Richard hears the turning of the key first, then the sigh. He looks up towards the curtain rail, for casting his eye on the familiar generally helps him concentrate, and purses his lips; these two sounds herald the return of his partner, Peter.

They've been together for four years, co-habiting for almost two. To the public they're just friends, good friends with money troubles, but friends don't sit together on the sofa, fingers linked, eyes closed, listening to Wagner.

Friends generally don't share a bed to do what they do, either.

As Richard sits, his partner enters: he closes the door behind him without a word and inhales deeply through his nose, he inhales the smell of security and the pungency of domesticity. It relaxes him, slightly. It suits him, but not very much.

Richard turns in his chair to view his lover and a smile spreads across his lips instinctively, despite Peter's obvious strained expression, for he is one of the doomed many who cannot experience love without it showing on their faces. Peter catches his eye and smiles back momentarily; then the black curtains falls again.

It's work; it does this to him; it is frustratingly consistent with it.

Peter isn't particularly loquacious about his occupation, something Richard has grown to understand. The pair have now reached a mutual preference towards the schoolteacher's vaguely amusing anecdotes of the day; it's comforting to both of them, in a way, to regale and be regaled by stories of irreverent pupils, ridiculous quips. When asked about his partner's job Richard feels rather like the young child of a broker, able to announce the title but unsure about the details.

So as Peter slumps over from the door and reunites bag with spare armchair, Richard doesn't ask him about his day. He can fill in the blanks with paperwork and exhaustingly terse phone calls, quietly assume the details whilst gaining one big generality: Peter is fed up, a worryingly frequent occurrence these days.

Richard smiles, splitting his paperback the whole way and resting it on his knees, "If you think you had a mare, I had to tackle Shakespeare today. I had one boy ask me why Hamlet was so bothered about which pencil to use."

Peter lets out his huff of a horse's laugh; the preoccupied one he reserves for pacifying, when he really doesn't feel like laughing at all. Richard, undeterred, carries on. It's this quality in him that makes him invaluable to Peter – they're both aware of this but it goes happily unspoken.

"I don't know about you, but I'd like to think I wasn't half as dim when I was thirteen."

It's then that Peter stops his purposeful walk to the fridge and halts a little, saunters a bit, tilting his shoulders round slightly to face his partner. He's got him. Peter can't resist the nostalgia; there's a part of him that seems to be continually looking back there, not in a reminiscent way, but almost to remind himself that things were different. Not necessarily better – for now he has Richard and in Richard he found something he had craved for decades – but different. Sometimes he catches Peter looking back through photographs, not of people but of buildings: those of Harrow, Oxford, long summer holidays in the ruddy French countryside. A childhood in bricks and wood; memories chiselled into stone.

Peter is especially interested in hearing the reminiscences of others.

"Really?" he checks with a smile on its way to becoming genuine. Richard will take this small show of mirth, he will.

"Hard to believe, I know," he replies, "but I was reading Wilde then. Least these kids could do would be to tolerate a tiny bit of Hamlet."

It's working: the smile remains.

"Suppose that explains a lot," Peter says, opening the fridge with an amused, searching gaze.

"Yes, I'd probably say it does."

They're different, in this respect: Richard, the English teacher; Peter never reads for pleasure, only for necessity. They both have poems learned to heart but they're never recited with the same joy Richard has when he voices the inspiring words. Peter seems to dredge them up from an education of obligation and that's fine, that's just him; he thinks in strategies, not stanzas – that's how he's always been.

When the pair can share a literary joke, Richard considers this a private victory.

"We're only doing it for the week, though," Richard continues. "Short bursts, you know. Can't overload them with the language, the Powers That Be say, so we won't struggle for long. Next Monday I'll be sure to show a video."

Peter, after staring into the fridge's calming light for a minute or so, closes the door and turns back to his partner, empty handed and pensive.

"Nothing you fancy? I'll have to go to the shop, soon. Get some more eggs."

"No, it's…" he tails off, shrugging gently, "I thought I was hungry, but I'm not, now." Then, abruptly: "What's your relationship with the Headmaster?"

"Peter, I- if you think I'm-"

He shakes the accusation away with a sharp jerk of his head, "No, not at all, that's not what I meant. What do you think of him?"

"I suppose… I don't really know him all that well."

"But if he suddenly decided to step down, that would affect you?"

"Yes, I daresay it would. I may not know him personally but his methods are good; they work, the children seem to respond to them. I don't see why he'd want to quit."

"Well, maybe he didn't want to quit. Perhaps… the Board of Governors wanted him out."

"It'd take a lot to get rid of old Harris."

"That's what I thought."

By this point Peter has seated himself down in the armchair, knocking his briefcase to the floor as he usurped it, almost sinking into the cushions, trying to lose himself in upholstery. It's plainly obvious to Richard that they're no longer discussing education; Peter isn't interested about the school's Headmaster – he's never even stepped through the gates, let alone viewed the man to gain even an inkling of his character. Of Harris, of his methods, his whims and ways, Peter is entirely ignorant.

Richard knows this. Peter knows this.

It's something about his job: communicating in codes. Something secret, he'll hazard that much. Being explicit no longer occurs to Peter Guillam, a man so restrained, so used to concealing secrets both professional and private; when he opens up there's still a lock inside, barring entry. Every time this happens Richard feels closer to the key – he's nowhere near locating it, but he can be patient. He's never longed for excitement.

He knows exactly how to proceed.

"But perhaps the Board were reacting to an extreme incidence, perhaps Harris had really merited his dismissal in their eyes, then I would just have to accept their decision and hope the replacement could live up to his previously high standards." At Richard's words Peter looks up; he'd previously held his gaze rigidly on the stubby leg of his partner's reciprocal armchair. Richard continues: "That's the nature of the workplace. Things are going to happen that may not seem right, that you don't agree with, but it just isn't your place to protest. I'd much rather teach the kids that want to learn about Shakespeare, who'll appreciate it, but I don't get to choose my pupils just as much as I can't choose my colleagues. But in the end, things are done for a reason, and that reason is a valuable enough one to someone. Some things just have to be swallowed, even if they taste pretty foul."

Peter Guillam, a man with so many things locked up, feels a surge of emotion that is almost overwhelming in its sudden intensity. It's unlike anything he's experienced previously; of a different vein to just love, or the rush he felt when he caught Richard's gaze for the first time; it isn't the sudden drop of realisation or the fizz of infatuation. It's respect. Gratitude. The inability to thank someone for all they've done, all they do, and all they will continue to do for you. Peter feels he doesn't have arms wide enough to envelop the sheer scope of Richard's kindness; his mouth can't form the words to express his appreciation; he can't say it with a smile, like he can – he feels incompetent but powerful, protected, safe.

The safety he craved, that he knows he can never have; he'll fool himself into believing that he can because God, this feels real.

It doesn't matter that it isn't.

Peter rises from his chair and walks the few steps over to his partner's own; he hunkers down on haunches and reaches out to take Richard's hands.

"Thank you," he says, grasping his hand, covering it with his own. It's simple, but it's enough. Richard is an English teacher after all; he'll be able to read into it.

Their eyes are locked together and for once Peter doesn't feel uncomfortable with the eye contact. He supposes it's a spy thing, the reluctance to open oneself entirely up to someone, to let them look right into you. They're discovering new ground that they should have been traversing months ago but Richard understands – he's a bloody saint for understanding. So Peter ignores the protests of his legs and allows the couple respite, he lets Richard in and they bask quietly in their shared affection.

"I'll have to do Shakespeare more often if this is the response I get," Richard mutters after a length of time neither is counting. Peter's smile is accompanied by a contented hiss of breath out of his nose; his eyes close languidly, then open again, changed by mirth.

"For the kids' sake, I'd say please don't."

It's late when the pair finally retire to bed, with midnight already past and the new day cresting towards dawn. Peter never sleeps, not fully; eight hours seems an unattainable goal for his retirement days. Richard sits and marks and plans and reads a little more, intermittently watching, waiting. He doesn't worry and he isn't tired. Happiness doesn't make him drowsy; he'll sleep when he's dead, when there aren't rowdy teens to educate in the literary canon to no avail.

Peter closes his eyes, aware of sleep's cruel plans to elude him for another hour or so. He feels Richard's arms around him, pulling him closer than usual, a comforting realisation amidst the void of private thought. While consciousness seems intent on pulling him back to the Circus, back to its ruin, back to the sight of his superiors walking stoically towards the exit, Richard's arms remind him that he cannot continue to do this. The unfairness isn't difficult to realise, rather to act on. He can't keep bringing the Circus back home with him at the end of each day – no amount of planning and constructing and running laps around inside his mind can change events. If he can't act there, forcing Richard to do so back in their cocoon of domesticity is not fair and it's been going on for far too long.

With all his gratitude, he's forgotten to be grateful for the most integral part.

He tightens his grip on the lover in his bed, his lover, his perfect balance. He places a kiss on his forehead, light and gentle.

In an hour or so, they'll fall asleep.