Parker climbed the stairs to his bachelor flat on Great Ormond Street, feet dragging on every step. He was more than tired – he was exhausted, in body, spirit and mind.
He’d reached the end of a six-day stretch of seemingly interminable shifts, all at least 9 hours long, and occasionally running up to the 12-hour mark just to keep things interesting. At this point, he'd let a man get murdered right in front of him if it meant getting some shut-eye.
The flat was quiet and cold, as it usually was when he came home. He dropped his latch key back into his pocket and collapsed onto the sofa, too tired even to light a fire. He'd get to it in a minute. Just a minute's rest was all he needed...
So, of course, the ’phone began to ring.
Parker squeezed his eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose. It was nothing. It was almost definitely nothing. He could ignore it. He was off duty, and was off for the next four days, and for all anyone at the Yard knew he'd finished his shift and taken the first train out to the middle of nowhere to hunker down in a shack with no ’phone and no contact with the outside world and with no intention of being heard from again until first thing Monday morning. He did not have to answer.
“Parker!” came an unbearably chipper voice. “That you? Course it is, who else would it be? Unless your charwoman's grown a great deal gruffer since last we spoke. Fancy poppin’ round for dinner?”
“Yes? Oh, didn't I say? Well, it is. I am, I mean. We're having roast lamb and potatoes, just the thing for a night like this. Are you coming or what?”
“I just got in,” Parker objected. “I haven't even taken my coat off.”
“Wonderful!” cheered Peter. “Save you the energy of putting it back on again. Oh, do come, Parker. I haven't seen you for weeks.”
“You saw me last Friday.”
“Is that all? Feels like longer. I forgive you, though you've shunned so long my gentle greeting, earth and air. You been workin’ this whole time?”
“Yes. Some of us have to,” he added, scuffing his foot against the hall carpet where it was peeling away from the wall.
“Beastly business, they didn't ought to make you. You must be exhausted, poor dear.”
“I am,” said Parker, with feeling. But Peter was either unable or, more likely, unwilling, to hear the subtext of the statement.
“Well, there’s nothing like good food and lively conversation to get the blood moving! Come on, old bird. What have you got for your dinner otherwise?”
Parker leant backwards, squinting in the direction of the flat's kitchenette. Something grey and lumpy lurked on the sideboard.
“Chops?” he hazarded. Peter's silence was eloquent. “...I'll be there in forty minutes.”
It was half past eight when Bunter showed Parker into the luxurious flat that Wimsey called home. The flat was beautifully warm after the cold December fog, and filled with the homely aroma of what promised to be an excellent dinner.
“There you are! I was beginning to think you'd been absconded with by an unscrupulous cabbie. Wonderin’ how much a Detective Inspector might fetch for ransom. Sit down, sit down. Drink?”
“Shouldn't think they'd get much for me,” said Parker, taking the whiskey and soda with a grateful look. “Besides, who'd pay? The Yard wouldn't fork out for anything less than a DCI.”
“You wound me. I hope if you were ever in such an unfortunate position, you know I'd happily bear the cost of your safe retrieval.”
“I'll keep it in mind. I'd offer in return, but...”
“Nonsense. If anything happens to me, that’s Gerald's look-out. Though I hope I might depend on you to do a little snoopin’ around on my behalf, should I happen to disappear under suspicious circumstances.”
“I'll do my best.”
“You're a good egg. Speaking of suspicious circumstances-”
“Oh, don't!” Parker burst out, startling Peter enough to nearly spill his drink. Parker felt his cheeks heating. “Sorry. Sorry, I just- Please don't talk shop tonight, Peter, I can't bear it. I’ve been on my feet for what feels like a month and I can’t stand another mystery or a murder or a, a jewel heist or anything.”
“Well, that’s me told! I was only going to say, I wonder where dinner’s got to.”
“You were not,” Parker shot back. “You’ve got a case and you’re bursting to tell me about it. It’s written all over your face. Well, I’m not biting, Peter, not tonight.”
Peter held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Alright! No flies on you – you should be a detective or somethin’. What would you rather discuss? How about this business with Nepal?”
“Oh, Lord, not a hope. Sorry, old man. I don't think I'm going to be much company tonight. I'm in a dreadful mood.”
“Then I shall take it upon myself to improve it. You're always welcome here, Parker, foul mood or fair. Now, come along. Tell your Uncle Peter all about it.”
“What's there to tell?” Parker sighed.
He leant back in his seat, sinking into the Chesterfield and taking a drink. Despite himself, he felt the tight muscles in his shoulders starting to relax. It really was a wonderfully comfortable sofa.
From the armchair, Peter waited for him to continue with an upright sort of attentiveness that put Parker suddenly in mind of an intelligent spaniel. The thought made him smile – there was more than a touch of puppy about Peter, even in his quietest moments.
“It's just work,” Parker went on with a shrug. “Just hard, grinding work, and lots of it. We had a blackmail case – horrible business, always is with blackmailers. This poor chap had been seen by a servant of his...”
He laid out the whole sordid tale, tongue loosened by whiskey, a warm fire, and a sympathetic audience. The case itself was a fairly straightforward one, and Parker was under no illusion that its details would spark any particular interest.
Still, once he’d started, he couldn’t stop. He went on, and as he went, he found himself slipping details into the narrative that had nothing to do with evidence, suspects, or police procedure. He told Peter about his aching feet after hours spent knocking up witnesses, interminable plates of bad food from cheap restaurants, the untold agony of getting one’s socks wet at the start of a shift with no hope of changing into dry ones.
The litany of suffering broadened, taking in his flat, the lumps in his mattress, the sad state of a policeman’s pay packet. By the time Bunter was serving the dessert, Parker had covered everything from his charwoman's cooking to Sir William Horwood himself, cursing each topic in turn with the same bloody-minded thoroughness that had served him so well in his career.
Finally, he looked down at his lemon soufflé, steaming gently in its ramekin, and ground to a halt.
Across the table, Peter, tucking cheerfully into his own soufflé, grinned at him. “Don’t tell me you’ve run dry already? You hardly even touched on the state of modern music, or ‘young people today’. Do you take requests?”
Parker laughed, feeling slightly pink round the edges. “Sorry,” he said with a rueful smile. “I did warn you I wouldn’t be very good company.”
“Rot. I’ve had a lovely time. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak so much – you're positively mellifluous when you get going. And did you know, your accent gets stronger when you’re angry? By the end there I was starting to wonder if you were about to manifest a flat cap and whippet out of sheer, unbridled Northern fury.”
“I'm not from Yorkshire,” Parker said, as stern as man can be while eating soufflé.
Peter looked appropriately chastened. “Of course not,” he said quickly. “Dreadful implication. I’d never mean to suggest such a thing. Are you feeling better now?”
“Much,” Parker admitted.
“Good! Nothing like a heartfelt grumble to a captive audience to make the world feel a little less bleak.”
“There’s not really anyone else I could say it to,” Parker said thoughtfully, chasing his soufflé round the ramekin. “It’s no good complaining to the other lads at the Yard, since they’re all in the same boat. You’d think it would go the other way – knowing they’d know what you’re talking about, I mean. But it doesn’t.”
“Mm, I see that. Reminds everyone of how cross and resentful they could be, if they put their minds to it, what? Who knows,” he said brightly, “perhaps one day I’ll get a real job and put myself out of the running as your sounding board.”
Parker scoffed, taking a drink. “Oh, yeah? What would you do? You know ‘aesthete’ isn’t a job.”
“I wanted to be a policeman when I was little.”
“You’re still little.”
“Too little for Mr Peel, anyway. Really though, I had a tin helmet and a badge and everything.”
“Is that why you got into detective work?”
“Oh, no, that was just a bit of a fluke, really. Besides, I didn’t want to be a police detective,” he added, as if it was the silliest possible suggestion. “They didn’t get the helmets – I really cannot emphasise enough how essential the uniform was to this ambition. No, I wanted to be a proper bobby and chase robbers and so on. Toppers?”
Once they’d dispatched their desserts, Peter gave Bunter leave to retire for the night, and he and Parker made their way back to the sofa in a comfortable fug of full-stomached tranquillity.
Peter had barely sat down before he was up again, wandering over to the baby grand, unable to sit still even under the inducement of a warm room and a decent meal. Parker, on the other hand, started slowly to dissolve into a pile of cushions. What a difference a few hours made, he thought to himself as Peter started up some twiddly, tinkly stuff he guessed was probably Debussy.
“I wanted to be a postman,” he said after a while.
“For the uniform?”
“Not all of us were as sartorially motivated as little Lord Peter. No, I liked the idea of riding around on my bicycle and reading people’s postcards.”
“I see. And as you grew, that nascent nosiness blossomed into a passion for detective work. Very good.”
Parker didn’t have anything else to say, so said nothing. The music moved from delicate twinkles to something more robust and modern-sounding – Karg-Elert, though Parker didn’t know it. He didn’t know anything at all, until Peter, taking a seat beside him, accidentally jostled the cushions Parker had piled up around himself.
“You done already?” Parker mumbled, feeling strangely foggy.
“It’s been almost an hour,” said Peter, his voice warm with fond amusement. “You’ve been sleeping. Shame – you missed all the really impressive bits.”
Parker blinked at him, not really following. Now he mentioned it, time did seem to have gone rather baggy for a while there. The side of his face was sticking slightly where it had been pressed into the leather of the sofa, but his head felt far too heavy to move. All of him felt heavy, like his whole body was covered by a great, soft eiderdown.
“Oh,” he managed.
Peter looked down at him – an unusual perspective, though not an unpleasant one. Somewhere far away in the part of his brain that was still mostly asleep, Parker vaguely wondered if he was going to stroke his hair.
He didn’t, of course And probably it was his inner mammal coming out, but Parker felt a sudden wave of regret at the thought. Peter was still looking at him, elbow propped against the back of the sofa, something like a smile drifting on the corners of his mouth. Parker’s head filled with images of dens and burrows, he wanted to curl up somewhere warm and soft and full of the smell of earth with Peter in his arms...
“Stay the night.”
The words took a moment to filter through the haze. Then Parker frowned. “No pyjamas,” he said, waking up a little more.
Peter’s smile twitched. “I’ll lend you some,” he said gently.
Even half asleep, Parker managed to throw a doubtful look at Peter’s slim frame. Peter rolled his eyes. He bounced up and went to put out the fire in the grate, talking over his shoulder as he worked.
“Don't fret, Hercules – I've a spare set somewhere that should just about reach round your hulking frame. I’ll even find you a toothbrush, though you must promise to be careful and try not to snap it into twiglets in your great manly grip.”
Parker took this with the placid disinterest of the long-suffering. He followed Peter through the flat, leaning, still rather sleepy, in the doorway of the master bedroom as Peter rummaged about in his dresser. Eventually, he took delivery of a set of men’s pyjamas – white cotton, with blue and maroon stripes.
“Rather pedestrian for you, aren’t they?” Parker commented. And perhaps he was seeing things in the low light, but it seemed like Peter’s cheeks took on some colour at the words.
“They’re not mine,” he said briskly, leading the way back down the corridor to the bathroom. “A friend left them here. I haven’t had chance to return them.”
“Oh. I hope the toothbrush isn’t his, too,” said Parker after a moment’s thought.
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Mercifully, the toothbrush was handed over still in its cardboard tube. Peter left him to his ablutions and before long Parker found himself in the guest bedroom, softly lit by the bedside lamp.
It was a beautiful room, tastefully decorated in green and grey. But it had none of the depth of personality that infused the rest of the flat. There was none of the clutter that followed in Peter’s wake, despite Bunter’s best efforts – none of the artefacts of either his hopping, bird-like distractibility or the brooding rumination that sometimes overtook him.
Parker undressed quickly, with the vague shyness one feels at being naked – however partially, however temporarily – in a space that is not one’s own. The pyjamas fit well enough, and he wondered idly about the friend who had left them behind. Had he imagined that pinkness in Peter’s cheeks at the recollection? It seemed a funny thing to be embarrassed about, if he hadn’t.
No, he decided, he must have been mistaken. A trick of the light, that was all. He folded his clothes and put them neatly over the back of an armchair that didn’t seem to have any purpose in the room but this. Then he climbed into bed, discovering to his toes’ delight that Bunter, with his usual knack for anticipation, had slipped a hot water bottle between the sheets before he turned in for the night. Wrapped in simple, animal pleasure, Parker pulled the covers up to his ears, and fell quickly and entirely asleep.
Parker woke late, to a brilliant winter morning barely held at bay by elegant green curtains. He stretched indulgently, better rested than he’d been in months. The bed was warm and soft, the sheets smelling faintly of citrus and reminding him of Peter’s penchant for verbena.
It suited him, he thought, his brain still wallowing in the fuzz of unaccustomed luxury. He couldn’t imagine Peter wafting about in a cloud of Parma violet, and still less sending up whiffs of masculine spice or leather. He suited green freshness, something lively and bright. Parker was never able to smell verbena without associating it in his mind with his friend’s quick smile, the flash of grey eyes, of the feeling he so often had around Peter that he was being let in on a great secret, held just between the two of them.
With no small reluctance, Parker made himself climb out from under the mountain of bedclothes and get dressed. He didn’t think he had much of a scent himself, not going in for scented bathwater and the like. He supposed he just smelled like soap and clean laundry on a good day, and sweat on a bad one. Nothing to wax lyrical about, perhaps, but nothing too revolting either. And at least he wasn’t one of those appalling men who doused themselves in aftershave so that one only had to walk past them in a corridor to have them in one’s nostrils all day.
He would, as ever, settle for being nondescript, and thus, if not enrapturing, at least inoffensive. A look at his reflection confirmed that he’d achieved his goal. Not an ugly face, at least, nor a foolish one. There was something to be said for that. The jaw, he supposed, was square enough.
‘Square enough’ about summed the matter up, really. Straight and sombre brows. A straight and sombre mouth. A straight and sombre nose that jutted out between dark eyes which he hoped did not peer at everyone with such scepticism.
The shoulders, at least, prompted some grim satisfaction. A great beauty, he was not – but he was a damn good openside flanker. If no-one else would have him, he’d always find open arms in the Metropolitan Police rugby team.
His dissatisfaction must have followed him into the dining room, because Peter took one look at him and burst out laughing.
“Good grief, man! Don’t tell me the guest bed’s as bad as all that, I simply won’t believe it. It cost too much to be uncomfortable. Be not like the hypocrites who fast with sad countenances – if you must be gloomy, at least eat something.”
Parker treated this shoddy exegesis with the dignity it deserved. He took his seat across the table from Peter just in time for Bunter to emerge from the kitchen with a plate of eggs and bacon, so hot they were still sizzling. He laid them down before Parker, and whisked Peter’s own, empty plate away with all the brisk efficiency one might expect from this paragon of gentlemen’s gentlemen.
Parker looked from his plate to Peter. Dropping his voice and with a glance at the kitchen door he asked, “How did he know when I was going to get up? Or what I wanted?”
“I make it a policy never to ask ‘how’ where Bunter’s concerned. Just keep my head down, mind my Ps and Qs, and keep him away from cold iron. Coffee? You didn't really sleep badly, did you? You seemed dead on your feet last night.”
“No, I was out like a light. The room’s very comfortable, thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Really, you are – whenever you like. I say! What are you doing for Christmas?”
“I’ll give you three guesses.”
Peter's face was a picture of comic dismay. “No? Surely not! That's... Well, it’s unchristian for a start.”
“Unfortunately, the criminal class aren’t much concerned with respecting bank holidays, Christian or otherwise,” said Parker, buttering a slice of toast.
Peter gave a dissatisfied grumble. “Hardly seems right. Can’t they just lock them up for a day and keep them on ice ’till you're back?”
“No,” said Parker, firmly. “Come off it, Peter. As if you’ve never asked anyone to work on Christmas.”
Peter opened his mouth to object, then hesitated. “Well, yes,” he said slowly, “if you mean servants and the sort.”
“And waiters, and bartenders, and cabbies, and maids--”
“Maids are servants.”
Parker fixed him with a blank expression.
“But they get Boxing Day off!” Peter objected.
“So do I.”
“Oh. That’s different, though.”
Parker speared a piece of bacon with his fork, raising an eyebrow. “Why?”
“I don’t want to spend Christmas with any of them.”
Peter didn’t look entirely earnest – he almost never did – but there was just enough sincerity in his eyes that Parker couldn’t help smiling. He dropped his gaze, concentrating on his breakfast.
“I’d have thought you’d be going down to Dukes Denver,” he said conversationally.
“I’ll have to, if I don’t have a good excuse – like takin’ care of waifs and strays.”
Parker snorted. “I’ve been accused of many things in my time, but never waifishness.”
“You could make a little holiday of it,” Peter went on, unfazed. “Come over on Christmas Eve and toddle off again after supper on Boxing Day. You could bring your own pyjamas and toothbrush, all complete.”
Bunter, materialising out of the ether with a rack of fresh toast, gave a fractional start at this. He set down the toast and cleared his throat.
“My lord,” he began.
Peter’s face lit up. “Oh, good point, Bunter! Bunter’s going away, Parker – how's that for making people work on Christmas – so you see, you simply must come and keep an eye on me, or God knows what sort of mischief I’ll get up to.”
At this, Bunter looked as alarmed as Parker had ever seen him, which is to say, his eyes widened very slightly. “My lord, that was not...”
“No, I know it wasn’t. But it’s only Parker, and he’s got no good opinion of me left to lose. And even if I serve him cold figgy pudding and warm champagne, it’ll be no reflection on you, since you’ll be off on your jollies.”
Parker privately wondered if the word ‘jolly’ had ever been used in conjunction with Bunter before. But he did so very softly, right at the back of his head, and did not look at the thought directly lest Bunter hear.
“That’s all very well,” said Parker, “but I really am working. Sorry,” he added, weakly.
At that, Peter deflated somewhat. “Oh. Ah well. I suppose I’d best write to Jerry, let him know I’ll be coming after all. I don’t know why they insist on inviting me. I mean, yes, I do, but I wish they wouldn’t. They only find me a nuisance.”
“You are a nuisance,” said Parker mildly. To his surprise, Peter’s response had no humour in it at all.
“Yes, but the difference is, you don’t actually mind. You don’t know what a bore it is, Charles, being around people who would really rather you were somewhere else, and so would you, and everyone knows it, but you’re all stuck playing Let’s Pretend and being merry.”
Parker set down his knife and fork. “I say, Peter. Is it really as bad as all that?”
Peter sighed. “No,” he said, “not quite. But not far off. I could just not go, of course, and damn the look of it. But truth to tell, I rather hate the idea of knocking about here on my tod.”
There was a pause. Then Peter sighed again, slightly louder.
“Oh, have it your way,” Parker groaned. “You always do.”
“You mean it?” said Peter, brightening instantly.
“I’ll see what I can do. But listen, I really don’t think I’ll be able to get the day off – not this late in the game. I might be able to spend the shift here, though, rather than at the Yard, and give them your number to contact me on. If anything comes up, I shall have to go – and I won’t be able to drink until my shift’s over...”
But Peter was waving these minor details away, shoving a last piece of toast in his mouth and leaping to his feet, rushing in the direction of the study. “Bunter! Bunter, I need to send a wire to Jerry. And best put in an order in at Fortnum's, and see if you can get hold of those little gingery things, you know the ones, with the biscuit on the bottom...”
In the end, Peter did go down to Dukes Denver after all, for a flying visit on Christmas Eve. It was a highly efficient affair. He drove down in a flurry, delivered his presents, received a small pile in return, kissed his mother, swung his nephew round by his ankles, irritated his sister-in-law, exasperated his brother, and was back in time for tea.
It was strange, being in the flat without Bunter. Not unpleasant, exactly, but strange, like someone had moved everything slightly to the left of where it ought to be. Bunter had left that morning, hesitant to the last, until finally Peter had threatened to give him the sack if he didn’t get a move on. Finally, he’d gone, under strict instructions to send Peter’s regards to his mother, and to otherwise spare no thought for his master until his return on the 27th.
On the Chesterfield, Peter listlessly pulled tissue paper from his gifts, revealing the usual spread of cufflinks, ties and fountain pens, none making the least attempt to even gesture towards his actual tastes. As if to set a jewel in the crown of the whole absurd rigmarole, he opened the final box to reveal a silver-plated cocktail shaker, engraved with a design as elaborate as it was revolting.
He sighed, tossing the ugly thing to the end of the sofa and sitting back in a slump. Perhaps he’d palm it off on Marjorie – she might get some use out of it as a Hallowe’en decoration to frighten her artistic friends. And at least she drank cocktails.
A look at his watch told him it was still a while until Parker was due to arrive. The thought sent an unexpected jolt of good cheer through him, and the feeling spread, like ink in water. The worst of the season was behind him, and he had nothing but good things to look forwards to.
In a burst of energy, he gathered up the assorted trinkets from the sofa and shoved them into his study. Bunter could decide what to do with them when he got back. He could use the ties for cleaning rags and the cufflinks for paper-clips for all he cared. He shut the study door behind him with a bang and headed off to the bathroom to get ready, whistling to himself as he went.
Peter's reflection squinted dubiously at him, furrowing its brow. A swathe of clear glass showed where he'd wiped the steam from the mirror with a towel, framing his unhappy, sudsy face.
He tilted his head, left arm reaching up and over to pull the skin of his right cheek taut. Then, with his straight razor in his right hand, he carefully scraped away the foam to reveal a small patch of clean, pink skin. Then he wiped off the razor on a towel, and sighed, leaning on the edge of the sink.
It wasn't that he didn't know what he was doing, he wasn't quite as helpless as all that. But it had been so long since he'd had to do it for himself, and his arms were starting to ache and besides which, he was bored. He never got bored during his shaves – he always quite enjoyed them, as it happened. But that, he was rapidly coming to realise, was because all he had to do was sit there, mind free to trip after whatever topics wandered unsuspectingly across it.
With a mutinous look at his reflection, more than half its face still resolutely covered in lather, he took up the razor once more, cursing himself for not just popping round to the barber's.
Distantly, the doorbell chimed. Peter's frown deepened. He adjusted his grip on his cheek, making a few more careful strokes before wiping the blade clean again. Then, with a flash of annoyance, he heard the bell go once more.
With a clatter he dropped the razor onto the sink and tripped out of the bathroom, bare feet slapping on the hardwood floor, dressing gown streaming behind him. He threw open the door, beaming to see Parker waiting mildly in the hallway.
“I'm late. By Jove, Bunter really was the only thing holding you back from savagery, wasn't he?”
Peter looked down at himself, bare-chested beneath the dressing gown that he had, mercifully, thought to tie before answering the door. A splodge of shaving cream fell on the parquet floor with a splat.
“Was there ever any doubt?”
He took Parker's bag from him, a battered old leather duffel bag that weighed more than he'd anticipated.
“Don't tell me Father Christmas gave you a bag of coal to bring round for me?” he said, hefting the bag as Parker hung up his coat and hat. “I haven't been as naughty as all that.”
Parker had brought a suit bag with him, and he slung it over his shoulder, holding out a hand. “Give it here and get back in the bathroom,” he said. “You're dripping all over the place.”
Peter hummed thoughtfully, toeing at the patches of soap that had fallen from his chin. “If I'm not careful, I'll end up with little clean patches everywhere and have to scrub the whole flat just to make it match.”
He trotted off to the bathroom as instructed, and took up his razor once more. He was dithering about his chin when Parker rematerialised in the doorway. Peter made eye contact with him in the mirror, and scowled.
“What are you laughing at?”
“I'm not laughing. I'm just enjoying it.”
“Enjoying what?” snapped Peter, making a hesitant swipe of the razor.
“Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey – that's the right order, isn't it?”
“It is,” said Peter warily.
“Lord Peter Death Bredon Wimsey,” Parker repeated, tasting the words with satisfaction. “He can shoot, he can ride, he can play piano like a dream. He can dance, he can sing, he speaks twelve languages, he can juggle flaming torches and turn somersaults and hold his breath for ten minutes-”
“Yes, Parker, I'm a regular wunderkind. Do get to the point.”
Parker's reflection grinned. “Can't shave his own chin though, can he?”
Peter slapped the razor down on the sink to peals of policemanly laughter. “It's harder than I remember! I don't think I had this much chin when I last had to do it for myself.”
Parker stepped into the room, setting down a smart-looking shaving bag and a toothbrush on the shelf above the sink.
“You don't have a safety razor?” he asked.
Peter, momentarily distracted putting Parker's toothbrush in the cup that held his own, shook his head. “Bunter doesn't believe in them.”
“Neither do I, as a rule,” said Parker, turning Peter's straight razor over in his hands. “They're good for beginners though.”
His eyes met Peter's as he said it, full of humour. Peter resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at him. Then, quite matter of fact, Parker stepped to the side, flicked open the razor, and took Peter's chin in a firm but gentle grip.
“Tilt back,” he said.
Peter did as he was told. He was too surprised not to. All his attention had wrenched itself to Parker, so quickly and so entirely that he hadn't a spare thought in his head. He could feel the soft brush of Parker's breath on his cheek, and though their bodies weren't touching, Peter was suddenly and acutely aware of the fact he was naked beneath his dressing gown. Only a thin layer of silk separated his body from Parker's...
Well. A thin layer of silk, six inches of open space, a suit jacket, a waistcoat, a shirt, and, knowing Parker, a set of practical and comfortable woollen underwear. Not to mention three years of friendship and about thirty more of strict social conditioning. And the fact he didn't even know if Parker...
“Yes,” said Peter quickly. “Just got distracted.”
Parker huffed a laugh, wiping off the razor on the towel Peter had draped over the sink. “Not like you.”
He shifted his weight, fingers putting gentle pressure on Peter's face to turn it to a more helpful angle. The bathroom was quiet but for the even, steady strokes of the razor.
“You weren't in service?” said Peter, skipping ahead in the conversation. Fortunately, Parker was used to it, and followed easily enough.
“No,” he confirmed. “It was my dad. He got quite shaky towards the end. Tremors, you know.”
“Oh.” A pause. “And your mother?”
“No, she was never able to grow a beard, poor thing.”
Fortunately, he said it between strokes, so Peter didn't accidentally slice his throat open when he laughed. “What a shame. I'm sure she would have worn it well.”
“She would,” said Parker sincerely. “She was a very handsome woman.”
They fell into a comfortable silence, all Peter's fraught tension draining as quickly as it had come. He allowed himself the small indulgence of admiring Parker's strong, dark brows as they pulled together in concentration. But it was a calm, detached sort of admiration – merely noticing that yes, he was beautiful, and how nice it was to look at a beautiful man.
He had made quick work of the cheek Peter hadn't got to yet, and was well underway on his throat. His hand was warm where it pulled the skin taut, and under the gentle pressure of his touch, Peter couldn't tell if it was Parker's pulse he felt, or his own.
“I was twenty-two when I came to London,” said Parker after a while.
Peter made an interested noise. The razor had reached the delicate contours around his mouth and he didn't like to move too much.
“Dad died when I was twenty,” Parker went on, “and Mam not long after. Didn't seem like there was much in Barrow to stick around for.”
“No young lady?” Peter teased, as Parker wiped the blade.
His friend's lips twitched as they held back a smile. “No,” he said, in a tone of voice that could have meant anything.
A few minutes more, and Parker stepped back to admire his handiwork. Then, with brisk business-like movements, he wet a flannel, cleaned off the last of the soap, and patted Peter's face dry with a towel.
“Where's your aftershave?” he asked.
Peter nodded to a tub on the shelf, and Parker hummed approvingly at the clean, fresh scent that wafted up when he took off the lid. It was a balm rather than a splash, and he rubbed a small amount between his palms before smoothing it over Peter's face, his hands big enough that Peter felt more than a little engulfed. His fingers lingered on a patch at the top of Peter's cheek, and he made a dissatisfied noise.
“Missed a bit. Hang on.”
With a look of fierce concentration, he leant close and scraped the offending patch with the razor, rubbing the pad of his thumb over it as a final check. He took Peter by the chin again and turned his head one way, then the next, using the angle of the light to check for any final stray hairs. But all was, apparently, up to his exacting standards. He smiled, quick and warm, and stepped back with a nod to the mirror.
“There you go,” he said. “Not a patch on Bunter's work, I'll wager, but good enough.”
Peter leant over the sink to look at his reflection, running his hands appreciatively over his cheeks. “Bravo! You've outdone yourself! If this coppering lark falls through, you've got a shining career as a barber awaiting you.”
“I take it from this we're going out for dinner?”
“Yes, we're booked in at the Criterion, if that suits?”
“Hm. I suppose I can slum it, just this once. Shove over, then.”
Peter obligingly shoved. “You can have a bath, if you want,” he offered, perching on the edge of the tub as Parker shrugged off his suit jacket.
“What time is the table booked for?” he said, hanging the jacket off the corner of the bathroom door.
Parker laughed. “It's eight o'clock now, Peter.”
“Is it? Damn. Time flies when you're tryin’ not to cut your own throat. Well, spiff yourself up and we can array ourselves in splendour and be off in plenty of time.”
If Parker was surprised by Peter loitering in the bathroom while he shaved, he didn't mention it. They made easy conversation as Parker worked on his own stubble with the same quick, efficient competence he'd shown with Peter. Peter was inclined to accuse him of showing off, and did so.
All too soon, they retired into their respective bedrooms to dress. This, at least, Peter could do without assistance. He was in the living room when Parker emerged in a boiled shirt and dinner jacket.
“Will I do?” said Parker, spreading his hands.
Peter considered him. He looked the perfect gentleman, the clean lines of his suit accentuating his strong, square build. He'd pushed his hair back in a sweep that Peter could already see was going to flop charmingly back down across his forehead before the night was through. Poor Parker, he thought fondly. No matter how big and imposing he got, there'd always be that air of school-boyishness about him.
“Just a tick,” he said, setting his book down and wandering over. He tugged Parker's bow-tie straight, hands lingering longer than they needed to. When he looked up, he found Parker watching him with faint amusement. “It was crooked,” he said, all innocence.
“Is it still crooked?”
Peter rested his hands on Parker's chest, ostensibly checking his work. “A little,” he said, trying not to smile.
Peter was standing close enough that he couldn't miss the way Parker's eyes drifted slowly downwards, nor the tinge of pink rising in his cheeks. He saw, too, the twitch of his hand, as if resisting the urge to reach up and take Peter by the waist. And wasn't that interesting.
He tugged the bow-tie one more time. “There,” he said, smiling brightly, tucking these morsels of information away for later. “Ship-shape and Bristol fashion.”
If Parker had anything to say to that, he kept it to himself. And probably for the best – they were alarmingly close to missing their reservation as it was.
Christmas morning arrived in a blaze of sunshine. Parker woke early, a buzz of anticipation in his stomach that he hadn't felt since he was a boy. He told himself he was being absurd, that it was a lingering frivolity from the night before. But linger it did, a humming, sparkling feeling at once akin to, and opposite, the feeling of an oncoming storm.
He slipped out of bed and dressed in a suit a touch smarter than his usual fare. It was Christmas, after all. Then he made his way through the flat, unsurprised to find he'd woken before Peter.
The flat had been decorated since he was there last, with tasteful garlands of holly and mistletoe dotted about the place. Given Peter's ambivalence about the holiday, he wasn’t surprised to find no Christmas tree had been erected in the living room. The decorations were simple, beautiful, perfectly proper and nothing more. He imagined Bunter took great pride in them, and dutifully admired them on his account.
It was under the weight of that imagined Bunter's gaze that Parker made his way, rather sheepishly, into the kitchen. “A man's got to eat,” he muttered to the spectre, and immediately felt foolish.
He knocked up some breakfast for himself, and had mostly finished it by the time Peter emerged, blinking, to greet the day. At least he was wearing pyjamas under his dressing gown today. That was one less thing to think about, even if his hair was alarmingly mussed. Parker concentrated on his coffee, ignoring the urge to smooth the golden strands back into place – or worse, to mess them up further.
“You up already?” said Peter, helping himself to toast.
“No. I'm sleepwalking.”
Peter, who had taken a seat opposite, lifted the coffee pot and looked around for the cup that surely Bunter would have laid out for him. Parker knocked back the dregs in his own mug and pushed it over the table to him.
“You'll have to feed yourself,” he said, getting up to clear his things away. “I'm going to church.”
“Oh,” said Peter, genuinely surprised.
Parker left him considering the revelation as while he took his crockery into the kitchen to redd up. When he went to fetch his coat from the hall, Peter trailed after him like a dog loathe to be left alone.
“Where are you headed? St James is closest.”
“I'm surprised you even know that, you old heathen.”
“Some Sherlock I’d be if I didn’t. A detective’s first duty is to know his own patch like the back of his hand.”
Parker buttoned his coat in expectant silence. Peter sipped his coffee.
“It’s next door to Fortnum’s,” he confessed. Then, stifling a yawn, “Do you want company?”
Parker, wrapping his muffler round his neck, raised an eyebrow at him. “...do you want to come?”
Peter pulled a face. “Not especially.”
“I never know what to say to people when they go to church. Have a nice time. Enjoy the candles. Send my love to Jesus.”
“I'll be back soon,” said Parker, a smile in his voice.
“Alright. Say a prayer for me.”
Parker's hand hesitated on the doorknob. “I always do.”
The early service at St James was a short one and Parker returned to the flat full of the joys of the season. There was something wonderfully grounding in the steady unfolding of ritual. The church might change, the congregation might change – God knows Parker himself had changed plenty over the years – but Christmas morning would come again and there he would be, tongue soft on familiar words, raising his voice in the familiar songs.
In that same fine spirit, Parker phoned through to the Yard to let them know he was on shift and available, and gave them the number for both the flat and the club that Peter and he planned to dine at later in the day. The lad at the desk was in a remarkably good mood for someone stuck in the office on Christmas Day. Perhaps he had a house full of difficult relatives as his alternative, Parker mused, or a cold flat and no company to speak of. Or perhaps he was just thinking of his pay packet, and the joy of getting time and a half for the slackest day of the year. It was certainly putting a spring in Parker's step.
He found Peter lounging as only Peter could, making up for what he lacked in physical size by draping his legs over the sofa and littering the space around him with cushions, books and scraps of paper. He looked up when Parker came in, greeting him with a smile.
“Father Christmas found you,” he said. Parker eased himself into the armchair, baffled by the pronouncement.
“Father Christmas. I suppose he went to Great Ormond Street first and found you not at home so he was runnin’ a trifle behind.”
“Peter, what are you-”
Peter nodded at the mantelpiece. There, where it certainly had not been before, stuck to the mantel with an improbable amount of packing tape, was an ordinary men's sock, bulging and misshapen where it had been stuffed full of somethings. Parker started to smile.
“Don't look at me,” he said lightly, keeping his eyes fixed on the Times. “I had nothing to do with it. Went to get the papers and when I came back, here it was.”
It was almost convincing, if it wasn't for the faint touches of a smile playing at his lips, clearly being resisted with a monumental force of will.
“How do you know it's mine?” said Parker, better at keeping a straight face than Peter ever would be. “I shouldn't like you to miss out because of a misunderstanding.”
“Oh, I already had mine,” said Peter with a wave of his hand. “No, he dropped mine off last night. Like I said, he must have just got muddled with yours. Aren't you going to open it?” he added, not quite hitting the note of disinterest he was aiming at.
“I suppose I must,” said Parker, full to the brim of fondness, “seeing as he went to so much trouble.”
“It was no trouble,” said Peter, turning the page and rapidly losing ground in the fight not to smile. “He is magic, after all.”
Parker took down the sock, throwing the tape onto the fire burning merrily in the grate. The flat had central heating, but there was nothing like a real fire for cosiness. One by one he took out his presents and laid them in a line on the arm of chair. A tin soldier, at least twenty years old from the look of him and rather the worse for wear. A bag of chocolate coins, with a shiny silver sixpence slipped in among the rest. Sugared almonds and crystallised ginger, each in matching packets.
“Father Christmas shops at Fortnum & Mason,” he observed.
“Hmm. Funny that,” said Peter, helping himself to the ginger.
Finally, bulging out the toe of the sock so badly it might never fit the same again – a satsuma. Parker laughed, tossing it into the air, bouncing it off his bicep, and catching it again.
“Brilliant,” he said. “Absolutely brilliant.”
“Really?” Peter said, beaming. “You really like it?”
“I really like it,” Parker assured him. “Shame it's not the done thing to write thank you notes to Father Christmas.”
“No, it does seem rather an oversight, doesn't it? P’raps you can jot one down and send it up the chimney anyway, let the old man know how much you appreciate him.”
“Good idea. I'll do it when I get home and can use my nice writing paper.”
Peter laughed. “Be sure to use your best handwriting – you know you get scribbly when you're not payin’ attention.”
This was such a case of the pot calling the kettle black that all Parker could do was scoff. He dug his thumb into the satsuma, sending up a spray of fragrance, and began to peel. Peter, having reached the end of even his feigned interest in current affairs, flipped the paper to the crossword section and folded it down so the grid and clues were the only parts visible. A rummage around for a pencil, and then he settled down, frowning in concentration.
“Questing king, late in the day, to slip up with soldier – ready to lose heart,” he read. “Two words, first word, six letters, second word, eight.”
Parker, eating a piece of satsuma, stared at him. “Aren't you supposed to start with the little ones?” he said once he'd swallowed.
“Suit yourself. Avian predator ignoring unusually large target – five letters.”
Parker clicked his tongue. “Well, I can't do it just off the top of my head. I'd need to see it.”
“Come on then,” said Peter, swinging his legs down and sitting upright.
With a sigh, Parker hauled himself over to the Chesterton, bringing his satsuma with him. Peter scooted over, closing the space between them so Parker could see the crossword. This close, Parker could see the fuzz of golden stubble on his cheeks.
“Not shaving today?” he teased.
“No,” said Peter primly. “I'm on holiday. Anything strike you?”
Parker considered. As he ran his eyes over the clues, he separated a segment of satsuma and held it out.
“4, down,” he said. “Clever not needing book to be correct – RIGHT.”
Peter, eating his piece of orange, hummed in agreement and filled the squares in block capitals.
They passed the morning this way, tucked together in a comfortable squash, working steadily through crossword, satsuma and ginger alike. The sofa was more than big enough – in fact, it could have fit a third quite comfortably, if they'd rearranged things a bit. But squashed they remained.
It was a more natural closeness than Parker had ever felt between him and Peter before. They'd touched, of course, and shared space. Early in their friendship, Parker had held back from physical affection. There was a voice in the back of his head telling him that no matter what friendliness might pass between them, it was simply not the done thing to dig one's elbow into the ribs of a lord. But it hadn't lasted long, and besides, Peter did so often deserve a good dig.
This felt different, though. They moved in mutual orbit, never straying far from the other if they could help it. One went into the kitchen to make tea, and the other followed, their hands moving around each other as they reached for mugs and milk and sugar.
When it came time to go out into the world, with all its expectations and demands, they drifted apart. They walked with space between them, shoulders brushing less often than could possibly be right. Their knees knocked under the table at Peter's club where, by rights, they ought to have been sitting side by side, pressed close, thigh to thigh and rib to rib.
Something was happening. Parker knew it. He could see that Peter knew it too. But it wouldn't do, somehow, to look it in the eye. Like telling someone what you'd wished for when you dropped your penny in the well, saying it out loud would have spoiled the spell and left it all undone and trailing loose. So he held his tongue, and when they got back to the flat and Peter suggested a game of cribbage, he said nothing when they ended up on the floor in front of the fire with Peter's feet in his lap.
He'd kicked off his own shoes at some point, and as they played, he grew hot by the fire. He laid his cards face-down on the carpet and shrugged off his jacket, chucking it unceremoniously onto the sofa.
“Keep that up,” said Peter mildly as Parker rolled his sleeves, “and you won't look like a policeman at all.”
“What would I look like?”
Peter moved a card in his hand, slipping it back into place with a soft hiss. “Why,” he said, their eyes meeting, “just a man.”
“I have a present for you.” Peter's eyebrows rose, and finally Parker looked away. “I meant to give it to you this morning, but I didn't get round to it. Do you want it now?”
“What time does your shift end?”
“Let's save it. I'll give you yours then, too.”
“You didn't have to get me anything,” Parker admonished.
“Neither did you, but here we are. Look, are you going to play or what? Because I've got a cracking hand and I don't want to see it go to waste.”
After being thoroughly trounced at cribbage not once but three times running, Peter finally suggested they switch to gin rummy. And so the afternoon was cheerfully frittered in a series of all those games reserved for rainy afternoons and bank holidays. At quarter past six, Parker rang up the Yard and confirmed his replacement had clocked in.
“There we are,” he said, spreading his hands as he came back into the living room. “I'm a free man.”
“Hurray! First order of business...”
And with a practised pop, Peter neatly uncorked a bottle of Perrier-Jouët he'd had chilling for the occasion. Parker took the saucer handed to him, feeling the absurdity of drinking champagne in stockinged feet, and said so.
“We'll make an aristocrat of you yet,” said Peter. “The trick is to do terribly expensive, indulgent things as if you don't care about them at all. Extra points if you don't even enjoy them. That's where I always fall down – I make the fatal error of really enjoying all my indulgences.”
“That's the real reason you won't inherit Dukes Denver – not cut out for it, clearly.”
Peter threw back his head and laughed. “No! No, not my cut at all. Cheers.”
“Cheers. Happy Christmas.”
Peter's smile, impossibly, widened, and his voice was disarmingly close to sincerity when he answered, “Happy Christmas, Charles.”
From there, the evening tilted, something otherworldly, almost dream-like, descending on the flat. It felt impossible that there was anything outside its walls. Parker felt like someone in a play, he and Peter the only real things in a world made of paint and cunning tricks of light.
“Hmm,” said Parker thoughtfully, squeezing the tissue-wrapped parcel. It squashed under his hands, soft and thick. “Is it a bicycle?”
Peter prodded him in the thigh with one, long, bony toe. “That joke's never been funny in a hundred years.”
“P'raps. Not going to stop me making it though.”
He pulled off the tissue paper, laughing as he saw what lay within. Six pairs of thick, woollen socks, each a different colour.
“Lovely, Peter. Thank you. A classic.”
“Now, listen,” said Peter, refilling their saucers. “I know it's rude to put caveats on a gift but you must promise me something. Swear it!”
“Tell me what it is, first.”
Peter fixed him with a look of such gravity that Parker sat up a little straighter, even though the movement sent the bubbles of his champagne tingling up through the back of his brain.
“Charles Parker,” Peter began, in sombre tones. Then he cut off with a frown. “Do you have a middle name?”
“Yes, Death, really.”
“Fair point. Charles Barnaby Parker, promise me, here and now, on pain of death, Bredon and Wimsey that you will, at all times, keep at least one of those pairs of socks in your confounded desk. I can't bear it!” he broke out, over the sound of Parker's laughter. “I can't bear the thought – ever since you mentioned it, it's been following me around like one of those awful Save the Children leaflets. The image of you, schlepping your way around London in wet socks, it breaks my heart!”
Parker's laughter subsided, he wiped his eyes on the back of his hand and smiled warmly at his friend. “You're very sweet,” he said.
“I promise, I will never wear wet socks at work again.”
“Hm. You swear you're made of truth, and I do believe you, though I know you lie. That for me?”
Parker lifted the awkwardly wrapped parcel he'd brought out from the spare room and handed it over.
“Ah,” said Peter, feeling its weight. “My bag of coal. A little cruel to wrap it, if so.”
Parker said nothing. He finished his champagne and set the saucer down, his chest fluttering slightly with anticipation. Beside him, Peter tore the paper off his present – and immediately bounced up with a shout of delight.
“Charles! Oh, Charles, thank you!”
He rammed the thing onto his head, skipping up to look at his reflection in the mirror over the mantelpiece. Then he span round, holding his arms wide and beaming.
“How do I look?”
Parker couldn't stop laughing long enough to answer. In his shirtsleeves, tie askew, braces hanging loose at his hips, and now with a too-big constable's helmet perched precariously on his head, Peter looked like nothing so much as a drunken undergraduate.
“Did you steal it?” said Peter, eyes bright, a flush in his pale cheeks.
“I'd be a fool to tell you if I had,” said Parker. “You've got friends in the police.”
“I've got one friend in the police,” Peter corrected. “And I hear he's a bad 'un – sticky fingers.”
“Shocking. What is the world coming to.” He reached for the champagne bottle and found it empty. “You've got more than one friend on the force.”
Peter was off like a pop rocket to dig out a fresh bottle. He answered over his shoulder as he went. “Only little ones – nobody proper.”
Holding his helmet on with one hand, he refilled their saucers. Parker watched, looking up at him from his comfortable sprawl on the Chesterton. Peter remained standing. He sipped his champagne, mouth twisting in a question.
“What?” he said.
“Nothing,” said Parker. “Just looking.”
Peter shifted his weight, caught between gratification and shyness. Parker didn't miss the slight straightening of his spine, the small tilt of his chin as if to say, 'Go on and look, if you're going to'. So, he did.
Finally, the moment broke. Reality reasserted itself, and the conversation turned to ordinary things. They raided the kitchen for their dinner – despite the fact they were both grown men, one of whom owned the kitchen in question and all the food therein. But there was a giggling, boarding school feel to the air as they filled their plates with bits and pieces, leftovers and scraps of this and that.
Parker would have blamed the alcohol. They switched to whiskey and soda after the champagne and were both feeling the effects. But he knew a scapegoat when he saw one. It was nothing to do with the drink. Time was cinching in around them, the moment growing close. He could almost hear it panting as it padded towards them through the trees.
“You can see why they call it a picnic, can't you?” said Peter, as if he was oblivious. He plucked a grape from his plate and threw it up, catching it in his mouth.
“Mam used to call it 'picky tea',” said Parker. He stole a handful of grapes off Peter's plate and scooted to the far end of the sofa, lining up the shot. The grape flew true, and Peter caught it in his mouth with ease. “Whenever it was just leftovers and bits of stuff instead of her making something fresh.”
“I like that,” said Peter warmly. “Picky tea. Nice ring to it.” He chucked a grape underhand, sending it rising in a graceful arc in Parker's direction. “Did you have your dinner in the middle of the day?”
From someone else, it could have sounded like a dig. But from Peter it was honest curiosity, and Parker took it as such.
“Breakfast, dinner, tea,” he confirmed, sending Peter a lazy in-swinger. “Took me ages to get used to calling it lunch when I moved down.”
Peter's smile broadened. “And how do you pronounce S-C-O-N-E?”
This he delivered with a blatant and intentional beamer, bouncing a grape off the middle of Parker's forehead. Parker glared at him.
“Scone,” he said.
Fed and watered, Peter drifted over to the piano and started plunking away, picking out something bright and festive. He looked ridiculous, barefoot and dishevelled, socks lost to time and the sides of the sofa but helmet still clinging valiantly to his head.
“Are you going to take that off?” called Parker.
“Entreat me not to leave thee,” Peter said cheerfully. “Not now. Maybe never. Be a good fellow and come and turn the pages for me, would you?”
It was as transparent a request as Parker had ever heard. He could very reasonably have refused. Peter never needed help turning his pages, and besides, he knew enough pieces by heart that he could have played all night without glancing at a score.
But the fact was, Parker didn't want to refuse. He wanted to take his drink up and squeeze onto the piano stool beside Peter, feel his friends leg shifting against his own as he worked the peddles, have an excuse to watch those fine, beautiful hands travel over the keys with impossible grace. So, he did.
“You know you're supposed to be watching the music, not the keys,” said Peter, his voice low.
“Makes no difference. Can't read music.”
Peter made a thoughtful noise. “Can you sing? Will you sing, I mean. Two rather different questions. Though, if I'm bein’ honest, if the answer to the former is no, I should really prefer the answer to the latter to match. I'm all for liftin' every voice in song and all that but there's a time and a place for talentless enthusiasm, and right down my lughole ain't it.”
“I can sing.”
“Good. Off we go, then.”
He launched into a great, flourishing, crescendoing arpeggio, frothing to the top of the scale before hanging in a tinkling trill, stretching out the tension, a maestro with his audience in the palm of his hand... Then;
“We-e-e-e wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas-!”
They played and sang, and drank and laughed, until an ill-advised attempt to harmonise with Parker's baritone had Peter tipping back so far in his seat that it was only Parker's quick reaction that stopped him toppling off the stool entirely. The helmet, unfortunately, was not so lucky. It fell to the floor with a muffled thud against the carpet, and rolled off to somewhere a little less raucous.
“Should have put the chin-strap on,” said Parker, with a sad shake of his head.
“Yes but the problem is, Charles, the chin-straps are incredibly silly-looking.”
“Right. Of course. Wouldn't want you to look silly.”
Without his helmet, Peter looked like a bad drawing of himself. The monocle had been lost hours ago, discarded with the suit jacket, and his hair was half smooth, half wild, sticking up in fluffy blonde tufts along one side of his head. But he did look like himself, at least – not a drunk university student, or a boy in fancy dress.
Parker still had his arm around Peter's waist from where he'd reached out to stop him falling. He pulled it back, regretting the loss of heat and heaviness.
“Can you play at all?” Peter said suddenly.
He picked out Three Blind Mice, then Frère Jacques, smiling at the contrast between his efforts and Peter's. He turned to Peter, soft with fondness and alcohol. Their faces seemed very close together all of a sudden. The lamplight seemed to be glittering faintly, at least where it reflected in Peter's eyes.
“You know, we don't have pianos in the North.”
One elegant eyebrow twitched. “No?”
“No. We just hit rocks with sticks and call it a day.”
“How barbaric. Let me show you.”
And he slipped his hands under Parker's, lining them up, finger over finger. An experimental wiggle, and then he started on Chopin's Raindrop Prelude, carrying Parker's hands on the backs of his own. Parker laughed, relaxing his arms to let them move with Peter's.
“Look at that. I'm practically a virtuoso.”
“I always knew you had it in you.”
“Do I have to do the face as well?”
Peter's brow creased. “What face?”
“Your piano face.”
Peter turned to look at him, playing by muscle memory. His eyes narrowed. “I don't have a piano face.”
“You do,” Parker insisted. “It's sort of...”
He concentrated, trying to arrange his facial muscles in the right configuration. It must have done something, because Peter let out a yelp of laughter, breaking Parker's focus.
“I do not--”
“You do! Hold on, it-- Stop making me laugh! It's sort of like--”
He tried again, sending Peter into fits of giggles and quite murdering Chopin in his tracks.
“That's awful,” Peter gasped. “I don't, do I?”
“Well, I don't know if I'm doing it justice,” Parker admitted. “It's not bad. It's just funny, once you notice it. I like it,” he added, feeling the colour rise in his cheeks.
Parker nodded. Peter had stopped playing, but he didn't quite like to move his hands away just yet. The last echoes of the piano died away, swallowed by carpet and soft furnishing. The flat was still, and quiet.
“It's like your eyes and your mouth swap over,” said Parker slowly. “You've... You've got quite hard eyes, normally. Always makes me wonder how anyone ever falls for your Bertie Wooster routine. One look at your eyes and you can see, you're sharp as anything.”
Peter licked his lips, the bottom one sticking slightly before springing back to fullness. Parker watched, and did not pretend not to.
“But when I play...”
“They soften down. And it's your mouth that hardens instead. All your concentration seems to...” He broke off, the breath not quite there when he needed it. “It's funny, because I-- Well, I always think your mouth looks soft as anything.”
“Oh,” said Peter. And Parker wanted to kiss him. So, he did.
It was funny, thought Peter vaguely. If he'd been asked, he would have put money on him being the one to lean in first. And he'd have thought it would be louder – a big, emotional climax, with confessions and declarations and furious, animal passions boiling over, too powerful to resist.
Instead, it was this. Parker's mouth, soft and careful against his own. A hand pressed heavy and grounding against the small of his back. The smell of soap and clean skin, the faint taste of second-hand whiskey, someone's breath hitching in someone's throat, he didn't know whose. Nicer like this, he decided firmly. Much nicer.
And then, suddenly – much too soon – it was over, the space between them opening up quite unforgivably. Parker's eyes fluttered open, cheeks pink, the lamplight catching gold in the dark of his eyes.
“Is... Is that...?” he started.
“No,” said Peter. His voice hardly sounded like his own.
Parker started to pull away. “Oh,” he said. “I-- I'm sorry, I--”
“No,” said Peter again, clutching at his arm. “I mean, yes. I mean.”
Hope sparked in Parker's expression. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Peter said quickly. “Yes. Very much yes. Please. Sorry. I mean, carry on.”
Parker let out an undignified snort. “Carry on?”
“Yes. Carry on. As you were,” he said, growing rather desperate. Parker collapsed, leaning his head on Peter's chest, shoulders shaking with laughter. “Open sesame, hey presto, schwan kleb an – whatever blasted thing I have to say to get you to kiss me again!”
He must have hit on the right phrase somewhere, because finally Parker raised his head and, still smiling, pressed their mouths together in a laughing kiss. Peter reached up to cup his face, fingers trailing over the strong line of his jaw. Slowly, their smiles fell, and their mouths moved over one another in soft, unhurried movements.
Time came loose. There was nothing but the feel of Parker's mouth against his, the brief brush of their tongues. Parker's hand lay heavy on his knee, fingers pressing into the muscle of his thigh. He felt, rather than heard, the rumble of a moan, and all at once a gate inside him came loose. Desire washed through him, a wave that started at the base of his skull and cascaded down his spine, pooling hot and urgent where Parker's hand still pressed against his back. He moved, wanting to press closer, as close as he could--
And cracked his knee rather loudly into the underside of the piano.
“You alright?” said Parker, concern written all over his sweet, handsome face. Peter kissed him on the cheek, because he could.
“I'm fine. Shall we decamp to the sofa?”
Parker nodded, looking slightly dazed. They managed to stand without knocking over the piano stool, and Peter was about to start for the sofa when he caught Parker's eye. Parker's cheeks and mouth were matching shades of pink, his breath uneven, almost ragged. His usually neat hair was sticking up where Peter had run his fingers through it, and the thought was almost too much – not just that Parker looked so thoroughly, undeniably ruffled, but that Peter had been the one to ruffle him.
Something in Parker's smile said that he was thinking the exact same thing about Peter. They fell together again with perfect inevitability, and Peter found himself backed up against the piano with Parker's hands at his waist, their kisses growing desperate. There was a plink-plonk of keys as Peter shifted his weight, and something in the back of his head said that they really ought to move – this couldn't be good for the old girl.
But then Parker found his way to the soft spot between his ear and jaw, and then he was working his way down, tugging at his collar to get at the skin underneath, alternating the brush of his lips with the scrape of teeth, and suddenly Peter was very, very sure that the piano was fine, actually, and what really mattered was doing nothing whatsoever that might risk interrupting Parker at this critical juncture.
He let out a groan, rolling his hips instinctively. He couldn't keep his hands still, they flitted from Parker's hair to his back to his shoulders, squeezing at the swell of muscle on his upper arms before burying themselves in his hair once more.
“Sofa,” Parker managed, nosing at Peter's ear. “I've got to-- I can't--”
“Alright,” Peter gasped. “Alright, OK. God.”
He slipped his hand into Parker's and half dragged him over to the Chesterfield. Parker dropped into the cushions, with Peter in his lap almost before he'd landed.
“I'm not going to fly away, you know,” Parker laughed, or tried to – Peter's mouth was rather insistently in the way.
“No – not if I can help it.”
He wriggled himself comfortable, one of Parker's legs between his own, their hips aligned. He could feel the press of Parker's erection against his thigh, heavy and undemanding. The angle was wrong to offer any real satisfaction, but as they kissed, their bodies moved against each other in instinctive rhythm. It was pressure without relief, a maddening grind that melted all awareness leaving only the points where their bodies touched. Parker's hands were round his waist again, gripping as if for dear life, and with every slide of their lips he let out a breathy, impulsive moan.
Suddenly a thought dropped like a wet blanket over Peter's mind. He sat up suddenly, making Parker stare at him in bleary alarm.
“I say – you aren't going to go and have some sort of crisis of faith about this, are you?”
Parker blinked, blood very much not rushing in the direction of his brain. “Wha-?”
“A crisis of faith. About this. About me.”
“No,” said Parker firmly. Then, with a lopsided grin, “You're not that handsome.”
“I just mean,” said Peter, going doggedly on even as Parker set to work pulling off his tie, “I shouldn't like to think of you worrying about it. Having a long, dark night of the soul or some such.”
Parker, realising he was going to have to actually engage, sighed. “It's fine, Peter. I did all that years ago. It's all... squared away.”
Peter looked down at him, eyebrows arched in surprised. “Really? How'd you figure it?”
The look on Parker's face was one Peter had seen plenty of times in the years since they'd met. It was a perfect mixture of exasperation and affection, with a touch of disbelief that anyone could really, truly be at once so irritating and so utterly charming. At least, that's what Peter liked to think it meant. Admittedly that last was, possibly, wishful thinking.
Parker ran his hands up and down Peter's sides, speaking in cool, even tones. “Peter,” he began. “You do realise, don't you, that I have only actually got one mouth?”
“And given that I have only one mouth, don't you think that, right now, I might have better things to be doing with it”–here he lifted Peter's hand to the mouth in question and brushed a kiss against its knuckles–“than discussing the finer points of my theology of sexuality?”
“I suppose. When you put it like that.”
He let himself be pulled down into a kiss, and promptly lost the thread of his concerns.
Before long, Parker was shifting beneath him. His hands tightened on Peter's hips and with a surge of strength and motion, he rolled them over, eliciting a very unlordly squeak of surprise.
If Parker heard, he didn't say anything. In fact, he seemed perfectly content for the moment to devote all his attention to sucking bruises onto Peter's throat, though he mercifully kept his ministrations to where they'd be covered by Peter's collar. Bunter would raise an eyebrow, perhaps, but more at the implications of the bruises' architect than the marks themselves. Then again, perhaps not. It would be just like Bunter, to have anticipated even this.
That was enough, Peter told himself. Here he was, flat on his back with a gorgeous man between his legs, and somehow, he was getting distracted. He focused his attention on getting a little more of that gorgeous man on display, starting with his tie. Then, running appreciative hands over the swell of Parker's upper arms – rugby, he thought blissfully, what a game – he slipped loose the straps of Parker's braces. Finally, he started work on the buttons of his shirt – and had to stop, overcome with laughter.
“Uh?” Parker grunted. Peter pressed a kiss to the top of his head.
“Woollen underwear,” he said.
“'s December,” Parker objected, rather muffled.
“I know. You're very cosy, I'm sure.”
With a huff of indignation, Parker sat up. His hair was wilder than ever, stubble burn on his jaw, shirt gaping at the neck to show the collar of his eminently sensible, if not particularly seductive, underwear. Scowling, he pulled his shirt loose from where it was tucked into his trousers. Then, not bothering with the rest of the buttons, he pulled it over his head and dropped it to the floor.
One handed, he popped open the buttons lining the front of his union suit, stopping only where the opening ducked below the waistline of his trousers. The short sleeves hugged his shoulders, and the narrow strip of chest and stomach revealed by its open buttons was thick with hair. Peter had the overwhelming urge to bury his face in it.
Before he could, Parker was down again, kissing Peter on the mouth and taking one slender hand in his. He pushed it through the opening, and Peter gasped. Parker was hot to the touch, wonderfully, incredibly warm, and Peter felt an answering surge of heat course through him. Still, he couldn't help laughing, even as he dragged himself closer.
“I can't believe you're seducing me with how warm you keep your tummy,” he said, burying his face in the side of Parker's neck.
“I can't believe it's working.”
They kissed a while longer, but the easy slowness had gone. Peter dug his fingers into the soft, smooth skin on Parker's ribs, pushing his hand round to slide down his back. The touch of bare skin sparked a new heat between them. Ever since their kiss at the piano, a dull, aching throb of want had been dragging at the pit of Peter's stomach. But now, it turned knife-edged, carving into him. He needed more.
“Charles,” he gasped, wriggling free and pushing at Parker's shoulders. “Charles, my room. Come on.”
Peter stared at him. “Why do you think?” he spluttered. Somehow, his cheeks flushed even hotter than they already were. “Besides,” he said, determined not to be bashful, no matter how infuriatingly impassive Parker's expression, “that's where I keep my oil.”
Parker hummed, considering the matter as if Peter had suggested a walk and he wasn't sure if the weather was going to turn. “What if you go and fetch your little bottle of oil,” he said slowly, “and I fuck you right here on the hearth rug?”
It was no laughing matter, thought Peter as he rooted in his bedside drawer, making love to a man who would say things like that, with a face like that. All innocence, he looked, with his pink ears and short-back-and-sides and his stupid, hideous woollen underwear. But beneath that placid surface lay a man who wouldn't so much as blink as he went crashing a bus through your chest and pulling the sky down in his wake. Peter deserved a medal for putting up with it.
Then he got back in the living room, and found his prize waiting for him.
Parker had taken the cushions that usually sat piled on the Chesterfield and scattered them in front of the fire, freshly stoked and crackling merrily round a new log. He lay, now, propped on his elbows and watching the flames, relaxed and unselfconscious. He'd taken off his socks, but not his trousers, and there was something irresistibly erotic about the fact that, in the firelight, it wasn't quite clear whether he was hard or not. The front of his union suit gaped, showing the broad planes of his chest, dark with hair.
Damn that underwear, thought Peter. He didn't want to like it. It irritated him to like it. And yet, the fact remained.
Parker looked up then, and his expression transformed into one of soft, sincere happiness. Peter didn't know where to look. He made his way over, feeling strangely shy, and handed over the bottle he'd been sent to fetch. Parker set it down on the hearth, and Peter made to drop down beside him but before he could, Parker shook his head.
“Wait,” he said. “I want...”
He trailed off, happier to let his actions speak. He got to his knees, his head reaching almost to Peter's chest even so. Then, without breaking eye contact, he reached up and started to unbutton Peter's shirt.
Peter hardly breathed. It was so quiet that even the slip of his buttons sounded loud. He swallowed, and it felt like a gunshot. He let the open shirt fall to the floor behind him. Parker had moved to his trousers, popping the buttons one by one, until he let those drop too, hand on Parker's shoulder to keep his balance as he stepped out of them. Unlike Parker's, his undersuit was plain silk and sleeveless, and the feel of the air against his body sent goosebumps flourishing down his arms, despite the heat of the fire.
“Charles,” he breathed, stroking his hand through his lover's hair.
Parker didn't answer. He ran his hands down Peter's thighs, resting his head against the spare swell of his stomach. Peter was achingly hard, the agonising build-up of the evening leaving him almost painfully aroused, and when Parker ran his hand over the swell of his erection, it was all he could do to keep from crying out. Parker dipped his head, mouthing as his cock through the silk before pressing his face to his crotch, breathing in the animal smell of him.
“Oh God,” Peter whispered, hips tilting up to press himself into the touch. “Oh God, Charles...”
Dimly, a voice in the back of his head thought, 'Well, that's torn it.' Whatever transpired between them after tonight, there would be no return to their previous relationship – not now he knew Parker liked the way his crotch smelled.
The idea made him dizzy, he wanted to laugh but didn't have the breath to spare. He barely registered it when Parker reached up to make quick work of the buttons of his suit. He stepped out of it gladly, kicking it away, feeling a surge of competing power and vulnerability at standing, brazenly naked in his living room with Parker's head between his legs.
When Parker's mouth closed around his cock, he let out such a groan he was sure they must have heard him at Hyde Park Corner. His fingers tightened in Parker's hair, rocking into the wet heat. Parker seemed content to let him take the lead, his own hands gripping Peter by the hips with no attempt to control their movement. He let Peter thrust into his mouth, taking him easily.
It should have felt like an act of domination, holding Parker’s head steady while he fucked himself with his mouth. But somehow, Parker made it seem like it was he who held the power – like he was letting Peter off the leash, letting him indulge himself with the understanding that normal order would, must, resume. Peter’s head swam with it, he could feel his control starting to slip, desperate noises pulling from the back of his throat with every jerk of his hip.
Just when Peter felt himself approaching the brink of his control, Parker pulled back. He looked up at Peter from under his lids, taking Peter's prick in his hand while he dragged his tongue up its underside, base to tip. Then he smiled.
“I've never seen you slack jawed before,” he said.
“I've never seen you with a cock in your mouth before,” Peter shot back.
“Still got your wits about you, then.”
“Just about. I make no promises, though.”
Parker shifted his weight, nodding at a pile of cushions beside him. “Lie down.”
Peter did so gratefully, sinking down into softness, glad for the carpet, the cushions, and the fire beside him. He was drifting, not quite tethered to the world. He watched with distant appreciation as Parker undressed, admiring the long lines of his legs, the thick curve of his prick, the deft strength of his fingers, all with the same serene, dispassionate interest.
“I'm not going to last.”
Parker settled himself down beside him, trailing his fingers down Peter's chest and stomach. “I think you will,” he said.
He said it with such simple conviction, Peter almost believed him, despite his body's protestations. “What do you want?”
Parker's fingers circled one of Peter's nipples, the shiver of pleasure at the touch swallowed almost immediately by the staticky, background hum of his arousal. When Parker spoke, his voice was quiet and matter of fact.
“I want to finger you,” he said. He licked his lips, went on. “I want to finger you, then fuck you. I want to come inside you. Then I want you to finish in my mouth.”
Peter huffed a laugh. “You don't ask much, do you?”
He lay with one arm behind his head, staring at the ceiling, finding cool comfort in its wide, white placidity.
“I'm not going to last,” he said again. He turned his head, finding Parker watching him with patient eyes. “You're going to get one of those great, manly fingers inside me and I'm going to spill myself like an overheated adolescent.”
Parker kissed his shoulder. “And I say, you won't.”
Another kiss. Then dark eyes found his, and held them. “Because I don't want you to.”
The words landed like a physical blow. Arousal shot through him, a physical, electric jolt.
“Oh, fuck,” he sighed, pulling Parker towards him. “Do what you want with me. God have mercy, I'm yours.”
They kissed, Parker's body heavy and warm against him, the scrape of his stubble almost, by now, familiar. Before long, though, Parker was sitting back on his heels, Peter's legs loose around his hips. Peter watched him as he poured oil into his hand. If he didn't know better, he could have thought Parker was truly unmoved by the evening's events. But the light in his eyes when he looked at Peter told him better.
Parker slipped his hand between Peter's legs, watching his face so intently that Peter wanted to laugh. Then Parker's fingers brushed against his hole, slick and warm, and the breath gusted out of him.
He started slowly, running the pad of his finger over the sensitive rim. Peter shifted with pleasure, his whole body sparking at the touch. Then, slowly, Parker started to push inside. The stretch was delicious, just the right side of too much. Peter's eyes fluttered shut as the sensation overwhelmed him.
Parker moved slowly but implacably, dragging his finger in and out of Peter until he thought he might fall apart entirely. He had one arm thrown over his eyes, legs shifting restlessly, full of unspent energy. A change in angle, and his breath caught in his throat, back arching of its own accord.
“Hush,” breathed Parker, going imperturbably on. “Steady.”
“Steady!” Peter repeated, sounding slightly hysterical even to his ears. “I'm not a fucking horse, Charles.”
There was no bite in it, though, and with an effort, he fought back some semblance of control over himself. His teeth dug into his lower lip, eyes screwed shut. But slowly, by degrees, he made himself relax, until the waves of pleasure rippling through his body seemed simply to wash over him, one after another, the urgency gone out of them. His brain, meanwhile, melted into so much soup.
He had no idea how long it was before Parker pulled his hand away. He opened his eyes and found Parker looking almost unaffected, except that his chest rose and fell like he'd been running a marathon. He was wiping his hand on a handkerchief, biting his lip. When he saw Peter looking at him, he smiled, a little shaky.
“I wish I could paint,” he said, the words slipping out like a confession.
Peter let out something more breath than laugh. “Oh, but where would you hang it?”
“I don't care. You're perfect. God, Peter, you're so beautiful.”
Loose-limbed and languid as he was, Peter was inclined to agree. He felt positively sumptuous.
Parker helped himself to a touch more oil, slicking his cock so it shone. Peter faintly regretted not getting it into his mouth yet. It looked satisfyingly heavy, he could almost imagine the weight of it on his tongue...
But then Parker was spreading his legs for him, conscientiously slipping an extra pillow underneath him to raise his hips. He propped himself up on one elbow, lining up his cock with Peter's hole, the blunt tip nudging tantalisingly against his rim. Peter held him close, murmuring encouragement. Slowly, achingly slowly, Parker pushed himself inside. Just the tip at first – that blunt nudge turning into the first, promising stretch. He pulled back, and on the next push he moved a little deeper, arms trembling with the effort of his self-control.
Over and over again, he pushed himself a little further, then slid out again, leaving Peter desperate and wanting. Finally, Peter wrapped his legs around him, pulling him in. The sudden rush of heat and pressure was almost too much. He bit down, sinking his teeth into the meat of Parker's shoulder, unable to keep from grinding down against Parker's cock.
“Please, fuck me, God, Charles, fuck me...”
Peter's hands flitted over Parker's body, digging his nails into his flesh, trailing through the sweat on his spine and the small of his back. Parker was saying something, his mouth pressed into the side of Peter's neck. Peter could only just make out the words, and he was sure Parker had even less idea what he was saying than Peter did. It didn't matter. All that mattered was Parker, fucking him in earnest now, one hand clinging desperately to Peter's thigh.
Finally, his face buried in Peter's hair, he came, his orgasm tearing out of him with a groan. He shook with it, arms shaking as he fought not to collapse on top of Peter with the force of it. Peter half expected him to. But instead, with a rallying kiss and a moment to catch his breath, he went to keep his word.
Once more, Peter found himself looking down at Parker's mouth as it swallowed his prick. This time, though, there was no need to hold back. A few bobs of his head was all it took, and then Peter was coming as hard as he ever had in his life, only Parker's firm hold on his hips stopping him from thrusting his cock into the back of Parker's throat. He fell back against the cushions, and knew very little about anything for some time.
When Peter finally returned to the world of the living, he found himself wrapped in Parker's arms, clasped in a bear hug that brooked no argument. He was on his side, Parker behind him, a blanket pulled off the sofa and thrown over them both. He wriggled, and Parker's arms tightened instinctively.
It was still dark. In fact, judging by how little the fire had burnt down, he hadn't been asleep that long at all. Not long enough for the world to have changed so utterly in his absence.
With a bit more determination, he managed to wriggle himself onto his back without too much fuss. Parker shifted and grumbled a bit, but he settled down once Peter lay still. Peter watched him for a moment – the gentle rise and fall of his chest, the twitch of his eyebrows, grumpy about something even in his dreams. Maybe the world hadn't changed that much, after all.
As if he knew he was being watched, Parker's eyes fluttered slowly open.
“Hullo,” said Peter softly.
It took Parker a moment to stitch things together. Then, memory returning, he relaxed, eyes closing again with a smile. “Hullo,” he said. “I love you.”
A smile broke over Peter's face. “I know,” he said. “You told me.”
“Just before you came. Not very romantic,” he admonished.
Parker grunted. He seemed quite unfazed by this information. After a moment he said, barely opening his mouth more than he had to, “This isn't very romantic either.”
“No,” Peter agreed. “Not very. Poor showing all round. 2/10. Could do better.”
“Mm. Sorry. Still love you.”
“Well, that's alright then. I love you too.”
Peter frowned at him, for all the good it did with Parker's eyes still resolutely closed. “Do you? I'm sure I didn't say it. Not even in the throes of passion.”
Parker's shoulders twitched in a very feeble gesture towards a shrug. “Didn't have to say it. Just knew.”
“Oh. Well. ...bit anticlimactic, what?”
“Peter. Go to sleep.”
And Peter, in a rare flourish of obedience, did exactly as he was told.