You may have already been thinking about death the evening Bunny Manders shows up on your doorstep and threatens to put a bullet in his head.
You may have already been wondering what your parlor would look like with a haphazard pattern of blood spattered inelegantly up the south wall. Not his blood, perhaps not even yours. You were not thinking seriously about death, after all. Only idly, in passing, as one does when one has squandered away his fortune at the gambling tables or upon expensive trinkets. Death is but one of many things passing through your mind as you grind your coffee beans and wonder about money, or lack thereof, and if it’s really worth all the trouble it’ll take to attempt a two man burglary alone. If anything at all is worth the trouble.
As the night wanes on you set a kettle of water on the stove to boil, and consider aloneness, consider death, think of your friend who once said, yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death's house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is. You are troubling the last bit of it, wondering if love really is stronger, if anything is, and then Bunny Manders knocks on your door.
And just like that, as simple as midnight giving way to a new dawn, everything changes.
Bunny is both the same as you remember him, and so very different in moments he’s unrecognizable. Or, he would be if you had not already made a habit of finding locks to pick in the dark.
He is, for one, older. He was stout and soft and pink when he was your fag back in school, always flushed beneath the sweat-damp fringe of flaxen hair as he carried your cricket stumps and bails around while you smoked with the rest of the boys in your year. He’s lengthened out, now, at the same time he’s broadened: his shoulders wide enough they fill your palms as you grab him and steer him about, his chest newly toned though he stutters and covers himself up with his arms every time you try to tell him so. He’s still not very tall or very built, but he’s not a boy anymore, and your years-old, wicked dreams of corrupting him no longer seem quite so wicked.
Instead they seem sad: the desperate, sordid hunger of one man for another, rather than some clever desire to taunt an innocent, the most extreme of schoolboy pranks.
You’d feel guilty about it, if you had not decided long ago that guilt was a useless thing to feel. So, you languish in the discomfort of wanting things instead, of noticing his lithe biceps, the way his jaw has become angled and sharp where there was once only softness.
The ways in which he has not changed are no less troublesome. For example, he is still terrifically, improbably devoted to you. He follows you around just as he once did, hanging on your every word, eating up each new pile of self-grandiose drivel you pull together from thin air to impress him. He still gets breathless when he watches you spin-bowl at matches, when you manage to pick a lock in under a minute.
Yes, you are both men this time, but there is a boyish wonder to the way he regards you even now, the hazel brown of his eyes warmer when he gazes up at you, darker and more lit up all at once somehow, like the blackest sky and all its stars. He adores you: recalls the sharp, rakish youth you once were and has somehow reconciled that with the liar and cracksman you’ve become. Hauling your bats has become holding a light for you while you drill into safes, but he does not treat one like an honorable pastime and the other like crime. He treats them both as a privilege to witness.
So, you take note of such things but do not act, unless it is to drown the useless, incessant surge of guilt you refuse to feel.
You suspect Bunny has no idea how perfectly lovely he is. His ignorance awards you with ample time to admire said loveliness without him noticing in the least, so you take advantage of this time often, sitting atop the threadbare red cushions of couch with your socked feet kicked up on the coffee table and a Sullivan hanging from your lips, puffing away and watching Bunny through the haze of smoke.
The impossibility of his Cupid's bow lips, pursed in concentration while he reads, his freckles only hardly noticeable at this distance and through the flush of his cheek which is mashed in self consciously against his fist. He does not know you're looking at him, so you can look all you want. You look and you look, as famished men feast, as parched men drink.
If he catches you, he assumes you’re staring at him in jest, fixated on some spec of sauce on his collar, dirt on his cheek. He picks at his teeth and rubs the bridge of his nose and eventually rushes to the mirror to peer at hie reflection, always convinced you are looking at something, and not just the brilliant, magnetic whole of him. He never suspects otherwise because he never considers there are other types of attractive, beyond the way you're attractive. And then he only finds you attractive because he admires you, has always wished to be the sort of man you are, fierce and fast and smart and irreverent, a master at cricket, a prince of thieves.
If only he knew you were but a dog searching for scraps, one grown lean and wild seeking something impossible to sate his hunger. It’s the sort of thing that might mar your appeal to a man like Bunny, though nothing yet, not the thievery nor the liquor nor your less than respectful regard for the London high society have managed to do that, yet.
He prioritizes height and athleticism and cleverness and fine, crisp features above all else, and so far, that has served you well in convincing him you are still worth following around dutifully. As of now, you are still attractive to him, and he is still too mired in that to notice the ways in which he is attractive to you.
Bunny does not see the appeal in sunshine and spun gold and ruddy cheeks and daft, unfaltering loyalty.
You, however, do.
He’s always writing, the curl of his right hand perpetually stained in ink. You ask him what he writes but he refuses to tell you, he only blushes terrifically and squirms, turning away from you so that you cannot crane your neck and spy at his parchment.
Few things please you more than making Bunny blush, the sudden heat of it thrilling you like robbery. He does it so quickly, so deeply, the red spill of it like that from a severed artery, coloring him crimson at the tops of his ears, spring pink down beneath his collar where you often imagine hooking a single finger to pull aside the fabric to count freckles. So, even if he’ll never tell you, you will continue to ask.
“Will you ever indulge me?” you prod, crumbling the newspaper dramatically and reaching for a Sullivan.
“It is just writing, it does not concern you,” he mumbles, rubbing nervously at his flushed cheek.
“Oh, so you do not write about our adventures? Or perhaps our misadventures?”
He says nothing, only frowns, scratches something out violently, and stabs the scribble with his pen. You exhale a long billow of smoke and sigh, prepared to drop the subject since you’ve already won the prize of his blush, but he surprises you, as he sometimes does. “Your adventures,” he says, almost too quietly to be heard from across the room.
You are lucky your mind and ears are sharp enough to pick up on it. “Just mine?! but you’re present for nearly all of them. They are as much your misadventures as they are mine.”
He sighs, looks at you in this pleading, pained way, like you are a different creature then he and simply cannot understand the human condition of suffering. It irritates you, that he thinks you do not suffer. “I am there, perhaps. As an observer. A writer. A writer need not write himself into a story when there is a perfectly acceptable lead character, lest he’d like to be read as a pitiful sidekick.”
“Silly rabbit! You are not pitiful,” you snap at him, puffing smoke between you so that his wide brown eyes water. “I’d be dead or imprisoned ten times over if it weren’t for your company. If you are not in your own stories, then they don’t make sense. They’re fiction.”
“Of course they’re fiction,” he says in a clipped tone, gaze shifting miserably back to the page on his lap. He’s so red it hurts your stomach to look at him, makes you want to protect him from the already set sun. “I’m what would make them boring. AJ, what would I even say?! I sat while the sun beat down upon me and observed the great Raffles wield his cricket mallet with the malice of gun, just as I sat in the moonlight the night prior and watched him wield his gun with the ease of a cricket mallet? I am merely there to witness. What is there so say about myself when there are so very many, much more interesting things to say about you?”
You sputter, heart clenching as he finishes just as it did over the words great, malice, and ease. He thinks everything is so easy for you, but it is only because he’s blind to the ways in which they're not, vision clouded by his years spent fagging for you in school. And because Bunny has never been envied, or idolized, he doesn’t know how it hurts, when you would rather be desired. Loved.
Fixing your lips around your Sullivan you puff incredulously, wait for the tightness in your jaw to fade to resignation before you try and speak. You listen to the sound of his pen scratching frantically at parchment and eventually murmur, “well. Do I ever get to read this poetry you spout in my honor?”
“Of course not, imagine how that would go to your head,” he says, sounding scandalized and flushing again, grip white knuckled on his pen. “And it’s not poetry.”
It is, or at least some of it is. You have seen him scowling as he quietly counts out the meter, have noticed the line breaks in his otherwise unreadable scrawl as you desperately try to peer over his shoulder before he yelps and covers it with a forearm.
“But,” you say, trying and failing to blow a smoke ring. You wave your hand through the mess you made, dissipating it in frustration. “I want to read it.”
“No,” he scoffs, chewing his lip as you study him, wonder how much darker the red on his cheeks can possibly go before something vital ruptures. “You don’t.”
“My dear rabbit, don’t presume you know what I want and do not want,” you say coldly, tapping ash onto your robe before brushing it to the carpet, agitated.
“Fine,” he scoffs, turning to you, gaze wide and helpless in this way that make your heart speed, as if it is scrambling for purchase against a crumbling hillside. He surprises you, as he sometimes does. “Perhaps you want to read it, but I suspect if you did, you would not like what you read,” he spits out, and there is something wild and reckless to the way he says it, like he’s daring you to come closer, dig deeper, wrestle the parchment from his hands and read the way he describes you back at him, like an warrant for arrest.
It intrigues you, but you’re also worried what might happen to Bunny, if he were not ready to meet you in the filthy gutter you reside. He will steal for you, he’ll fag for you even though you are both men. But would he get down on his knees for you? Or, even more troubling, would he allow you to sink to yours, for him? Perhaps Bunny would cave to your desires if he regarded them as just another form of servitude, of devotion. If he did not have to acknowledge that you are not untouchable atop Olympus. Of course, that’s not what you want from him. You do not crave poetry or praise or to be the hero in his stories where he fancies you a grand detective and not an amateur jewel thief. You want to lay him out and kiss up the inside of his thigh, to see if the hair there is as fine and gold as the hair on his head. You want to walk arm in arm with him. You want to be his pitiful sidekick.
“I am quite remarkable at stealing things, as you recall,” you tell him, lighting up a new Sullivan because you made such quick, desperate work of the other. “I could steal and read your stories. It shouldn’t be half as much trouble as the Lady Agatha’s pearls we nicked last week.”
“Then I shall keep them tucked inside my shirts, beside my heart always,” he announces, making a show of shrugging open his smoking jacket to rip the buttons of his undershirt open enough to stuff the parchment inside, over his pulse. He is flushed down between his pectorals, you can see the terrible pink stain there like a burn, and you stare for a moment before sighing.
“Have it your way,” you say then, standing to trade your coffee for cognac.
Sometimes you ask absurd things of him, just to see what it might take to frighten your rabbit away. You are astounded, however, at the lengths he will go for you without even the slightest protest. So you push harder, further. You ask him to dress up in women's clothes more than once for various burglaries, usually to distract men away from their wives while you swoop in and charm the ladies’ jewels from their necks, their fingers, their bedside drawers.
He grudgingly obeys, but obeys all the same. You have seen him in rouge, in wigs, in corsets, in heels. You have stood behind him and laced up his bodices, fingers deft against the shameful pallor of his skin. You’ve held his chin firm within your grasp, told him to close his eyes, and gazed upon the twitching pout of his mouth before painstakingly painting it for him. You’ve endured so many self-imposed purgatories just to see him this way: how he might look if he were a woman you could seduce, marry, call your own. More than your fag, more than your sidekick who fancies himself pitiful for the same reasons you fancy him beautiful.
You utilize his pretty face and slight build a few times before it stops being enough, just witnessing Bunny the Bride. You want him to be your bride. So, you fashion your own disguise around the concept.
“Again?” he says, frowning at the gown you've just laid across his lap with much flourish. “This is only going to work so many times, I think Scotland Yard might begin to notice the same ugly woman darting in and out between party-goers at the scene of every crime.”
“Not if you flee the scene before Scotland Yard even arrives. This time, we’re attending as a pair of besotted newlyweds! Nothing less suspicious than newlyweds. We shall be too busy acting madly in love for them to ever notice we’ve made off with the good silver,” you explain, holding up the matching rings you pawned for him to examine.
For some reason, this is when it all becomes too much, when you’ve pushed him too far. He stands up, frock pooling at his feet in a mountain of linen and taffeta as he backs up, face aflame. “No,” he says, shaking his head. “I will do many thinks for you, AJ, but this—this is not one of them.”
Your heart sinks suddenly, like a stone cast into the sea. “What—whatever for?! How is this worse than the time I had you dress up in a hooker’s frock to flirt with that drunk bookie? It’s me, I’m your friend, your companion, your—”
“And that is precisely why I won't do it,” he sputters, turning on his heel and slamming off to his room, hand splayed over his heart where he may or may not keep his poetry tucked for safekeeping, away from your thieving hands. “Find another disguise. Another Alibi. Or embark upon this misadventure without me,” is the last thing you hear before he’s gone, leaving you there with rings in your sweating palms, an unlit Sullivan in your mouth.
The plan you devise in the wake of him rejecting your initial idea is more sloppy and less airtight than your plans usually are. This is because he has surprised you, perhaps even hurt you, and you know it’s your own fault for needing more of him than he could ever fathom, so you are thinking about death, as one does.
Thinking about death before a burglary can be helpful, if you’re concerned with preventing it, or it can be dangerous, if preventing it is the last of your concerns, as it is now, when all your concerns are occupied by the notion that you have finally, finally asked too much of Bunny Manders.
You steal recklessly tonight. Self-indulgent and brazen and half-drunk on sweet, expensive banquet wine, and it’s not long before you and Bunny end up on the roof of the Kensington mansion of one of your cricket chum’s chums, clutching a gold candle-stick, pockets overflowing with heirlooms, watching Scotland Yard tear the place up while the lady of the house weeps in her husband’s arms. “We could jump,” you observe, peering over the edge of the gutter you clung to in order to climb to the slanted plane you’re currently perched side by side. “And likely break both our legs. Or, we could leave all we’ve taken up here, hidden away under some rubbish if we can find any, and search for a way to creep back into the house and pretend we never left. Though our absence would be far easier a story to sell, had you agreed to pose as my new wife.”
Bunny sniffles miserably, hair so fair it’s nearly silver under the moonlight, lifting with the crisp night breeze. You wish to sift your fingers through it, you wish to feel its softness under your lips just once, before they throw you in a jail cell. But you pushed him too hard, you fell for your own folly, so here you are. On a rooftop waiting to be caught red-handed. “I’m sorry,” he says, shaking his head. “I—I was foolish.”
“No,” you murmur, shifting closer to him, so your shoulders bump together gently. “I was the fool. There are things I ask which are my fate to shoulder alone. It is cruel to demand you share my burdens.”
“I always share your burdens,” he says, tilting into you enough your throat tightens. “It is my job as your fag. Carrying your things for cricket, for—for this. I failed this time, and look at us now.”
“It’s alright,” you assure him, hand brushing brief and burning across his knee. “I shall climb back in on my own, find an open window. If I’m spotted, well. I’ll admit to it all. Leave you with enough to pawn for money, pay for a few months rent while—”
“No!” he gasps, eyes wide as they round on you, breath visible in the frigid air. “You will not go back in alone and take the blame without me! I will not have it.”
“Bunny,” you sigh, ripping your gaze back to the stars, to the picketed roofs and dancing lights and the Thames running through it all like an infected vein. “Without the full load of the silver weighing you down you could climb the rose-lattice and escape through the garden, if I created a diversion inside, drew them away from that side of the house. But together it will be impossible. They are looking for us.”
“I am coming with you,” he repeats, shaking his head breathlessly, desperately, eyes glistening. “You will not convince me otherwise.”
“Why on earth should you come?! I will surely face a hail-storm of bullets at worst, be cuffed at best. You have a chance of escaping without me,” you argue, face newly hot, hands sweating where they clutch at the tails of your coat. You are sick of him saying things with conviction when he supposedly has no convictions, when he will not pose as your wife and will not let you die for him and otherwise will not allow you to wallow in thoughts of your death without busting though your doors and demanding you think of his, instead. “Tell me what purpose this will serve,” you demand.
And he opens his mouth, which is parted wordlessly for an aching moment before his teeth grit and his cheeks flush in the dark and he cries, “It serves no purpose it simply is, because without you there is nothing for me!” His voice is not loud enough to draw attention from inside but it’s raw, raw and bleeding and it strikes you dead in the chest, sends you reeling back, your throat too parched to form words. “AJ Raffles. Where you go, I must follow, for dying by your side is an infinitely preferable fate to letting you leave mine. This is why I cannot allow you to read my poetry. This is why I cannot dress as your wife. Because I cannot pretend to act madly in love with you when I already am,” he forces out, each word stinging more than the last, turning your stomach, forcing it to plunge repeatedly until you are sure your insides must be so thoroughly knotted there is no hope for entanglement.
You stare, and he stares back, the moon reflecting in his eyes, which are leaking down those fierce red cheeks now, his chest heaving with each breath.
“You really—you really are such a strange, silly little rabbit,” you manage to choke out before reaching for him, fisting in his lapel, and kissing him.
He trembles, and he fights you, but you hold him fast and lick his champagne sweet lips apart and taste him, his shame, his self doubt, all the things you will wash away once you get your hands on his skin and show him that he is no more pitiful than you.
Eventually he relents, crumbling to a surge of whimpers and heat as he pushes up against you, lets you flatten him out on the roof, untuck his shirt while jewel earrings spill from his pockets. “My darling boy,” you murmur into his pulse, which quickens under your lips, rabbit-frantic, a sweet thing you’ll chase until your starving dog’s heart gives out in a rain of blood. “You must know that it is I who is madly in love with you.”
He sifts a hand through your hair, shakes his head like he cannot believe the great AJ Raffles with his unrivaled spin-bowl and cracksman’s clever hand would want to touch a frightened, sun-gold thing like him but you will show him. You are quite remarkable at stealing things, after all.
Together you slip back in through the window with his arm through yours, everything you took from the house abandoned upon the roof and glittering beneath the moon. As soon as you crawl inside you push him into a guest bed, kiss down his throat, unbutton his shirts and lick the sweat which has collected beneath the delicate jut of his collarbones. He lets you, and he lets you, and even when you get on your knees for him at the side of the bed, he lets you, with his eyes blown wide and disbelieving and pupil black, but permissive, all the same. You love the way his pale wrist looks against the black of your hair, and you love the rest of him, too. The sounds he makes, the repeated confessions of love like he’s worried you didn’t hear him the first time. You return each one, you swallow him whole.
When the two of you stumble back to the party with flushed cheeks, a missing pocket square, and feigned confusion as to why Scotland Yard was currently snooping about the garden, your Cricket chum’s chum is too horrified by your alibi to even interrogate it. Apparently, Bunny need not pose as your bride to serve the same purpose in your grand plan.
You leave before Scotland Yard can arrest you for anything else.
Together you walk through Kensington arm in arm, and it is late enough you are sure no one is looking, so in moments of shadow you lean down to press kisses to Bunny’s shoulder, to inhale from his hair, to force that thrilled, terrified gasp from you each time he bats you away. “Isn’t one narrow scrape enough for you tonight?” he says fondly.
“Nothing is ever enough, not for me,” you exclaim, throwing up your arms, giddy with the smell of fog and city and his sweat still on your upper lip where you keep flicking your tongue. You cannot care that you’re empty handed tonight, because you're not. Not really.
“What about me?” he says very, very quietly, barely above a whisper.
You grin at him, heart leaping out of your chest, holding his gaze and thinking You can open for me the portals of death's house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is. “Only if you allow me to read your poetry,” you say instead, and when he reaches out to playfully strike you, you catch him and thread your fingers instead, opening portals, stronger than death.