pick up the pieces more times than I care to think about, so why now? Did you know Carmichael well or something?"
"I didn't know him any better than you did and, to be brutally honest, this isn't really about him anyway."
"So what is it then? Please Craig, tell me what's wrong."
The American was silent for a few moments then he took a deep breath and continued with his story.
"It's what happened afterwards that really got to me. I'd just left Carmichael and was headed down the corridor for a meeting with Tremayne and the agents who were supposed to have been Carmichael's back-up."
"Morris and Frazer?"
"Yeah that's them. Anyway I overheard the two of them talking and they were laughing about what happened to Carmichael. They were saying that they thought he'd probably asked for everything he got and that they reckoned he would have enjoyed being raped … you know why they said that don't you?"
"Well presumably because they found out that Carmichael was living with that guy from the accounts department, Bob something or other. Ignorant bastards!"
Richard was beginning to guess the way this conversation was heading and he didn't like it one bit. Was Craig leading up to ending their relationship? God, how he hoped not.
"The worst of it is that Morris used to be great friends with Carmichael. When he found out about Bob Anders that all changed. He said all sorts of vicious things…, he said he was worried he'd wake up to find Carmichael on top of him and that people like that couldn't be trusted. He went on and on about it, in the end Tremayne promised he'd make sure they didn't have to work together unless it was absolutely necessary. This case was the first time they'd been expected to team up since it all came out," Craig said.
"You don't think Morris held back deliberately so Carmichael would get caught do you?" Richard asked, sounding horrified.
"No, I don't think he'd go that far, he wouldn't put his job on the line. On the other hand I don't think he's lost any sleep over it either. Like I said, I overheard him and Frazer laughing and joking about Carmichael. They went quiet when I first walked in but when they saw it was me and not Tremayne they started up again, making all sorts of innuendoes and nasty comments and asking me if I reckoned Carmichael had got a kick out of being raped," Craig said.
"Hell! That's an awful thing to say. What did you do?"
"I told them exactly what I thought of them. I also pointed out that Carmichael hadn't broken despite everything that had happened to him. I 'forgot' to mention that he was at breaking point when our men got to him. Of course they had to twist that though, they said the reason he hadn't cracked was because he was having too good a time. I tell you Richard, it's just as well that Tremayne rang at that point to postpone the meeting otherwise I'd have floored them both. I passed Tremayne's message onto them, told them they'd better not make any more cracks like that in front of me then walked out of there."
"And…?" Richard asked.
"Well I was walking quite slowly, thinking about what they'd said and half listening so I'd hear if they'd say anything about me … about us … once I was out of the room…" Craig trailed off again.
"And did they?" Richard prompted.
"They didn't say anything at all for a couple of minutes; I suppose they were a bit stunned by the way I'd reacted. Then, when they thought I was out of earshot, I heard them start up again. Morris said, 'All the same I bet he did enjoy it, whatever Stirling thinks,' and Frazer said that he thought I'd overreacted a bit and, if I'd been anyone else, he'd have suspected maybe I was a pervert like Carmichael. Hearing that got me mulling over what they'd think if they knew about you and me."
"And you actually care what a couple of bigots like Morris and Frazer think about us?" Richard said incredulously. As soon as the words left his mouth he realised that that wasn't the problem his lover was wrestling with and his heart beat faster as he started to panic about what his friend was about to say.
"No of course I don't," Craig said, "I don't give a damn about what people like them think and you know it. What's bothering me is that what they said got me thinking about how I feel about me … about us being together Richard. I've been struggling with the whole thing, it hasn't made me feel good about myself. When I think about it logically I know that being with you doesn't make me any less of a man but in my head it doesn't feel that way and that's really bothering me."
"I know … it worries me that it affects you like that. But I'm sure that all you need is a little more time to get used to it," Richard said, with more conviction than he felt.
"I'm not sure that I ever will get used to it. It's changed my whole view of myself. Before all this happened I knew who I was; now I'm confused and I hate that feeling. I know that I don't … er … that I'm not … er … I like womenRichard. I've never been attracted to a man, I'm not that way inclined."
Richard was seriously worried now; it was beginning to seem more and more likely that his friend was going to call a halt to their relationship.
"For someone who doesn't fancy men you did a very creditable impression of enjoying what we did this morning," he said, trying to distract his friend and maybe deflect him from what he was intending to say.
Craig gave a ghost of a grin, as he remembered their early morning lovemaking, before growing serious again.
"I've always thought I was totally straight. Okay I admit that I joined in a couple of races with other boys when I was a teenager. You know what I mean, the 'see who can bring themselves off fastest' game. But it didn't turn me on or anything and, before you ask, no I didn't win."
"That must have been galling for you," Richard remarked, before he could stop himself.
Craig gave him an irritated look then continued,
"Of course it was bloody galling; you know how much I hate to lose! It wasn't until a while afterwards that I realised that a few of those boys had an unfair advantage. Some of them really got off on watching each other doing that. Then I thought about it a bit and realised that girls prefer you to take your time so, even though I'd lost the damn race, I'd win in the end. After that I decided that I was practising the wrong skill and I never joined in again. Like I said it did nothing for me anyway and, up until now, I'd always assumed that was because I was only interested in girls. It's just so difficult to deal with; finding out that everything I believed about myself isn't true. And everything I thought about you is all wrong too. Was it like this for you when you found out that you were bi-sexu ... er ... that you liked men as well as women?" Craig asked.
"It's not the same for me. I came into this in a totally different way to you. You already know that I went to an all boys' school and that, in the absence of girls, most of us 'practised' on each other. Some of us went further than others of course but it was all pretty innocent. I know that sounds strange but it really was - innocent I mean, not strange. We were just teenage boys, hormones raging out of control and experimenting with each other. Then, when girls came along, most of us gravitated to them. One or two still stuck with guys of course. But the majority became exclusively heterosexual. The whole thing was never a big deal; it just seemed like a natural part of growing up. So it never came as a shock to me like it has to you. And, as for that word you were struggling with before – bi-sexual – I don't think about it. As far as I'm concerned I like who I like because of who they are, not because of their gender. Why do you want to pin a label on yourself? There isn't a label that exactly fits you anyway. Basically you're a heterosexual man who happens to be…," his voice trailed off.
"Happens to be what?"
Richard had been about to say 'in love with another man' but now he wasn't sure he wanted to voice that. What if his friend disagreed? Suppose he said he wasn't in love and it was all a big mistake? What if Craig was working up to finishing with him? It certainly seemed like that was where the conversation was going. Richard longed to take both of his friend's hands and tell him everything was going to be fine but he was afraid to touch him for fear of making him bolt from the flat. If only there was some way to stave off what Richard was beginning to think was inevitable but there didn't seem to be. He was trapped into having this conversation whether he wanted to or not.
"I think I will have that drink after all," he said abruptly. He walked over to the drinks cabinet and his hand shook a little as he poured himself a very large scotch. Suddenly a long forgotten memory came into his head. Years ago he'd built a makeshift go-cart and it was only when he was careering down the hill out of control that he'd realised that it would have been a good idea to fit brakes and something a little more efficient than the rudimentary steering system he'd set up. The feeling he'd had then was exactly the same, panic, fear and a sense of impending doom that he was powerless to prevent. Then, as now, he was aware that he was going to get horribly hurt and that all he could do was sit and wait for the crash. Craig's voice cut into his thoughts,
"Happens to be what, Richard?" he repeated.
"Happens to be in a situation he never expected to be in," Richard responded, thinking quickly. As he spoke he came to a decision, if Craig really wanted them to split up then there was nothing he could do or say to prevent it. Trying to put off the moment he was dreading was only making it worse. He would have to get this out into the open now. He walked back to the sofa and sat down in the middle, turning his body slightly so he could see his friend clearly.
"What is it that you want?" he asked. "We could take a step back if you like. I managed it before we got together, I'm sure I can do it again if I have to. What do you really want Craig?"
"I don't know what I want anymore. If I could take a pill and change my feelings about you would I do it? I'm not so sure I would. I guess what I really want is something to take away all the confusion, unhappiness, and the guilt. I've even tried to blame everything on the mental link but I know that's not the reason for this, otherwise we'd feel the same about Sharron and we don't. Sure she's gorgeous and I love her dearly but not with the same depth I have with you. What I really want is to continue as we are but to feel okay about it and, right now, that's what I'm really struggling with."
"Look Craig, this is all still so very new to you. I think you're expecting too much of yourself to just accept it and everything to be fine. You need time to adjust, to get used to it," Richard said.
"But it felt okay in the beginning, after the initial shock had worn off; the last couple of weeks have been the happiest of my life. So why do I feel like this now? I thought I hadcome to terms with it, I really did, and now I just can't handle it."
Shit he is going to finish it, Richard thought despairingly. If only there was something he could do to make his friend feel better. He was struggling to hold himself together, his chest felt constricted and he was having trouble getting his breath. The tension building within him was so bad that he wanted to scream. Instead he forced himself to continue the conversation, hoping against hope that he'd hit on the right thing to say to make everything all right.
"When we first got together you were still in shock, you'd only just realised how you felt and you said yourself you never expected me to feel the same way. No wonder you're finding it difficult now, the implications are only just starting to dawn on you. In the beginning you were mentally numb and I suppose I took advantage a bit. I'd been wanting you for so long that I just couldn't hold back. I'm sorry for that. I know that you're going to need time to come to terms with this and I'll wait as long as it takes. We don't have to ... you know ... it doesn't matter if…," Richard trailed off.
"Doesn't matter if what?"
"Er what I'm trying to say is that we can forget the sex if it makes you uncomfortable," Richard said. His heart was pounding wildly. Oh God, please don't agree to that, he thought. He wasn't sure he could handle it if he had to keep his distance from Craig again. It had been frustrating enough before anything happened between them but to have to go back to not being allowed to touch, knowing his friend wanted him too, would be virtually impossible.
Craig shifted a little in his chair and smiled very, very faintly.
"I think not having sex would be pretty uncomfortable," he said, glancing down at his crotch. "Seriously Richard, I've been thinking for hours, going round and round in circles and I just can't make myself feel good about this. I look at you and I want you. God, how I want you, even at this moment, but..." He shrugged his shoulders and looked helplessly at his friend.
What Richard wanted to do most was to take Craig into his arms and comfort him. It was killing him to have to sit there and watch his colleague suffer like this and not be able to do anything to help. He wanted to soothe him, caress him and gently make love to him but he was terribly afraid that his friend would up and leave if he made any attempt to touch him. He struggled to find words that might help.
"Craig, you don't have to label yourself you know. Like I said before, there is no label for you anyway. Or me either for that matter. I don't … er…" He took a deep breath then plunged on, "love you because you are a man, or even despite you being a man. It's because of the person you are; everything else is incidental to that. Maybe you could try and concentrate on the feelings themselves and try not to worry about the other stuff, at least until you've had more time to get used to the idea? Do you think you could give that a go, just for a while? I'd really like it if you would."
"I don't know. I just wish it were that easy. You're right about one thing though – it's certainly not because you're male that I feel the way I do," Craig said.
"I'll be completely honest with you Craig. You being a man does come into it a bit for me - because of the equality thing. I like the tussles we have, the fact I don't always have to be gentle and hold back a little like I do with women. It's nice that you are just as strong as me," Richard said.
"I admit that sex with you is the best I've ever had," the American responded. "A lot of that is the link of course but it is also the 'equality thing', as you called it. It's nice to have that hint of doubt about whether I'm ever fully in control, it adds spice. All the same, none of that helps me with this. I want to be a long way down the line from now and for me to have come to terms with it all – or not come to terms with it, whatever. At least I'd know if I wasn't ever going to feel all right, and we could deal with that as best we could. I don't want to keep feeling the way I feel now. We're good together; I know that, it's just so damned difficult dealing with something I never thought could happen to me."
Richard still didn't know whether Craig was saying he wanted them to split up or not. The tension he was holding in check made him feel as if he might throw up at any moment. They could get past this, they had to. He wasn't sure how he'd cope if they didn't. He swallowed a large mouthful of his drink then said,
"I know it'll take you a long time to completely come to terms with it and things will happen along the way that remind you just how big a mind shift you've had to make. Maybe you'll never be totally okay with it, I don't know. I think that we should just take things on a day to day basis and try not to analyse things too much. I think what we have is worth taking that chance. Don't throw it away Craig. At least give it a little while longer."
He looked at his friend, trying to read his expression, at this moment the mental link was useless, he was in such turmoil. He tried to steel himself for the pain that was heading his way; he could feel it from a long way off getting nearer and nearer. He heard a roaring in his ears as he saw his friend open his mouth to reply.
"Christ Richard, is that what you think? That I want to break up with you? Well I don't. Most of the time it's fine. I'm never happier than when I'm with you and I'm not just talking about the sex, good though it is. Whenever I'm lying in your arms, sleeping with you, waking up beside you, it feels so right, like I really belong. I never felt that way before. I feel so connected with you."
The clamour in Richard's ears was so loud he was struggling to make sense of what his friend was saying. At first he registered only a fragment: 'Richard … I want to break up with you.'
Craig paused when he saw his friend's stricken expression. What was wrong now? Why did everything have to be so confusing all the time?
"Dammit why couldn't I have fallen in love with Sharron instead?" he exclaimed.
Richard hadn't realised how cold he'd been until he felt the warm glow spreading through his body. What Craig had said in the earlier part of his speech finally penetrated his brain along with the fact that his friend didn't seem to want them to part after all. Even better, Craig had said he loved him, well maybe not quite but that last sentence had made his feelings clear enough.
"I'm sorry Richard," Craig continued. "I should have realised you'd think I wanted to finish this. I was just so wrapped up in how I felt I didn't think about the effect on you, I didn't pick up on your feelings at all."
"I'm just glad I was wrong. I wish there was some way I could make it easier for you though. I hate to see you like this," Richard said.
"I know," Craig replied quietly.
Hesitantly, still half afraid of a rebuff, Richard reached out and took his friend's hands in his own.
"So where do we go from here?" he asked.
Craig raised one of Richard's hands to his lips and kissed it very gently before answering.
"Like I said, I've been okay with it up to now. It's just that what happened today made me realise that I still have some way to go before I completely accept it. But that doesn't mean we can't carry on the way we have been doing. The last thing I want to do is lose you Richard, you're the best thing in my life. What you said before was right, I havehad to make a hell of a mind shift but what we have is worth it. I really believe that I'll get there in the end. You just need to give me time to adjust."
Richard smiled as it finally sunk in that Craig still wanted them to be together.
"All the time you need – just as long as you stick around – after all I need you to buy the drinks," he joked, giddy with relief.
Craig burst out laughing, glad that his friend had found a way to lighten the mood. For the first time since the incident with Morris and Frazer he felt happy.
"Talking of drinks, do you want another scotch?" he asked.
"No, to tell the truth I'm pretty tired. Do you mind if I go to bed?" Richard said, getting to his feet.
"Not as long as you take me with you," Craig replied, reaching out to grasp his friend's outstretched hand as he stood up.
Richard wrapped his arms around his lover and captured his mouth in a tender kiss. Craig responded eagerly and, for a few moments, the two men lost themselves in the pleasure of kissing one another. Then, hand in hand, they walked slowly into the bedroom.