‘No you didn’t!’ I cried loud, with little thought to the lateness of the hour.
I have no doubt that in that moment I looked, and certainly behaved, every inch the wide-eyed schoolboy, rather than the hardened criminal I had become since being reunited with the remarkable A.J. Raffles. In spite of the villainous tale laid before me, and in spite of my own not negligible contributions to the criminal profession, my cry was unreservedly one of pure surprise and delight.
Raffles shook his head with a smile as he coolly topped up his coffee. He snuck another amused glance at me before looking away, clearly revelling in the rapt attention his story had elicited from me, for all he tried to conceal it.
‘I certainly did,’ he replied. ‘Right off her neck. Right there in the theatre.’ As he spoke he sprawled himself, languid and unselfconscious, down on the sofa beside me.
‘How on earth did you manage it?’ I asked, making absolutely no effort at all to conceal my enthusiasm. ‘How on earth did she, or indeed the people around her, not notice? And where did you manage to conceal the thing? And how on earth did you have the-- the sheer pluck to do it?!’
As I spoke, Raffles, too lazy to rise and retrieve his own from the mantelpiece, stretched towards me and pilfered my silver cigarette case from my inner pocket, - that very same silver cigarette case he had given me on that fateful night in March, and which I always kept close to my heart. Now realising he had no convenient place to set down his drink and no free hand to light his Sullivan, Raffles was temporarily distracted from his waggish storytelling, occupied instead with shooting dark glances between the hand now holding my cigarettes and the other still holding his coffee, as though he could light his Sullivan through sheer will alone. I wasn’t entirely sure that he couldn’t, but stepped in nonetheless.
‘Let me,‘ I said as I took the cigarette case back from him, removed a Sullivan, and lit it, earning myself in reward the very particular brand of Raffles’ smile which never failed to make me blush from my toes up.
Our partnership, friendship, relationship, call it what you will, was at this stage of our lives in something of an ambiguous place. We had become remarkably close remarkably quickly; the remembered acquaintance of our youth breaking the ice that usually must be thawed before such close friendships develop. Added to this our unusually compatible natures and the intimacy necessitated by our professional partnership, we had become thicker than thieves and closer than brothers in the six short months of our renewed association.
Closer than that, even.
For the truth of the matter was that I had fallen in love with A.J. Raffles, quite irrevocably. And despite my best efforts to the contrary.
' Pluck, Bunny? Do mine ears deceive me, or did I just hear you ask where I found the pluck...? You wound me!'
'It is one thing, Raffles,’ I replied, ‘to break into somebody's house and steal their jewels whilst they sleep, but quite another to do it in public and in broad daylight!'
'A darkened theatre isn't quite broad daylight, Bunny.'
'Yes, but still!'
He laughed. 'I admit it was on the brazen side even for me, but you must remember, Bunny, that this was no spur of the moment jaunt. It was as carefully planned and premeditated as any other job, and really the risk was no greater. It did give me quite the thrill, though, and I haven’t tried anything like it since.’
‘I should hope not! Raffles, what if you’d gotten caught, or--’
‘Oh, if, Bunny, what if, what if! One can “what if” anything. What if I were mowed down by a runaway hansom cab in the street whilst helping an old dear with her bags? What if in burgling a certain house on a certain night I managed to catch old Jack the Ripper himself? What if I turned out to be the long lost heir to the throne of Monaco? What if, my dear rabbit, what if! ’
I chuckled. ‘Prince Raffles? Well, I can certainly see you in a crown, but I don’t know whether heads of state get an awful lot of time for cricket.’
‘Plenty for crime though, if my suspicions are right,’ he laughed. ‘But my point is, Bunny,’ he added, slipping seamlessly into the tone of voice he used whenever he waxed philosophical, ‘my point is that we can’t allow those endless ifs to hold us back. They leap off in every way imaginable. For every “what if” in one direction, there is an equally possible “what if” running off in the opposite. We mustn’t overly concern ourselves with the “what ifs” of life. We’d end up less free than if we were locked up in the deepest cells of Newgate itself, should we spend all our time worrying about what ifs. Things that might happen, might not happen, could, would, maybe happen, if, if, if... They’re dangerous words, Bunny. Plan? Yes. Consider consequences? Absolutely. But dwelling on the what if? The what if , Bunny, my boy, all that does is hold you back.’
Raffles ended his impromptu speech by taking a slow drag of his cigarette, and casting a lingering and disconcertingly intense gaze over me. I could feel him tracing my features, watching me, studying me. Or perhaps he was looking straight through me, seeing something else entirely in his mind’s eye, as insensible to my presence as I was always acutely aware of his.
When I write, when I record these conversations with Raffles, I invariably leave out the myriad pauses which inevitably fill whatever room we are in; rooms where conversation is sometimes mere garnish on the side of Raffleite contemplation. I do not usually preserve on paper those dips into silence, those restless and distractible little movements, and those pensive, penetrative gazes which punctuate and characterise every private interaction between Raffles and me. Such moments are marked indelibly upon my heart. Attempting to relay them to another, not there to see, not there to hear, not there to feel the weight of the heady atmosphere, filled as it was by Raffles’ unspoken thoughts, would be quite impossible; indeed, even the attempt feels almost sacrilegious.
But silence there was, and as Raffles’ thoughts drifted to wherever they were wont to drift, mine drifted, as always, to him.
For a while I had been able to convince myself that my feelings for Raffles were little more than that boyhood infatuation with the Captain of the Eleven who always treated me so kindly, carrying over into my adult life. An overspill of childish adoration merging indefinably with grateful admiration for the man who had been to me a sort of saviour. I struggled to persevere in convincing myself that this was simply another passing attraction; a symptom of the kink in my nature that had been apparent to me since my schooldays. Raffles was attractive, and I was simply inclined to appreciate such attractiveness. That was all. Nothing more. Nothing that needed to be acted upon. Nothing that wouldn’t pass, as these things always passed. As I always convinced myself they would pass.
But as the days and weeks wore on I found this simple explanation to be woefully insufficient. This was not another passing attraction. Nor was it the naive limerence of young love. I no longer idolised Raffles; or at least I no longer merely idolised him. I saw and experienced his flaws first hand, and, so I felt, was beginning to understand them. It was not an idealised apparition which I longed for, but the man himself. His quirks and his laugh; his jokes and his silences; his whispered judgements in my ear and mine alone at the club as we circulated through a society of which we were both a part and from which we were both apart; and I longed above all for his smile.
When we were together, I felt at ease. When we were not, I felt restless. When he was on the arm of some beautiful woman, or closely conversing with some handsome man, I felt jealousy such as I had never thought myself capable. And when I monopolised his attention in rooms filled with people far cleverer, wittier, and in all ways more attractive than myself, I felt on top of the world. I had no claim over him, and yet I found myself becoming as territorial as a mother bear.
I denied those feelings as virulently as I defended them, the two sides of myself, as always, waging war within me. I did not want to love him, and yet I was incapable of giving it up. I had fallen completely, irrevocably, and undeniably for every last part of him. There was nothing I hated about Raffles, only things I loved more and things I loved less. I could no more not love him than I could breathe underwater. It was as inevitable as the tides; as Spring following Winter; as fire meeting thatch.
Yet in crime as well as in love, and in the space where they overlapped, my immature pride and my misguided moral compunctions - influenced more at that time by the prevailing views of society than by my own beliefs - kept me from being honest, with Raffles or with myself. Kept me from admitting to myself what I really wanted, let alone actually going after it. The fear of that threatening what if staying my hand.
What if we were found out? What if we were arrested? What if I, in my selfish desire led Raffles, the cautious, the suspicious, the audaciously careful criminal, to the docks for love? What if I led myself there, fool that I am? How much worse than an arrest for mere burglary... What if the discovery of one led to the discovery of the other? What if everything in my life unravelled, all for this? And worse yet, what if Raffles didn’t, couldn’t, would never truly love me back? Or what if everything I wanted came within my grasp, only for him to realise at the last moment how far beneath him I was, how useless, how worthless, how much better he could do than some cowardly, stupid, indecisive rabbit like me? What if, what if...
And thus I was able, most of the time, to keep from acting on how I felt. My fears kept me in check. My own anxiety kept me from lapses in resolve.
Most of the time.
Because for every “what if” in one direction, there came an equally possible “what if” running off in the opposite.
Because what if, what if....
Raffles drained the last of his coffee, still wrapped up in whatever thoughts he clothed himself in such moments. Instinctively I reached across and took the empty cup from him, leaning back to set it on the side table behind me. Raffles blinked back from wherever he had been, and thanked me with a smile. A Raffles smile, all brightness and warmth and ever-present mischief. Slightly lopsided. Completely perfect.
It set my soul ablaze. Such a small gesture from me, so thoughtless and insignificant, to be rewarded with the sun itself in all of its dazzling glory! Rewarded with that smile which I loved above all else in all of the world. That smile which would undo me time and again, right up to the last.
I watched as though at a distance as the small rocks which patter before an avalanche began to tumble within my chest.
‘You were asking,’ Raffles continued, as though no break in our conversation had ever occurred, ‘how I managed to take the necklace without any of ‘em noticing?’
He settled back onto the couch, kicking his bare feet into my lap as he lay back against the cushions at the far end, rolling his shoulders and digging his heels into my legs as he stretched, talking up towards the ceiling.
‘... The trick was in waiting until they returned from the interval break...’
The collar of his shirt was loose about his neck, tie long since undone, his smoking jacket unbuttoned.
‘...when milady was removing the fur cape she had been loathe to leave behind her, ironically in case of thieves....’
One arm was cast over the back of the sofa, the other hanging down, louche, fingers grazing the rug, always restless, both arms together encircling a space I couldn’t stop thinking about filling.
‘...I was able to time my own movements with hers. She felt nothing more than her own cape sliding from her shoulders, and there! As quick as you can say Jack Robinson, the necklace was no more in her possession. Just as easy as all that!
‘Impressive,’ I managed to say as he grinned over at me, glowing with coquettish conceit at his own cleverness, every inch the rogue from the tips of his curls to the bottoms of his feet. His feet in my lap.
I bit my lip.
‘I wish you had been there to see me work that trick, Bunny. Being clever is so much more enjoyable when someone else is there to appreciate it. And we should have had such a laugh over it afterwards, the pair of us.’
He took one last draw of his cigarette before stubbing it out with a contented murmur that made me shiver. He and I both watched as the last curls of blue smoke twisted and spiralled from his mouth upwards, disturbed in delay by his sigh.
Folding his arms behind his head, his ink-black curls, rebelling from the taming of the comb, tumbled over his exposed forearms. He may have still been talking, but I was far beyond being able to listen. The very essence of Raffles filled my senses. His clear grey eyes, dark and bright and glittering in the light from the fire; the quirked line of his mouth so sardonic and yet so sincere, charged and changeable, full of a thousand smiles, scowls, and snarls; his voice an ever-charming mix of the Camford gentleman and the Cockney scoundrel; the comfortable weight of his ankles as they pressed against my thighs--
Raffles prodded me with his foot.
‘Are you listening, rabbit?
‘What? Oh, yes. Of course I am. You were saying you wished I’d been around to watch you. Being clever. Back then.’
‘Not just that, Bunny!’ he exclaimed. ‘To be at my side! Lend me moral support, and all that. One of my very few regrets in life is that we weren’t reunited sooner, or better still that we had never parted. What fun we could have had together, eh, my dear rabbit, in our foolish youth? Can’t you just imagine it?’
That smile once again, dazzling and charming, and shining directly upon me. Shining for me.
I think I nodded in reply.
‘We do have great fun now, of course,’ he added, his smile beginning to fade wistful, ‘but I really was so alone back then... Two eyes may be as good as four, Bunny my boy, but a true friend, now that is invaluable. I have been converted and you are to blame. I’m now fully paid up to the belief that the criminal life is much improved by the addition of a partner. And not just the criminal life either, but life on the whole. Don’t you agree? And you’re a good pal to have.’
‘Oh,’ I said, eloquently. ‘Am I?’
‘The best, my dear rabbit, the absolute best. Which reminds me, did I tell you about the time I-- Oh, hello there, Bunny.’
If Raffles was in any way perturbed by the sudden arrival of my nose an inch from his own, he didn’t show it. The empty space which his arms had encircled now found itself filled by one foolish and impetuous rabbit.
‘I suppose you couldn’t hear me from all the way at the other end of the sofa, eh?’ Raffles joked. I could feel his heartbeat through his chest. Through my chest. ‘You’d think a rabbit would have better hearing, what with those--’
Snatching the words from his lips, I kissed him.
And, after a few brief moments of delicious reciprocation, he gently pushed me away.
‘Bunny, Bunny, my dear little-- You’re drunk, old chap.’
‘I’m not,’ I protested, pushing back and nuzzling into the side of his head. ‘I’ve had three glasses of whisky and soda all evening, nothing more. Two and a half. And two coffees, since. I am not drunk , A.J., whatever I am.’
‘But nonetheless perhaps not in your clearest of senses, hm? As flattering as this is, Bunny, and as--’ he broke off as I kissed him again; as he kissed me back again; as he pulled away again, ‘-- and as deucedly good at that as you are, I’m not sure that this is the most sensible decision. Possibly a sanguine one, and admittedly one not lacking in a certain appeal, but still, I think that you should probably--’
Raffles words of perfunctory protest caught in his throat as my hands caught his wrists. I gazed down into clear grey eyes, pupils blown wide, his breath held as I brushed a soft kiss to his forehead, lips parted and barely grazing the skin. When I felt him shiver beneath me, when I felt him lean into my touch, I trailed my way down to kiss his nose, his cheek, his ear, tracing the sharp line of his jaw down to his neck. I am ashamed to admit that this was a calculated move on my part, intended to show him that I was in control, both of myself and of him, as methodical and measured and masterful as ever he was himself; an intentional, deliberate shower of affection, giving rather than taking, offering rather than asking. It was a move which I knew from previous experience could undo him as easily as his smiles undid me.
Tonight was evidently no exception, for in another moment his wrists were free of my grasp, one hand weaving upwards, grasping handfuls of my hair, the other winding its way around my waist, sliding beneath the hem of my shirt, his fingers cold against my skin as they dug into my back, as he pulled me closer to him. Lips met teeth and tongue as this time A.J. sought me out, kissing me with an urgency which quite literally took my breath away; holding me with desperation, as though near as I was, I could at any moment disappear; as though he needed me as much as I needed him. Or so I could imagine with his arms wrapped around me; so I could believe as I let fancy loose from its silken leash and allowed my fantasy to bleed through into blurred reality; a reality where A.J. Raffles loved me as much as I loved him.
But then, as swiftly as it had begun, it ended. Raffles ended it. In a moment his hands were beneath my chest, now pushing me away instead of pulling me to him, holding me back instead of holding me close.
‘No, Bunny,’ Raffles said, his breathlessness the only chink in his tone of cool equanimity. ‘No. This is my fault, I shouldn't have-- You’ll regret this come tomorrow. Oh, now don’t look at me like that, Bunny. You will. You know you will. Come on. Up you get.’
This sudden change in direction made me flinch, and in my hesitation Raffles slid himself out from under me. Untangling our limbs, he maneuvered us both into a less horizontal position next to, rather than on top of, each other on the sofa.
I blinked at him. ‘I won’t,’ I replied, almost petulantly. ‘I won’t regret it! Why would I?’
‘I don’t know, Bunny. You did last time.’ His tone was one of gentle chastisement rather than anger or judgement, but his words wounded me more deeply than if he had struck me a blow. ‘...And the time before that.’
His words wounded me because I knew them to be true.
This had happened twice before in the six months of our renewed acquaintance. And both times, once the light of morning had stolen in, I had stolen out. Once whilst Raffles was shaving, and once, to my shame, before he had even woken up. Both times I had avoided him for a week afterwards - although I hasten to add that he did not go out of his way to find me either. Neither of us brought it up again. This was in fact the first time either of us had mentioned it at all, and Raffles’ doing so sent up a flurry of feeling through me; a dog sent into a thicket after pheasants. The sudden flight of my emotions disoriented me.
‘What? I-- No, Raffles, I didn’t-- It’s not like that, I--’
‘It’s all right, Bunny,’ he cut in. ‘I understand. Heat of the moment meets with the cold light of day, it puts a sudden dampener on things, and what seems like good enough fun beneath the stars soon seems rather less so in the sunshine; it happens to the best of us. But I’d rather you let me be a mistake that you learned from rather than one you repeat, if it’s all the same to you. Go home, old boy, and sleep it off. Tomorrow’s Bunny will thank you for it.’
‘All the same?’ I echoed, shaking my head and trying to get my words straight, trying to get my thoughts straight. ‘It's not all the same to me! And you're not-- This isn't--'
The smallest tilt of his head, the smallest pause. ‘Not what?’
‘Ah. I see.’
'No, you don't!' I cried, exasperated with him, frustrated with myself. 'How could you, when I barely see it, myself?'
'See whatever this is, whatever I am, whatever you are, what you are to me! But I can tell you easily enough what it isn’t, and that is a mistake. You aren’t a mistake; good God, man, you never could be! Surely you must know that? You must know how much I-- Well, it may very well be a mistake in terms of good sense, it may be a mistake in terms of misreading the situation as I have so clearly done, but it isn't-- it's not-- I have not mistaken my feelings, nor my intentions. It's not some slip up or accident, some drunken foolishness that has no sober counterpart. God, how little you must think of me, to think I would-- And you can talk! You sit there, so cool and superior, stopping me, telling me I’ll regret it -- but what about you, Raffles? What about your mistakes, your silences, the days you spend avoiding me? You're at fault every bit as much as I am -- more so, because at least I have the excuse of being in-- And even when you clearly care nothing for me, still you let me-- And yet I’m the villain? That’s a joke!’
I was babbling and I knew it, but found myself incapable of stopping. The dam had burst.
‘I’m not sure I said all that, Bunny.'
‘I do try, I swear to you, I try,’ I carried on, steamrolling over him and over my better judgement, half-afraid that now I’d pulled up the courage to finally speak, if I stopped I should never be able to start again. Leaving things half-said would be worse than had I left them unsaid altogether. ‘I do everything in my power to stop myself, Raffles, to stop myself from thinking and feeling and doing this-- But I can’t shake it. I can’t shake you. It’s not so easy for the rest of us as it is for you, Raffles. We can’t all be as cool and as distant as you are. I can’t keep you at a distance, even when you keep me at one. Even when all of those what ifs keep pounding inside my head; everything that could go wrong, all the awful, horrible consequences play out in my mind, but still I do it anyway, I come to you anyway because I can’t not! How can I not? If I regret anything after, it’s--'
I cut myself off and buried my face in my hands with a groan, suddenly unable to look at him.
'I don't mean to keep you at a distance, Bunny,' was all Raffles said.
‘You do, and I understand why even if I don't like it, even if I wish you would-- But what am I meant to do?' I asked, by now speaking as much to myself as I was to him. 'You're just so-- Oh, you know how wonderful you are, Raffles; I’m certain that you do it on purpose. You’re wonderful, and terrible, and charming, and you could have any woman, or any man, or anything at all that you wanted in this world! And sometimes I hate you for that, because I want you to want me. That’s the crux of it, right there. I want you to want me just how I want you. And I wish I didn’t want you because I know it’s all so hopeless, but I do want you, and it’s driving me half mad.'
‘No, not “Bunny”! Don’t “Bunny” me! I mean what I say, A.J. You aren’t talking to Tomorrow’s Bunny, you are talking to Tonight’s Bunny, and he doesn't care what Last Time’s Bunny did, or what Tomorrow’s Bunny regrets or doesn’t regret because he can go hang for all I care, and you can tell him so from me! Tonight’s Bunny is telling you the truth, and the truth is-- The -- truth -- is...' I swallowed. How could I tell him the whole truth? But how could I not? I had come so far, confessed so much, could I bear to tell the rest? Could I bear not to? 'The truth is that I-- I ... care about you, Raffles. I always have, and I value your friendship now above anything else in my life; I value you-- It's not regret that makes me leave, or that holds my tongue, but the-- the sheer enormity of it all, the consequences, the what ifs... I just can’t face you after, knowing that it meant nothing to you, when it means so much to me, it means everything to me, you mean everything--! God, Raffles, if I ever regret anything, it’s that I have been stupid enough to ruin it all by falling in love with you!'
Raffles had sat quietly watching me throughout this tirade, his mouth set into a hard line and his brow furrowed. I sat dizzy and breathless in the charged silence, reeling from the emotion of my ill-advised confession. But now, at least, it was said. It was out in the open. The die had been cast, and whether or not I had thrown myself into the fire, I was at least free of the pan. I was at least free from those chains of my own creation which had been crushing me, and I could breathe. It was a strange type of relief, but a relief nonetheless.
Raffles didn't speak, and so I did, if only to drown out the snarling fears beginning to crowd at the edges of my thoughts.
'There you have it,' I said defiantly, hands trembling. 'Now you know the truth and-- and if you want to throw me out and never speak to me again, then so be it. And if you hate me, then-- Well, I must say it's hardly fair for you to hate me, Raffles, hardly fair at all! Not when you sweep in and rescue me as you did, when you have been so kind, and-- How could I help it, when you're you? But if you want to kick me out, I ask that you do it sooner rather than later, before I make an even bigger fool of myself than I already am. There's no need to drag it out, I know full well what you must think of me and-- Oh, for the love of God, A.J., say something!'
Thoughout all of my outpourings, Raffles had remained as stoic and unreadable as a block of granite. But as I reached the very end of my limit, the corners of his mouth began to twitch. His darkened brow lifted, crumpling upwards, his overcast expression clearing like sunshine after rain.
And then, to my deepest chagrin, Raffles burst out laughing.
‘Oh, Bunny,’ he choked as soon as he was able, ‘Bunny, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh! Oh, look at you! Listen to you! Oh you rabbit!'
He descended into a fit of laughter once again.
I don’t think there was anything he could have done to hurt me more. For a moment I was set dumbstruck and numb, before the prickling heat of anger and embarrassment seeped through me down to the bone, setting every nerve in my body on fire.
‘I expected better of you, Raffles,’ I half hissed and half shouted as I made to stand. ‘I’d expect sympathy if not understanding-- God, I’d expect anger before this! I can see now exactly what you think of me! I’m glad I’ve given you something to laugh about. Mock me all you like, see if I care! Goodbye!’
I was quite ready to storm out of the flat, and out of A.J. Raffles’ life for good. Black despair pulled at the edges of my soul, threatening to rip the very heart out of me, held at bay only by the white-hot, burning anger coursing through me like sparks on gunpowder. I had clearly been mistaken as to what kind of a man A.J. Raffles was. I had been thoroughly conned. Hoodwinked. Swindled. Deceived. I clung to that feeling like a drowning man to driftwood in a storm. If I could blame Raffles, then I could spare myself. If I could go on the attack, I could strike first. If I stayed on the defensive, then I couldn’t be hurt. If I could just--
A rough hand on my arm tugged me back down to reality, and back down onto the sofa.
‘You rabbit,’ Raffles said, taking my burning face in his cool hands, smiling so softly, so brightly, that I almost forgave him his laughter right there and then. ‘You ridiculous rabbit!'
And then he kissed me.
Where his first kiss had been all fire and passion, this one was all softness, though no less intense for its gentleness. Far from it; the weight of emotion, of meaning, of intention which flooded into me through the closed-mouth press of his lips against mine made me dizzy, left me staggered, and was like no other I had ever experienced. As A.J. kissed me, I needed to chase no elusive fantasy to believe that he cared for me, I did not need to rely on imagination to read affection into his touch. And this time, when his lips at last broke from mine, Raffles didn’t pull away, but pressed his forehead to mine in a gesture more vulnerable and more intimate than a mere kiss could ever be. I closed my eyes and leaned against him, breathing him in, the cigarettes-and-coffee on his breath still close enough to taste, still lingering on my lips.
When at last Raffles moved back, I found his eyes were dark as they stared into mine, searching for, perhaps finding, answers to questions I didn't realise he had wanted to ask. And they were glittering still, as full of light and of life as always, and creasing at the edges with smiles he seemed unable to suppress. His hand was still against my cheek, cool against my hot skin, and I leaned into him.
I felt half-sure that I must have been dreaming. I was afraid to speak, afraid to move in case I shattered that perfect moment and woke myself up. I wanted to capture that moment in amber and preserve it for an eternity, where harsh reality and cruel fate had no power; where nothing he, nor I, nor anyone else could say or do to change or alter it; where I could keep it flawless and faultless and frozen like the figures on Keats' Grecian urn, true and beautiful and unchanging forever. I wanted to lock it up and carry in the pocket over my heart, next to the silver cigarette case he had given me on that first fateful, faithful night; that night when I had nothing to lose, and Raffles had everything to lose; that night when he should have turned me away, but he didn’t. What a risk he took, in helping me! What a leap he took in telling me! What if I had turned him in? What if I had exposed him? What if I hadn't meant what I swore, that no matter what he asked of me, I was his man? How he had trusted me! What risks he had taken for me! Why? I barely dared hope, even then; even as he looked deeply into my eyes, seeing me as no one else had ever been able to see me; even as he seemed himself poised on the edge of that dangerous, glorious, thrilling precipice from which there could be no return; even as he seemed to be waiting for me to leap.
Oh, but what if, what if...
‘...I love you, A.J.'
I don't know what response I had been expecting -- for in truth I found I was only able to press on if I banished all anticipation of consequence from my mind -- but I did not expect perfect stillness and silence. But Raffles said nothing; his lips parted as though to speak, but were bitten closed again without murmur. His smile faded, his brow crumpled, his fingertips which had crept around towards the back of my head tightened in my hair. And as the light that shone in his eyes muted, like the sun as seen from beneath the ocean, part of me began to panic. Had I said the wrong thing? Had I ruined everything, as always? Had I somehow, God knows how, misread his intentions yet again?
But his hands were still upon me, in my hair, holding my hand, anchoring me. He hadn't retreated and he hadn't looked away. His gaze was still searching mine, asking me, telling me, drawing me out of myself, drawing me to him. And then I saw him; not as a black mirror for my own doubts and fears, but as a window to his own; and for all his confidence, all his bravado, I could suddenly see that he had just as much to fear as I did. I don’t know whether I truly understood him in that moment, but I believed that I did. Something shifted, and I realised that rather than saying the wrong thing, I had finally said the three words which made everything right.
‘I love you,’ I repeated. 'I love you.'
I needed Raffles to understand just how true those words were, how true they had always been. I wanted to bang his head against them, box his ears with them, brand them into his very soul: I love you, I love you, I love you, A.J. Raffles!
Because for just that fleeting moment, I thought I saw past the mask. Behind the charm of the gentleman, beneath the savoir faire of the criminal, underneath the wit and the confidence and the suspicion and the audacity, I saw vulnerability. I saw that touch of sadness, usually so deftly disguised, which threaded through the man like the strings of a puppet. I saw loneliness and longing and all the reasons he was always running. I glanced into that dark and fathomless pit which lay behind the light; that place where he kept his fears tightly chained and bound but not, but never, banished. And in that moment all I wanted from my life was to exorcise those demons he kept so well trained, as his smile so often had exorcised mine even as they ran rampant.
'Seems foolish,' he joked, weakly.
'Then I'm a fool,' I answered with resolute simplicity. 'But I'm the fool who is very much in love with you.'
'My foolish rabbit,' he murmured, the barest hint of a question even then still in his tone.
'I am your rabbit,' I affirmed. I vowed. I pledged. I swore. 'Your rabbit.'
Catching his breath, Raffles gave a hoarse little laugh, and there appeared that smile I had seen a hundred times over, but had never until that moment truly understood. A Raffles smile, all brightness and warmth and ever-present mischief, slightly lopsided, completely perfect. His eyes drifted across my face as he brushed aside a lock of hair which had fallen across my forehead. 'What on earth am I going to do with you, Bunny Manders?'
With my heart beating fast in my chest, my blood burning hot in my veins, and the cursed what ifs ground to dust beneath my heel, I weaved my arms around his neck and let him pull me gently into his lap.
'Right now, A.J.? Anything you like!'